The healing process of a heartbreak can be a very long road to travel on. A deep, emotional wound, even when stitched up over time, can have a lasting effect on thoughts, behaviours and decisions. Questions raised, answers deciphered and fingers pointed to find a scapegoat. It is a roller-coaster ride with an admission price nobody would ever want to pay.
For Italians, the dagger-in-the-heart moment came in the form of a World Cup absence sealed by a Sweden side that padlocked their gates without a key to be found. The tears shared between the veteran guard and promising future ignited diverse emotions across the Peninsula. The unimaginable was now a reality.
If you had polled Italians on their World Cup interest, some would have shrugged their shoulders at the tournament, while others would have supported a second nation or simply a certain player from the Serie A club they support. However, in between the dark clouds of anger and disbelief, a piece of Italy found itself in Russia. The thunderous Inno di Mameli might not have been sung in unison within the stadium, but the Italian flag was carried at heart by a Senegalese goalkeeper from Cuneo.
Born on 5 September 1993 in Ziguinchor, the largest city of Casamance in the south of Senegal, Alfred Gomis was always destined to step between the two wooden sticks. The second-youngest of four brothers, his journey to Italy began at a very young age, due largely to the sacrifices of his father, Charles. An amateur portiere himself who idolised Dino Zoff and Thomas N’Kono, Charles departed his homeland in 1989 to pursue a trial in Naples, despite his family’s desire for him to finish his university studies and enter the workforce in Senegal.
It was a decision that went against the wishes of his loved ones but one which would ultimately pave the way for a better life for his future children. With an original plan in place to take his travels to France, where his brother resided, Charles considered Italy as only a temporary stay. It took listening into a conversation while at a bar in Naples to spark his curiosity about Cuneo, a city in the province of Piedmont, which borders France.
Once settled permanently and working as an asphalt layer, he moved his wife and two kids at the time to their new home in Italy. Two years later, a five-year-old Alfred would have his first taste of organised football when he joined the youth sector of AS Cuneo Calcio. Despite his tender years, a love of calcio was transmitted to him from his father, with a Sunday ritual consisting of watching the live games, understanding and absorbing the passion for the beautiful game.
By the time Alfred was eight, Torino became his new stomping ground, where he would spend his formative years learning the art of goalkeeping the Italian way. As he made his way up to the under-19 squad, it was apparent he had the physique and tools to evolve into a future starting goalkeeper, his imposing six foot four inch frame the obvious standout. Three seasons with the Primavera opened up the doors to return appearances at the Torneo di Viareggio and a number of stints on the Granata’s first-team bench during 2012/13 season.
Post-Primavera life can turn out to be a whirlwind of uncertainty for many young shot-stoppers; just ask the likes of Nicola Leali and Francesco Bardi. Piercing into the senior side is never guaranteed, with loan moves in the lower tiers or abroad the norm. Not yet ready to make the full-time leap, Torino president Umberto Cairo felt Gomis needed experience on his resume and sent him out on a season-long loan in 2014/15 to Crotone in Serie B.
By the second matchday, he had taken ownership of the gloves and didn’t look back. Thirty-nine games, 11 clean sheets and a handful of eye-catching performances were the driving force behind the club’s passage to the promotion playoffs. Although an inspiring debut year in Serie B, one particular moment would leave an unforgettable imprint on his memory.
In a game against Bari, Gomis was targeted by the chants of the opposing fans, not because of the jersey he wore or the goals he denied, but the colour of his skin. An incident he confronted head-on via social media, it sadly wouldn’t be the last he encountered. A similar episode would occur against Brescia while on loan at Avellino; incidents that he repeatedly chalked up to ignorance and not a representation of the country he lived in.
Those isolated moments did little to slow him down, however. His performances wouldn’t go unnoticed and as caught the attention of the under-20 Commissario Tecnico, Luigi Di Biagio, who called up the young Senegalese custodian to a training camp with the Azzurrini. Although it was his only glimpse of life on the international scene, it served as a reminder of how far his talent could take him in the future.
