Walter Gómez: The People Wouldn’t Eat To See Him Play

Walter Gómez was an extremely talented South American footballer whose attitude held him back from having a career befitting of his ability. No, not exactly the most shocking thought, but just how highly the Uruguayan may have considered is a very interesting question. He played in two highly successful sides, winning trophies galore, while those who saw him maintain he was one of the greatest – but Walter Gómez could have had the world.

“I only knew of one player who could win a game when he wanted to, and that was Walter Gómez.

“He wandered around the pitch absentmindedly, returned for five minutes and scored or made us score a few goals.”

Omar Sívori, the 1961 Ballon d’Or winner and former River Plate teammate of Walter Gómez.

Gómez began his career with Central Español in Montevideo, the city he was born in 1927. He would leave after two seasons to join Nacional – one of the two great teams of Uruguay. So far so good for a young player who had the world at his feet.

Nacional should have undoubtedly been the real making of Gómez, one of the two great sides of his home nation where he could develop into the player that was hoped. That hope was for the youngster to become the greatest Uruguayan footballer of them all, and one of the great South Americans.

And he did win two league titles in his four seasons there, adding a few domestic cups for good measure. But the interesting numbers aren’t the ones that show Gómez having success at Nacional – they are a side that settles for nothing less, after all – no, it’s the fact that he was there for merely four years that sticks out.

Did the 22-year-old decide to drop down a level to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond? No, he joined an even bigger club. Was that side Peñarol, the other of the big two in Uruguay, and domestic champions the year he left? No, far from it. Gómez would join River Plate of Argentina, a strange move considering Uruguayans weren’t considered for the national team unless they played inside Uruguay, and 1950 was a World Cup year. He did have a very good reason, however.

Nacional were drawn against Peñarol in the 1949 Copa Uruguaya, a match always likely to raise tempers. After Peñarol equalised from a rebounded penalty, the Nacional players protested furiously against the awarding of it. Things became so heated that Gómez ended up punching the referee in the face and being sent off (which is probably fair enough). To make matters worse, Nacional decided to protest it all by not showing up for the second half, resulting in the referee simply awarding the game to Peñarol.

A red card for punching the referee really isn’t enough, so Gómez was also given a one-year ban from football by the Uruguayan Federation. Unable to play in Uruguay, he promptly signed for Argentina’s River Plate; Gómez would never play in his home country again.

That, of course, meant he wouldn’t play for the national side again. Gómez, despite being one of the greatest Uruguayans to ever play the game, finished his career with only four caps – and this at a time when Uruguay was enjoying such success.

The little rioplatense nation had lifted the inaugural World Cup in 1930 on home soil as a side widely considered to be the best in the world (by everyone who wasn’t Argentinian, anyway). By 1950, however, they weren’t quite what they had been 20 years prior, although they were still a threat. They’d eventually end up in the final of the 1950 tournament against the hosts Brazil, inflicting what would be described as their “Hiroshima” on the host nation. Gómez would miss out though, as Uruguay became World Champions without arguably their most impressive talent.

And there lies the great regret of Gómez’s career already. He was merely 23-years-old, but it’s already clear why a player of his ability never gained the reputation that he perhaps should have. He would never play in his home nation for the rest of his career, unable to feature for a national side with whom he could have conquered the world – it’s an enormous “if only”. But if his reputation may have been lacking around the world, it certainly wasn’t in Argentina.

River Plate were in a strange position by 1949. A hell of a lot of trophies had followed since they spent a world-record fee to sign Bernabé Ferreyra in 1932. First had been the era of Ferreyra, then the era of the great la Máquina side that brought about an evolution of South American football, before finally they were led by young star Alfredo Di Stéfano to win the 1947 title.

In 1949, however, Argentinian football was rocked by a dispute between players and the Argentina Football Association. That dispute saw the technically-illegal league in Colombia take advantage by luring many stars away – including, most famously, Di Stéfano. So, River were suddenly left needing to rebuild, doing so by rescuing Walter Gómez from the wilderness and creating a new side.

La Maquinita (little machine), as they would perhaps not-so-originally be come to known as, may not have had the enduring legacy of the original, but they lined the trophy cabinets nonetheless. Gómez would stay for five years, winning the Primera División title three times in the process.

The side still featured players from the original La Máquina, such as Félix Loustau and Ángel Labruna, who was well on his way to becoming the greatest Argentine goalscorer in history. It was with them that Gómez would build his reputation, becoming known for his ability in the last twenty yards and establishing himself as the player the fans came to see.

“La gente ya no come para ver a Walter Gómez”

The people no longer eat so they can see Walter Gómez – a common saying while the Uruguayan was at River.

And so Walter Gómez did manage to earn a reputation that fitted him, even if it was in a country that had become as isolated as Argentina. He would leave River in 1956 to join Palermo in Italy, remaining for two years before seeing his career out in Colombia and Venezuela.

Walter Gómez remains one of the greatest Uruguayans to play the game, and can also claim to be one of the greats of River Plate, which is no mean feat in itself. There will always be, however, a question over his career. Could he have been a World Cup star? Could he have become the hero of Uruguay? We’ll simply never know the answers, purely because he punched a referee very hard in the face.