Football’s scope and popularity is such that it is played and followed in every corner of the planet. And it seems the beautiful game can even have a positive impact on those hundreds of metres below the ground, as has been the case with 33 miners trapped at a depth of 700m since 5 August following the collapse of the San Jose mine in the heart of Chile’s Atacama Desert.
For football enthusiasts, the drama moved up a notch once it emerged that Franklin ‘El Mortero Mágico’ Lobos was among the workers involved. The 53-year-old former midfielder graced the Chilean professional game from 1982 to 1995. Known for his thumping free-kicks, Lobos turned out for Deportes La Serena, Santiago Wanderers, Regional Atacama, Deportes Iquique and Cobresal.
He even shared a dressing room at the latter outfit with the legendary Ivan Zamorano in the late 1980s, when the future Inter Milan and Real Madrid striker was just starting out, and also enjoyed international recognition, representing La Roja in qualifying for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Los Angeles 1984.
None of those glories could have prepared Lobos for what befell him underground, of course, where he was one of 33 miners (32 Chilean and one Bolivian) who were cut off for a staggering 17 days before contact was established. Remarkably, all have emerged safe and sound despite their predicament, their morale no doubt boosted by untold messages of support and good wishes from the footballing world and beyond.
“Thanks to you all for your words, thanks to all the supporters. I’m hoping to be out soon, fingers crossed. I’m very grateful to everybody and Ivan Zamorano too,” said Lobos himself from the depths, where on the day of the accident he had been driving a bus full of his work-mates at 700m underground. This was the just the latest profession of a man who, since hanging up his boots 15 years ago, has also driven taxis and worked as a car mechanic.
Zamorano said: “I reckon that when he was trapped down there he would have gone back to the way he was in his playing days. He’s a very fiery man, who used to drag his team-mates up by their bootstraps. I’m sure he was key to helping them stay alive down there.
"Back then he was the star of the team and I only played every so often. I remember he used to strike free-kicks with his ankle, which put a special spin on the ball that I’ve never seen a player repeat since.”
Echoing Zamorano’s sentiments of Lobos’s importance to the miners’ cause were a host of former footballers and coaches who knew him first-hand. “I’m sure Franklin told them about the highs and lows of his career to try and lighten up the situation and improve morale,” said Manuel Rodriguez, the Copiapo native's coach at both Cobresal and Regional Atacama. “I’m positive his tales will have given the miners a new lease of life. Franklin must have cheered them up by saying that sooner or later they’d be found and rescued.”
The miners’ plight has been headline news across the globe, with some of the biggest names in domestic and international football following Zamorano’s example by showing their support. Chile’s Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa, for example, sent Lobos a shirt signed by him and members of his squad. Once it emerged that 20 of the trapped 33 were Colo-Colo fans, El Cacique’s star players were also quick to send signed shirts to their team’s stricken supporters.
From further afield came two signed Barcelona jerseys from David Villa, who comes from a mining background in Asturias. Nor were the Catalan giants’ arch-rivals Real Madrid slow to respond, with President Florentino Perez announcing his intention to invite the miners to a game at the Bernabeu.
“We would like to offer you the kind wishes and recognition of all our supporters,” he said. “It would be an honour for us to welcome you and celebrate your triumph of staying alive. For Real Madrid, your triumph would also be a victory for us.”
So, after a lengthy rescue effort which finally came to a successful conclusion last night, the world of football, and society at large, is clearly ready to welcome the San Jose heroes back to the surface with open arms.