Earning your high-school diploma, completing a post-secondary education and perhaps owning your first car – this is the pattern most young Canadians follow.
But Richard Gomes has had a much different life trajectory; he has spent the last five years outside of the country playing professional soccer – and he’s not even 20 yet.
Gomes, who currently plays as a goalkeeper at Mirandela SC in Portugal’s second B division, is not your average teenager.
But he did start his career the same way that many young Canadians spend their youth: playing minor soccer.
“My first year playing football (or soccer, as we call it here) was when I was five years old,” he said. “I was just another kid playing the game.”
Unlike other kids though, it wasn’t long before Gomes was skyrocketing through the echelons of Canadian soccer.
He played rep soccer at the highest league for his hometown of Kitchener for every season of his youth career, and then eventually moved on to district before moving on to a regional level.
“It was at that level that I had my first goalkeeper coach who taught me about distribution and other aspects of the game,” he said. “I had a coach who would rip me apart every time I made a mistake, and it was because of him that I have the mental toughness that I do now.”
Gomes took part in a regional summer camp where he caught the eye of provincial level coaches, eventually earning him a provincial tryout. He broke his foot a week prior to the tryouts (forcing him out of action for six weeks) but due to his performances at the camp, he was still given a shot at making the team.
However, on his first training session back from his broken foot, he was again struck with injury – this time he broke his thumb, ruling him out for another four weeks.
Despite that, one of the provincial team coaches invited him to a tournament hosted by Brazilian team Cruzeiro. So Gomes, only 13 years old at the time, spent New Year’s Eve away from his family on a two-week trip to South America.
He garnered the interest of a few Brazilian teams, but his parents were against the idea of their 13-year-old son moving to a foreign country all by himself.
So his parents, being supportive of his dream, helped him market himself to Benfica and Sporting – two of Portugal’s elite teams.
With family in the country, they felt that Gomes would have an easier time there.
Gomes spent time training at Sporting and Benfica, two Lisbon-based rivals, as well as having trials at Italian team Empoli and Spanish team Espanyol. All four teams expressed interest in him.
“Benfica asked me to go back in August and do their pre-season with the U16 team,” he said. “I thought that this was it; this would be my breakthrough.”
But he received a phone call that changed his career trajectory.
FC Porto, the third of Portugal’s “big three” and a team that Gomes supported as a child, called to let him know that they had a trial for him that would take place on Aug. 6, 2008.
“My family was closer to Porto and they also had better training for me,” he said, citing Porto’s goalkeeper coach Will Coort as a decisive factor in his decision. “I had a big decision to make about what was better for my career.”
Not surprisingly, he chose FC Porto, signing for their U17 team. But the transition was not as seamless as he would have hoped.
His first year with Porto didn’t offer him any game time, and while he was training hard and trying to adapt to his new life, he wasn’t rewarded with the chance to show his qualities on the pitch.
“I went from being a big player in Canada to not even starting for a youth team in Portugal,” he said. “It killed me because my confidence levels went down and I felt like no matter what I did I couldn’t change what was happening.”
After a first year which played out in a way that Gomes did not anticipate, he was ready to leave FC Porto to look for other opportunities. But Coort convinced him to agree to a loan move in which he trained with Porto but played matches on the weekend with U19 side Padroense – it was here that he began to get real experience, and he had a successful campaign, helping his side win the league and get promoted to the first division.
“I started to feel better about myself and got my confidence back, but Coort told me that if I stayed at Porto for another year I would be a first year junior and likely not play,” said Gomes. “So I decided that it would be better for me to leave Porto, but at the time I didn’t know where I was going to go.”
Through his agent, Gomes arranged a move to yet another Portuguese club, Gondomar, where he spent the season starting for their U19 side and moonlighting as third-choice goalkeeper for the senior squad.
The following season he joined his fourth Portuguese club, Vitoria Setubal, where he had a debut for the U19 team better than he could have ever imagined – Setubal beat Portuguese giant Benfica, with Gomes stopping a penalty and winning the man of the match award in the process.
But his season took a downturn when he was again injured, and, coupled with internal struggles with Setubal’s management, Gomes was quickly unsettled.
That brought him to this past summer and a big step in his national career when he was called up to Canada’s U20 men’s team.
He made his first appearance for the team against Mexico where he captained the side in a match that finished 1-1; Gomes picked up the man of the match award for a standout performance.
The summer was going well, but complications with Setubal meant that he was without a team for a few months.
“I pretty much lived out of my car; I’d go sleep with one friend one night and then another the next night,” he said. “It got to the point where I was just shattered mentally and it wasn’t stable at all.”
Eventually his agent got him a move to another Portuguese team, Mirandela SC. But even though he was training with the team, the performance of the other goalkeeper was keeping Gomes on the sideline.
“My team went nine wins in a row with the other goalkeeper and five of those were clean sheets so I knew that I wasn’t going to be starting any time soon,” he said. “I thought that the U20 Canada team would be the best opportunity to show my quality.”
And he certainly has made an impression on the national stage.
“Rick is probably the loudest player I’ve ever played or trained with and he’s really aggressive on the field,” said Canada U20 teammate Jonathan Lao, who plays in Germany’s third division. “But the fact that he’s always speaking or shouting helps both in training and in games in an organizational sense.”
When January 2013 rolled around, Gomes finally got the break he was waiting for when Mirandela sold their other goalkeeper, meaning Gomes would be the man starting between the sticks. But like so many other times through his career, his luck could not have been worse.
“The training session after my first game I dislocated my right shoulder and right away I could tell I was in bad shape,” he said. “It couldn’t have been worse timing for me because it kept me out for four weeks and I lost my spot in the U20 Canada team for World Cup qualifiers.”
He’s now back at Mirandela and is working hard to impress. “I have to try and get as much playing time as I can before the season ends on April 28,” he said.
What does the future hold for Gomes? The truth is, he has no idea.
“The thing about football and this life is that there are no guarantees,” he said. “I’d love to go to another country and another league but it doesn’t only depend on me.”
So he’ll spend May looking at opportunities for next season, and he embraces the uncertainty.
He knows the road to success in European football will be a long and tantalizing journey, littered with injuries and other obstacles to overcome, but it’s a road he is destined to travel.
“I couldn’t even imagine myself doing anything else besides playing football.”