Gomes: 'I didn't become a keeper until I was 19. I'm learning!'

Spurs' Heurelho Gomes discusses that goal against United, how Gareth Bale gave Maicon nightmares, his difficult start to life in England – and why footballers are paid too much
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Heurelho Gomes, not surprisingly, does not consider it much of an honour to have played a central part in one of the oddest goals scored in the Premier League.

It will be a long time before the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper is allowed to forget last Saturday's piece of crafty opportunism by Manchester United's Nani, who pounced as Gomes shaped to take what he thought was a free-kick following Nani's clear handball.

In a room at the Haringey Sixth Form Centre just off White Hart Lane, where, characteristically, he has just given up a fair chunk of his afternoon to support the club's latest charitable initiative, the launch of the Sports MATE disability programme, the engaging 29-year-old Brazilian relives the incident. I don't need to wait for Marcia, the interpreter, to tell me that his indignation, five days after the event, has yet to subside.

"The referee [Mark Clattenburg] knows he was wrong. I saw Nani handle the ball and looked at the ref, but he didn't give the sign to tell me to carry on playing. We read the body language of the referee all the time, and if he indicates that we should continue playing, that's what we do. He didn't. That's why I assumed it was a free-kick."

Let me, though, play devil's advocate. Or more accurately, Red Devil's advocate. Every child from the age of seven or eight is taught never to assume anything in a football match, but only to play the whistle.

Gomes smiles. "That's true. You also learn from the same age that football is played with the feet. When a player takes the ball in his hands he should be playing basketball or volleyball, or be a goalkeeper. And Nani didn't just touch the ball; I took it from under his arm. After the goal, the assistant referee told me it was handball. He told me to go back to my goal area, and that he would tell him [Clattenburg] to disallow the goal.

"But he didn't, which was strange. It was also strange that the referee pushed away all the Tottenham players, yet while he was talking to his assistant, [Rio] Ferdinand was allowed to stay. Ferdinand is the England captain, a very important player. But it's not right that he should stand there influencing the referee. The Tottenham players were pushed away; he should have done the same with Ferdinand."

The Match of the Day pundits later made the same point, albeit in a jocular way. But there's no joke in the suggestion that Premier League officials sometimes operate one rule for Manchester United, and to a lesser extent Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, and another rule for everyone else. That can often enough be ascribed to paranoia, yet there was plenty of substance in Clattenburg's failure to deal with Ferdinand as he had the Spurs players. Whatever, Gomes prefers to keep his own assessment of the situation light-hearted, adding that he accepts the criticism that all professional footballers should know, and should have known since boyhood, to play the whistle. "But I didn't become a goalkeeper until I was 19," he says with a merry laugh. "I'm still learning."

We'll come back to his early life, which was mired in such poverty in the Brazilian boondocks that the family home had no indoor toilet, but for now let's stick with what has been a pretty momentous week in the life of Tottenham Hotspur, embracing not just last Saturday's nonsense at Old Trafford, but also, on Tuesday night at White Hart Lane, an unforgettable humbling of the European champions, Internazionale. Gomes was suspended following a red card at San Siro, and watched with slightly mixed emotions – but mostly delight – as his good friend and compatriot, the Inter right-back Maicon, was run ragged by Gareth Bale.

"Maicon told me he dreamt about Bale that night," says Gomes, chuckling again. "He said it had also been very difficult in Milan [where Bale scored a hat-trick] because Gareth keeps the ball so close to his body. I was surprised because Maicon is one of the best right-backs in the world, but it wasn't only his fault, it was the whole team that failed to stop Bale.

"Anyway, it was more down to Gareth's qualities than Maicon's failings. He's already one of the best players I've ever played with or against, and what sets him apart is that even at such a young age he's not afraid to take responsibility himself. He's very mature. But we need to be careful. He's only 21, and I think all this attention is too much. He might play poorly for a few games and then everyone will slag him, but it won't mean he's not as good as we all thought, just that he needs to develop at his own pace."

Gomes knows about media pressure, having been subjected to plenty himself shortly after arriving at Tottenham, from PSV Eindhoven, in June 2008. A few early mistakes led to Alan Hansen wondering on Match of the Day whether there had ever been a worse goalkeeper in the Premier League, and yet he has won over his critics at White Hart Lane, and doubtless at White City too, by becoming one of the division's most consistent keepers and perhaps, alongside Edwin van der Sar, the best distributor. How hard was it, though, to keep his self-belief intact?

