HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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26 July 2007

Manuel Negrete


Tonight I completed a kind of pilgrimage. Twenty one years ago, I was a spotty faced teenager who was fortunate enough to be playing in a soccer tournament in Portsmouth, England. My fortune was doubled because we were able to watch the World Cup every day, something that would not have been possible had I been home in Texas. On June 15th we headed down to the pub to watch Mexico vs. Bulgaria in round of sixteen match, the winner going on to face Germany in the 1/4 final. Mexico had never been further than the round of 16. They were playing in the nation's capital, playing in the largest stadium in North America, 114,580 fans packing the Estadio Azteca to the roof. Bulgaria, coached by the peripatetic Bora Mulitinovic, was a disciplined side prone to fits fo violence. Mexico had great hopes, recovering from the earthquake, asserting itself on the international stage, playing decent football, that sort of thing. Thirty one minutes into the first half, this happened: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drU2OzGuVfQ

There might be words to explain that goal, but I can't find them.

Tonight, I met the man who did it, Manuel Negrete. Negrete looks like many ex professional soccer players of a certain caliber. He is tanned, fit, confident, well-spoken and handles the press easily. We chatted in the kitchen area of the press box for about ten minutes. It's hard to know what to ask someone who has entered into the global consciousness in ways that you or I can never hope to do. He told me that last year, to mark the 20th anniversary of his goal, the Bulgarians flew him over for a tribute. Everywhere he goes, people ask him about the goal. He is clearly used to talking about it and has well polished answers: "very proud of my accomplishment", "it's opened some doors", "just one great moment in a long career". That goal clearly changed his life. He often finds himself in the same room, at the same dinner table, as Pele, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Sanchez. He is known throughout the world, by people born after that goal. I remember trying to practice that movement, that goal, that moment of genius again and again in the backyard, always failing and flailing. I'm sure there were many others trying to do the same. This was one of the purest moments of genius on one of the biggest stages of anykind, in one of the most pressure filled situations imaginable. Conjured out of (literally) thin air, the unmistakable brilliance is impossible to diminish.

But for all the glory and fame that has come of that one moment (12:35pm, 15 June 1986), that one goal that etched Negrete into the stone of the immortals, he is still trying to find his way, coaching here and there, working as a technical director, trying to find some way to latch onto the money machine that is global (and Mexican) soccer. After a 20 year career that took him from UNAM Pumas, to Sporting Lisbon and Sporting Gijon of Spain (a rarity for a Mexican in those days) he has taken up coaching, received his masters in soccer administration from the Johann Cruyff University (http://www.cruyffacademics.org/), served as technical director for Atalante and is currently on tour with Cruz Azul of the Mexican first divsion as part of Tecate's bid to sell more beer to the huge U.S. based Mexican community. I left our interview more impressed than I was 21 years ago when I stood up screaming in an English pub.

So after twenty-one years of thinking about that goal, I have met the man who scored it. A small circle is complete and he and I go our ways in the world of football.

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