RIYADH: It says a lot about Bafetimbi Gomis that his departure from Al-Hilal has been reported all over Asia, but then he has scored against clubs from the top nations during his AFC Champions League heroics.
The French striker may be respected in Asian football, but he will be remembered in Saudi Arabia as one of the best foreign players the country has ever seen.
Since arriving in Riyadh in August 2018 from Turkish giants Galatasaray and then departing almost three-and-a-half years later, the 36-year-old barely put a foot wrong on or off the pitch.
His lion celebration in which he gets down and paces on all fours after scoring has become iconic for Al-Hilal fans and increasingly — and understandably — disliked by those on the receiving end. It is testament to his exploits that a possible replacement at the 17-time Saudi champions has been reported to be Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, the Arsenal star who is one of the biggest names in African football.
The Gabonese goalgetter is unlikely to come to Saudi Arabia, but the fact that he is being mentioned as Gomis leaves shows the impact the Frenchman has had.
There were few expectations of this when he arrived. Gomis had enjoyed a fine career even if he had not reached the elite level of the European game, but there have been dozens of those coming to Saudi Arabia over the years. After starring for Saint-Ettienne, he got a move to Lyon in 2009, where he scored double figures for five successive seasons. Then came spells in the English Premier League with Swansea City, a return to France with Marseille and the move to Turkey. If he was in danger of becoming a journeyman striker, he seems to have found a spiritual home in Riyadh.
His stats alone are impressive. There were 113 goals in 154 games that helped Al-Hilal to two domestic championships. Last season’s win was helped immensely by his 24 goals in the league, five more than the second-highest scorer.
It was in Asia where he really made a difference and made the team believe that a return to continental glory was possible. Al-Hilal had won their second Asian championship way back in 2000 and had been desperate to make it three for a long time. They had watched Al-Ittihad win in 2004 and again in 2005 and then reached the final in 2014 to play Western Sydney Wanderers. Hilal dominated and missed chance after chance only to be caught by a sucker punch from the Australians.
In 2017, they lost 2-1 over two legs to Urawa Reds. Had Gomis been present for both ties, they could have ended very differently.
In 2019, it did. It was a legendary campaign. The reward for getting out of the group stage was a second round tie against Saudi Arabian rivals Al-Ahli. In the first leg, in front of almost 50,000 fans in Jeddah, the hosts took an early lead. Then Gomis scored a hat-trick to basically win the tie. Already popular, it earned him near-legendary status. The reward for that was a quarter-final against the other Jeddah giants, Al-Ittihad, which Hilal won
Gomis scored three across two legs in the semi-final against Al-Sadd, an 6-5 victory on aggregate.
It earned them a final against Urawa Reds and a chance for revenge. It was taken and Gomis scored in the final seconds of the second leg to ensure that the 19-year wait for the third title was over. It was his 11th goal of the continental campaign, and he was the top scorer and tournament MVP.
Only two players scored more than Gomis’s six in last year’s continental triumph, a record fourth for the club. It wasn’t just about the goals. Here was a team player, proven by his through ball assist in the final for Moussa Marega that sealed the win over Pohang Steelers.
It was a symbolic goal. Gomis was no longer the main man in attack for Hilal with Marega, six years younger who arrived from FC Porto earlier in the year, taking on that mantle. Time has been catching up with the former French international. He is not quite the dynamic and powerful force in the area as when he first arrived. His finishing is also not quite as sharp, even if he has scored nine league goals this season so far. There is still plenty for Gomis to give, but it is perhaps the right time that he gives it somewhere else.
Now he moves. It could be a return to Turkey to end his career or perhaps to Qatar and Al-Rayyan to link up with French coach Laurent Blanc. If he does choose Doha then he could be in the team that faces Al-Hilal in the group stage of the AFC Champions League in April.
Fans in Riyadh would be wary of his abilities, but would also surely welcome the chance to see him once more and say goodbye to a club legend. It would be especially fitting in the tournament where he earned a continental-wide reputation.