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Gomez becoming star for Germany by setting his personality free

GDANSK, Poland -- Now that German striker Mario Gómez is the co-leading scorer of Euro 2012 with three goals, it's easy to forget that two weeks ago many observers thought he'd be riding the bench here behind veteran teammate Miroslav Klose. In fact, Gómez himself was on pins and needles until finding out three days before Germany's first game that he'd be in German coach Joachim Löw's starting lineup.

"If he had told me I'm not playing, it would have hurt me a little bit," Gómez told me in a wide-ranging one-on-one interview ahead of Friday's quarterfinal against Greece (ESPN, 2:45 p.m. ET). "Miro was playing all the tournaments very well in the last World Cup and Euro Cup, so it's not easy for a [coach] to make the decision. I'm happy [Löw] believed in me, and now after three games I can give him a little bit back."

After years of waiting and plenty of heartache, the 26-year-old Gómez is finally breaking out for Germany on the big stage, and there's a confident serenity about him here that's evident in the way he talks. His English is excellent, his responses are thoughtful, and he's quick to laugh about being voted the most handsome man in Germany in a recent Internet poll. (In case you're wondering, Gómez has yet to see the movie Back to the Future and his doppelgänger George McFly. "Really? I will have to look at this," he says when I ask him.)

Gómez is no stranger to scoring: He has poured in goals for Bayern Munich in the Champions League and in the German Bundesliga. But until Euro 2012 he had never scored on the truly big stage, not at Euro 2008 (where he was benched), not at World Cup 2010 and not in his two Champions League finals (in 2010 and '12). Three Euro goals later, he's able to be candid now about the existential crisis that resulted after his flop at Euro 2008.

"We are all people, and we all have a heart," Gómez says. "If you play a tournament like me in Euro 2008 with this big chance when I shot the ball over the goal, everybody was talking like, 'Oh s---, why is he playing so well in the Bundesliga but not in the national team?' I had a big problem for two years in the national team to get this out of my head."

"After two years I was like, 'What do I really want? Do I want to have fun here, or is it only to get the people back on my side?' I was thinking I'd like to have fun. In this way I came back, step by step, and now I'm where I wanted to be the last four years. Now I'm having fun -- a lot of it."

Gómez put on a finishing master-class with both strikes in Germany's 2-1 victory over the Netherlands, including a jaw-dropping goal in which he took a pass from Bastian Schweinsteiger in the box, spun like the Tasmanian Devil and smashed the ball into the net. "I got a fantastic ball from Basti, so I took this spin, and it was a good first touch," Gómez says. "It's important in football today to get a very good first touch, and this one was perfect."

But Gómez wants to be clear about one thing: When Schweinsteiger told the press afterward that he'd never seen Gómez make a move like that before, that just wasn't true. "I told him he was lying," cracks Gómez. "When we go to the disco he's seen these moves lots of times, just not with a ball."

It's clear that Gómez gets along well with his German teammates. When I arrived at the German team hotel for our interview, Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski were engaging in good-natured banter with Gómez about doing an interview with the American publication that produces the swimsuit issue. Gómez finally had to ask that we switch rooms so he can focus on our interview instead of hearing catcalls from his friends.

Born to a Spanish father and a German mother, Gómez is a symbol of the multicultural German national team these days, which includes players with roots in Turkey (Mesut Özil), Tunisia (Sami Khedira), Ghana (Jérôme Boateng) and Poland (Podolski, Klose). "This is good for our team," Gómez says. "You not only have the German influence in the team, but you have something from all the countries." (So deep is the German team that Bild was reporting on Friday that Gómez, Podolski and Thomas Müller would not start against Greece, with Klose, André Schürrle and Marco Reus taking their spots, at least for one game.)

Gómez speaks fluent Spanish, too -- on the rare occasions he had trouble finding the right English word, we communicated en español -- and he has fond memories of spending time as a child with his father's side of the family in Spain.

"I'm happy to know these two cultures, to know the Spanish lifestyle and mentality," he says. "I think it's a bit different from the German mentality. In Spain I like la playa [the beach], I like the sun, the people on the streets outside having fun and laughing. Germany is a bit different. The weather is also not so good, and you need more privacy if you're with your family and friends. Sometimes you can go out, but not like in Spain."

"That's why I'm loving Munich," he continues. "Munich is like Spain. When the sun is shining, all the people are going out. That's what I like."

Liberation is a regular theme with Gómez. He's certainly feeling freer these days after getting off to such a scorching start in Euro 2012, and he's a proponent of the idea in general. Last November Gómez caused a stir in Germany by saying that gay soccer players should come out publicly, the better to express their true selves and take the weight of secrecy off their shoulders. In a sport where enlightened attitudes are sometimes hard to find, Gómez's stance was refreshing.

Of course, Germany and Spain are the co-favorites to win this tournament, and Gómez is the one player here who owns passports from both countries. He says he politely turned down a request from the Spanish FA to play for Spain as a teenager, and while he roots for Spanish teams when Germany isn't involved, he's 100 percent German in a tournament like this one.

Yet Gómez does have immense respect for Spain, which eliminated Germany in the Euro 2008 final and the World Cup 2010 semifinals. Greece will provide a stiff defensive test on Friday, but he knows what would lie ahead if Germany continues advancing. "I want to win the Cup, and the way to the Cup is through Spain," Gómez says. "You have to beat them because they are the best team in the world. They are very close to each other. People sometimes say you have to be like 11 friends on the field. It's not the truth, but if you see the Spanish team play you have the feeling they are 11 friends having fun."

Which leads to the next question: Does Germany play these days like 11 friends having fun?

"Yeah," Gómez says. "It's changed a bit the last few years in Germany. Normally, the typical German team was strong, very defensive in its play and scoring one or two times and going back into defense. A very strong tournament team, but between tournaments everyone was saying, 'Yeah, they are not so good, but why are they winning all the time?'"

"Now it's a bit different. The other teams are saying, 'Oh, this German team is playing very fast and quick, very offensive and spectacular. It's not exactly like Spain, but it's on the way. I think the mix of German discipline with the fun-to-play spirit of the Spanish is a good way for us to go."

Call it German precision with a smile. Mario Gómez is feeling good right now, feeling like his young German team can dethrone the champs. "It's very difficult to beat Spain," he says. "But if one team can beat them, we can."

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