Lobos: Football kept us alive
© AFP

Little more than six months ago, the name Franklin Lobos seemed destined to fade away as a discreet entry in the annals of Chilean football. This despite the well-travelled former No10’s class-laden performances and thumping free-kick ability, qualities which earned him a berth in La Roja’s pre-Olympic squad which sealed qualification for the Games in Los Angeles in 1984.     

Indeed, until 4 August 2010, few football followers knew that Lobos was grafting away as a bus driver in the San Jose mine, 700 metres beneath the surface of the world’s most arid desert. Of the scraps of info his colleagues knew about Lobos’ footballing past, the best-known was his time spent alongside a young Ivan Zamorano in the 1980s at Cobresal, where both players are still considered club legends.

All that must have seemed like a different age, however, after a cave-in at the mine near his birthplace of Copiapo, which trapped Lobos along with 32 of his work-mates. In the dark, with little food and no way of contacting the outside world, the men clung on for 17 days until the rescue operation made contact and ascertained they were still alive. From that moment on, a spellbound global audience hung on every twist in a tale that lasted a staggering 69 days before all 33 were freed from the depths.

FIFA.com spoke to the former midfielder, whose other clubs featured Regional Atacama and Santiago Wanderers, about his experiences in the mine, the messages of support received from across the world and “being reborn”.

FIFA.com: Franklin, what was the toughest period of your time spent trapped in the mine?
Franklin Lobos:
The toughest times we went through were during the first five days. We didn’t know if anybody was searching for us or if they’d abandoned us to our fate. That was very hard. It was also tough around the eighth day down there, when I saw some of my colleagues say their goodbyes to their families.

Were you able to draw on any of your experiences from your career as a professional footballer?
Of course. That was very important because we spent so much time talking about football. It helped the days go faster, or should I say the nights, because it was all dark down there! Football kept us alive. Personally speaking, it helped me stay strong mentally and support my colleagues. In football, you work with psychologists and you spend a lot of time cooped up with your team-mates before matches. Although that’s clearly very different (to being trapped in a mine), there is still an element of being locked in. Everything else came down to putting our faith in God.

Did your fellow miners ask you to tell them stories about your time in the game and people you played with?
Several of them already knew me (from before the mine collapsed). They knew I’d played for a few clubs and had been in the Chilean squad. They had a healthy respect for me and I for them, because working as a miner is very tough. I told them lots of things, about goals, players, teams and even jokes I’d heard. 

We spent so much time talking about football. It helped the days go faster, or should I say the nights, because it was all dark down there!
Franklin Lobos on life down the mine

While you were all still in the mine, many famous faces from across the football world sent messages of support. Which of those particularly struck a chord?
Once we established contact with the outside world, we found out that the likes Marcelo Salas, Ivan Zamorano and Elias Figueroa, as well as the footballing community as a whole, had shown a great deal of concern towards us. We also received messages of support from David Villa and Marcelo Bielsa, as well as the people at Real Madrid and Manchester United who, despite being thousands of miles away, were great to us. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from those in the game. 

Zamorano said he’d felt sure you’d play a vital role in the keeping the miners’ spirits up, given the leadership skills you showed as a player. What do you say to that?
I really appreciate those very kind words. Ivan broke into the Cobresal side at a very young age and I already had a few years’ experience under my belt. That experience helps when your hopes of survival are as slim as ours were at one point (in the mine), because it’s tough to find the right thing to say. More than anything I looked out for the younger lads and tried to make them understand we still had hope. Football is about battling and giving your all every day and that’s the message I got across to my colleagues.

If it’d had been possible to send any one player down into the mine to boost morale and keep your spirits up, who would you have chosen?
(Thinks hard and chokes up with emotion) If only we’d had Elias Figueroa there, because of everything he’s done for Chilean football and the kind of person he is. When you think of everything he achieved as a player, as a person he’s very down-to-earth. He would have been very important to us, psychologically speaking, just as he was when we were invited to visit Manchester United. Elias came with us and underlined his stature as a leader and captain.

When it came to the tributes paid to you and your fellow miners, which was the most emotional to come from the footballing community?
Without a doubt the one made by the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) during the draw for this year’s Copa Libertadores. I was invited to attend by (its President) Nicolas Leoz and (former Chilean FA President) Harold Mayne-Nicholls. I won’t forget Manchester United either, after having been in that beautiful stadium, alongside world-class players. That’s not something you’re likely to forget.

The media frenzy surrounding your time in the mine has revived interest in your playing career. Do you view the recognition you’re receiving as better late than never?
In my case, I’ve got my feet firmly on the ground. I don’t believe in and never have believed in the whole fame thing. I know that if this accident hadn’t happened, I’d still just be an ex-footballer who played for a few clubs, was picked for Chile and ended up working in a mine. I’m not getting carried away with everything that’s going on, and I think that what happened to us is a good lesson in life, recovery and survival.

The year 2010 was a very harsh one for Chile, with a devastating earthquake and your mining accident. Do you think the Chilean people’s reaction taught the world about strength in adversity?
Yes, in the United States we were invited onto the TV programme Heroes, where they told us how impressed they were with the way we’d stuck together and how we’d overcome adversity. Let’s hope that 2011 is much better than the year we’ve just been endured.

Finally, given everything you went through in the mine, what are the most valuable lessons for the players in the youth ranks at Deportes Copiapo, who you started working with recently?
I speak to the lads and I teach them that football is a team sport. I tell them how everything we did in the first 17 to 20 days, when we had nothing to eat and nobody knew if we were still alive or not, really brought us closer together. And that togetherness gave us strength and helped us to hold out for 69 days. So, what I want to instil in my young players is how much can be achieved by dint of sacrifice, humility, team spirit and unity. In our case, it was like being reborn.