The nomadic adventures of Gomis continued across Serie B as he joined Avellino, Cesena and Salernitana in a span of three seasons. A six-month stay at Bologna in between those loans gave way for a Coppa Italia start, but there was still no Serie A debut in sight.
Space became crowded at the top of the Torino food chain with Daniele Padelli, Salvador Ichazo and the surprising arrival of Joe Hart in 2016. It was suddenly all too routine for Gomis to return to his parent club in the summer and immediately pack his bags for a new destination. Next time around, though, he would finally get the break he was destined to achieve.
In 2017, top-flight newcomers SPAL brought in Gomis on loan as a back-up to Alex Meret, who would be trusted to lead the way between the sticks after an impressive promotion campaign in Serie B. Gomis may have gone in with the idea of fighting for the jersey, but it wasn’t long before Meret found himself on the injury list in pre-season.
By the time 20 August came around, Alfred Gomis walked onto the pitch of the famed Stadio Olimpico as the second-ever African goalkeeper to start a Serie A match, emulating his older brother Lys, who made a 38-minute cameo for Torino in 2013/14. A day to remember was capped off with a clean sheet against a heavily-favoured Lazio side. Suddenly, Gomis was where he had waited patiently to be: a Serie A starter.
As each match passed, he grew more and more content with the pressure on his shoulders. The league began to take notice of his superb reflexes, penchant for managing long-distance strikes, and his excellence in the Italian art of attacco palla, the heart-stopping technique of winning the ball at a striker’s feet, hands first. Results might not have been on his side but it was hard to argue against Gomis being one of the most consistent goalkeepers throughout the first half of the season.
Even though he was quickly dropped to his original back-up role once Meret was cleared to compete in January, he would be back in familiar surroundings after Meret was shut down for the season with another setback in April. A 3-1 win over Sampdoria on the final day of the campaign was the cherry on the sundae for Gomis and his SPAL teammates, who guaranteed their stay in Serie A.
While the domestic season was one to remember, it was his debut with the Senegal national team in their final World Cup qualifier against South Africa in November 2017 that Gomis was able to check off as another milestone. In an interview with Corriere della Sera in June, he explained his decision to represent his root was a choice made in the memory of his father, who passed away in 2016.
For the patriarch of the family, who had made countless sacrifices so that he and his brothers could pursue their dreams, it was his way of honouring Charles’ legacy. His older brother Lys revealed to French publication Le Monde in November how their father valued helping people and the impact he had in the Cuneo community: “He founded Manko, an association to resolve problems in the Senegalese community, help with residency permits and for all other documents, in collaboration with the Mayor.”
Gomis has never forgotten his roots but remains eternally grateful to Italy, a country he calls home. As he told Corriere della Sera in the same interview: “I feel Italian, not just on a sporting level, but in my education and development.”
It is a sentiment shared by his three brothers, two of whom played their way through the Italian system and one who has just begun dipping his feet into calcio waters. Lys jumped around from club to club while also on loan from Torino and had stints with Ascoli, Frosinone and Trapani before being sold to Lecce. He now calls Teramo home following a free transfer. Maurice Gomis, the third-youngest of the bunch, was most recently voted the top goalkeeper in Serie D, earning himself a move to SPAL over the summer. Finally, the youngest brother, David, has also begun lacing the boots, just not as a goalkeeper like his siblings.
The 2018 World Cup came and went with a group stage exit for Senegal, and although Gomis watched on from the bench, it was still a significant achievement to be a part of the final 23-man squad. He not only proudly represented his father’s nation, but also flew the flag for his adopted nation of Italy.
As the new Serie A season approaches, Gomis is now a permanent resident at SPAL after being sold by Torino during the transfer window, and the club’s official number one. He will be competing with another Torino loanee hoping to get his own time in the spotlight, Vanja Milinković-Savić, the younger brother of Sergej, following Alex Meret’s move to Napoli.
Regardless of who sees the most playing time between the sticks, Gomis can be proud of the journey that he has taken, both in adapting to Italian life, thanks in part to his father, and the way he has conducted himself in the face of racism. A credit to both Senegal and Italy, it’s hard not to love the talented and generous SPAL goalkeeper.
By Roberto Grosso @RGrosso84