Tim Vickery’s Notes From South America: Days Are Numbered For Hernan Dario Gomez
Hernan Dario Gomez took Ecuador to their first ever World Cup back in 2002. But that does not mean that the gratitude of the nation is infinite. Last August he was appointed for a second spell in charge of Ecuador – and he ran into a storm of criticism.
“Lots of people are saying that I’m just a bum,” he complained last September. “OK, I’m a bum who has been to five World Cups.” As far as his critics are concerned, this was not an adequate defence. That 2002 Ecuador campaign was certainly no disgrace – the group phase elimination was sweetened with a third game win over Croatia. But of his five World Cups, the only once since 2002 was last year in Russia, where he was in charge of a Panama side that lost all three of its matches, conceding 11 goals in the process. Many in Ecuador did not see this as an adequate audition to win the job of their national team boss.
This Copa America, then, always looked like it was shaping up as an important moment in the relationship between Gomez, a Colombian, and the Ecuadorian public. A strong performance would help win people over. A poor tournament could put his job security in doubt.
It appears that Gomez has been slow to realise this. His total focus, he has often said, is on qualifying for the World Cup. No one stops him in the street to ask about the Copa America, he claims. Everyone wants to know whether he can get a team through to Qatar.
He once said that in his previous spell in charge of Ecuador he treated the Copas of 2001 and 2004 more as events of folklore than serious football competitions. The 2019 Copa was a stepping stone on the way to getting a team ready for next year’s World Cup qualifiers.
This lack of urgency could prove costly. After two defeats in two games, Ecuador take the field against Japan in Belo Horizonte needing a win to stay alive in the competition. Had results in other groups gone against them, they could already be out. Instead they have a chance. The survival of Hernan Dario Gomez in his current job may well depend on how well they take it.
It is perhaps an unfortunate moment to be in charge of Ecuador. The team are caught between generations. The Under-20 side finished third in the recent World Cup at the level in Poland, but they are not yet ready for the senior ranks. And the generation who went to Brazil in 2014 are on the way down. Classy midfielder Cristian Noboa has proved impossible to replace. The frequently infuriating but undoubtedly dangerous winger Jefferson Montero has run into years of injury problems. Luis Antonio Valencia is still with the squad, but does not seem the force of old. Centre forward Enner Valencia is the lone big name attacking player to be operating anywhere near his peak.
Gomez recognises the team’s creative difficulties. But he thought that at least his team would be able to defend well. “We are a solid team, compact in defence,” he said in March. And we are making progress with our tactics.”
And so the six goals conceded in the opening two games have come as a shock. Against Uruguay Gomez could point to an early red card to his right back. But it was hard to fathom his thinking. His planning had been based on a 4-1-4-1 system, with the combative Carlos Gruezo protecting the back four. And yet, facing the most dangerous opponents in the group, Gomez dropped Gruezo in favour of Angel Mena, a lightweight attacking midfielder. He was asking for trouble.
Ecuador went back to basics against Chile – but in a poor game they were undone by their own incompetence. “We let in two goals,” said Gomez afterwards. “One came from a corner and the other from a throw in. It’s inconceivable from any point of view, and it means we’ve suffered another defeat.”
This declaration was part of a post-match press conference that lasted a grand total of 45 seconds. Gomez read out his statement, got up and left. He had nothing else to say. He knows the stakes have risen. A warm up tournament has turned into something akin to a referendum. Failure to beat Japan – or even victory followed by humiliating defeat in the quarter finals – may mean that there is one word left to say; goodbye.
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