"Well, I always knew I was strong enough to get through that period, and here I am. But yes, it was very difficult. I'm a very centred person, and I knew things would change, but it's hard when everyone is blaming you for what's going wrong. The team wasn't doing well at the time, and that influences the way you play. Also, I had to play with an injury for a while. And it's hard anyway to adapt to the English league, which is so strong and competitive. I knew I had the quality to play here, and that never wavered. I also know that if you face difficulties and overcome them, you grow not only professionally but also as a person. I've grown as a person since I've come here."

His personality, though, was formed by his childhood. He grew up, one of 11 children, in the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais on a farm so isolated that it had neither an electricity supply nor running water. Then, when he was seven, the family moved to a relative metropolis, a village of 200 people. That's when his parents first acquired a television, and when he first acquired footballing heroes. "Romario was the top Brazilian player at the time but as I got older I really liked Dida. Even though I wasn't yet a goalkeeper myself, he became my idol. And he played for Cruzeiro, the team my whole family supported."

At 14, and with manifest athletic talent, Gomes decided to pursue his dream to become a professional footballer. But to do so, he was obliged to become a kind of Brazilian version of Dick Whittington. "I knew I had to leave my parents, and I can still remember sitting under a tree with my mother, telling her that I would succeed and be able to buy her a nice house. At the time we had no hot water. To have a bath we had to heat water in a pan. There was no indoor toilet. But my parents had taught us the value of hard work, and I feel so privileged that God gave me this gift. I'm very proud that I took my opportunities, and that I was able to buy my mother a nice house. It's all thanks to the values my parents taught us."

Marcia the interpreter looks moved while she is listening to this, and when she passes it on I understand why. Of course, some footballers put on a show of humility, but this is transparently the real thing, indeed Marcia is only here because Gomes wanted to give me the kind of detail about his life that he is not yet able to offer in his ever-improving English.

I ask him whether top footballers' earnings, citing Wayne Rooney, make him wince when he thinks of the deprivation that still exists in his homeland? 'No, it's not a problem to me. I don't feel any envy for Rooney. I just do my own job, and try to help out my 11 brothers and sisters."

He has, I think, slightly misunderstood the question. I know he doesn't earn a Rooney-style salary, but to the kind of people he grew up with, he and his wife and two young sons live in unimaginable splendour. Is that a source of discomfort? "Yes, because there is imbalance in the world. There are lots of people without anything, and that's not fair. Which is why I try to help, and not just my own family. It would be nice if Rooney and the others on such salaries would give more to charity because nobody needs that much money. You can still have a beautiful house, still have one, two, or three nice cars. You don't need that much. That's why I help as much as I can."

After leaving his mother's side, and the comforting shade of the tree, Gomes moved to the nearest city, Sete Lagoas. He lived with a couple of his brothers, and managed to enrol in a football school run by Cruzeiro. But he was a striker. It was only when he joined a beach football team in Sete Lagoas that he became a goalie, for the prosaic reason that the team had every other position covered. "Then Cruzeiro heard how well I played, so I started playing there as a goalkeeper, and turned professional at became 19. With them I won all the titles there were to win." A devilish grin. "They haven't won much since I left."

Gomes laughs uproariously when I tell him that in my own youth, Brazilian football was celebrated for everything but its goalkeepers, with the 1970 keeper Felix considered by some distance the least illustrious member of that fabulous team.

"Yes, but that has changed. At the moment there's a great group of Brazilian goalkeepers, maybe six who could all be number one in the national team [as he has been 11 times], and great coaches also. The competition is increasing all the time, which helps us all to improve."

As for the competition in the Premier League, Gomes admits that, rather sweetly, he exchanges good-luck texts with a number of his counterparts before every match. It's nice to know that the goalkeeping union still exists; I don't suppose John Terry and Ledley King exchange encouraging texts on a Saturday morning, but Gomes does with Petr Cech. Cech, he thinks, is the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, along with Van der Sar and Pepe Reina. "But the one who is not yet the best, but I believe will be the best not only in England but the world, is Joe Hart. He's still a baby in goalkeeping terms, but he has the potential to be the best in the world."

Exclusive Tottenham Hotspur Foundation wristbands are now available in Spurs stores with profits going back towards the club's official charity's work in the community. Visit tottenhamhotspur.com/foundation for more information.