Maxi Gómez: ‘In Uruguay you lift up a rock and there’s a footballer’ | Sid Lowe

Maxi Gómez had truly gone fishing. It was early July and Valencia had reached an agreement with Celta Vigo to sign the Uruguayan striker; more importantly, they had convinced Maxi’s family and representatives. They had held off West Ham’s late offer to pay his €50m buyout clause and a salary twice what he would be on at Mestalla. At last the deal was done. There was just one problem: no one could find him to sign it. They needed the final OK and, until they got that, doubt lingered. In Valencia the wait went on. In London it did, too.

“They called and called but couldn’t get hold of me because I didn’t have a [phone] signal,” Maxi says, grinning and sitting at Valencia’s Paterna training ground after an early-morning session four months on. He was in the middle of nowhere. Well not nowhere exactly, but close: he had headed to the hills from Paysandú, his hometown on the western border with Argentina, away from it all.

“It had been a long season and when I’m back in Uruguay I like to go into the countryside, ride horses, fish, camp, go to the mountains.” Places where the phone doesn’t work. The last they knew was a photo of him with his friends gathered around a fire in the woods somewhere, mate in hand, not a care in the world.

When he got back the deal was done. Maxi was heading for Spain’s east coast, not London’s East End. “I was relaxed. There was a lot of talk of a lot of clubs – Barcelona, England – but I left it with my sister, my family. They were the ones who handled it all with my agents. West Ham was real, a big club. But the truth is that when I found out about Valencia I didn’t hesitate: because of the language, the club, the league.”

Asked if he speaks any English, Maxi laughs. “No. Not even ‘hello’.” But more important was the Champions League, in which Valencia host Chelsea on Wednesday. Valencia’s then director general, Mateu Alemany, and the sporting director, Pablo Longoria, had won over Celta with a deal that involved paying €16m and Santi Mina going the other way. They finally won over Maxi, with whom they had been speaking for months, by making much of the opportunity to play in Europe’s biggest competition.

“Two years ago I was playing the Champions League on the PlayStation. Now I can play it for real and that’s a dream: it’s unique, not every player gets the chance. It’s huge, even in Uruguay, lived with passion. When I was a kid games were at 3.45pm, which was a good time: I’d watch them and then go to training with my club in Paysandú.”

There, he stood out. His brother, father, and sister played but he played even better. He moved to Defensor, where he scored 29 times. He got 30 at Celta and he has six in 13 league games at Valencia, although he is yet to score in Europe, averaging better than a goal every other game throughout his short career so far.

He was a lively kid, he admits. As a player he was a battler and a finisher. There is a video of him punching a teammate – “I got on well with him,” he says, “that was a hard moment, we were losing, it was tense and it happened, but I said sorry afterwards and it ended there” – and he was relentless, strong, no thrills. Think Luis Suárez. The typical Uruguayan striker, then? “Yes, yes,” he says. In fact, when it is suggested that he might be the most Uruguayan of Spain’s Uruguayans, he replies: “It’s lovely for someone to say that.”

Of his homeland, the 23-year-old says: “There are only three million of us, but you lift up a rock and there’s a footballer. Lift another one, and there’s another footballer. Personality is the key. That fighting spirit comes from there: it’s the way we live the game. I hate losing – at anything. That mentality defines us, it’s unique. We have that fight inside; my family has it.

“Whenever I played on the PlayStation, I played with Suárez. He was my idol, from very young. I followed Liverpool because of him, loved watching him. That year they almost won the league [2013-14], what he did was brutal. He was so good: he scored all sorts of goals, every ball he touched went in. I would watch him and think: ‘What a monster.’ The way he inspires the rest is like no one else. The goals, the assists, the movement, a fantastic player.

“I feel lucky to have shared a pitch with him. I spoke to him in the dressing room at Barcelona recently. When I came to Spain, to Celta, he sent me a message. I never expected that. He would write when I scored to say well done. You hear people say he’s a bastard on the pitch, dirty, but that’s his football and he inspires his teammates, the fans, everyone. And off it he’s such a good person: 10 out of 10. Learning from him in the national team is incredible: he and [Edinson] Cavani are role models.

“On the pitch anything comes into your mind. Your wires cross all the time, you’re bad-mouthing opponents all the time, saying things. But at the end, it ends. You shake everyone’s hand because football is football and it’s over. It all stays on the pitch, it never gets taken anywhere else.”

Chelsea know what awaits then: centre-backs prepare. Maxi laughs. “I do like to fight a lot. We respect them but there’s never any fear. They’re a very big club but we’re optimistic and we beat them at their ground – which isn’t easy. We really need these three points, so hopefully the supporters back us, hopefully we can compete.”

One thing is for sure: this time Maxi will not go missing.


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