Wednesday 17 June 1970 may have been a working day but that was not going to stop Mr and Mrs Rodriguez and their 11-year-old son Jaime from heading down to the local shop in San Salvador to watch the FIFA World Cup™ semi-final between Italy and West Germany, broadcast live that day from Mexico.
As everyone knows, La Squadra Azzurra pulled out all the stops to beat their combative opponents 4-3 in a match that went down in history, one made even more memorable by the sight of Franz Beckenbauer challenging for every ball with his arm in a sling to protect his dislocated shoulder.
What very few people know, however, is that that classic showdown had a profound effect on the young Jaime, who turned to his parents at the end of the game and said: “One day I’m going to play in the World Cup too.”
Little Jaime was as good as his word, fulfilling his dream by running out for his country at the 1982 world finals in Spain and playing in leagues as far afield as Mexico, Germany, Finland and Japan.
La Chelona has since moved into administration and is now his country’s Minister of Sport and a member of FIFA’s Football Committee, where he rubs shoulders with none other than Franz Beckenbauer, the imperious centre-half who inspired him all those years ago.
“It’s just incredible to be by his side. He was my hero,” said a smiling Rodriguez on his visit to Zurich last week. “I asked him to sign a Cosmos shirt he gave me at the end of a friendly we once played. Obviously I had it framed and it’s hanging up in my house.”
Taking the opportunity to chat to the former El Salvador international, FIFA.com asked Rodriguez about his playing career, the difficult situation Salvadoran football currently finds itself in and the final round of the CONCACAF qualifying competition for Brazil 2014, with Mexico’s travails catching his eye in particular.
FIFA.com: El Salvador has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons, with 14 players receiving suspension for match-fixing. How has the news affected you?
Jaime Rodriguez: It’s been a massive blow for the game in our country. I just can’t get my head round the idea of people deliberately going out to lose a game. I feel very hurt by it. We’ve got a very tough job ahead of us. We’ve got to turn a whole generation around and work with the youngsters, get back to the cultural and educational basics of our game.
The national team failed to make it to last round of qualifying for Brazil 2014. Have you been following the competition?
Absolutely. I think Central American football has come on a lot, as Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama have shown. Nobody would ever have thought that Mexico would be struggling at this stage of the competition and needing to win a game at home. They’ve always been unbeatable at the Azteca, but teams have got better these days and they prepare for everything.
You know Mexican football inside out and you’re a contemporary of some of their recent coaches. How do you explain the situation Mexico are in?
I think they’ve got careless and underestimated the importance of the CONCACAF region. They’ve got talent but they don’t have leaders on the pitch. The last role model they had was Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and now they’ve had to recall Rafa Marquez for a crucial game, which just shows that they don’t have any leaders. I played there for ten years. I know their football very well and I follow their league closely. Central American sides aren’t scared when they go to the Azteca now. They’re not frightened by the altitude or the prospect of playing in front of 100,000 fans. That’s been lost now.
Will they qualify?
It’s going to be difficult for them. The Mexican press are already thinking about New Zealand and they haven’t even played Panama yet. That’s a huge mistake. The Panamanians are brimming with enthusiasm and the Dely Valdes brothers are doing a great job coaching their new generation. I wouldn’t like to say who’ll win. It’s a high-risk match.
Staying on the subject of the World Cup, is it true you covered up an injury because you were worried about not making the squad in 1982?
Yes. I fractured my ankle playing in Germany on 4 February. I remember the date clearly. The World Cup was in June and I couldn’t reveal the problems I was having. I kept quiet and carried on working. I was hurting deep down but the World Cup was my dream. I started playing again on 4 April.
The lack of information in El Salvador worked in your favour obviously.
Of course! In those days a photo taken on a Sunday wouldn’t be in the paper until Wednesday. The World Cup was a dream I’d had since I was a boy, since I saw Beckenbauer. How was I going to miss it? We were drawn in the same group as Argentina too. They were the world champions and they had [Diego] Maradona. I simply had to be there.
What was it like to play against Maradona?
He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen, one of my biggest idols. I played against him four times. I see players today who throw themselves on the ground and complain, but I kicked Diego over and over and he never said anything. He’d just look at me, I’d help him up and that was that. A true great.
Is there any memory that stands out in particular?
I kicked him a lot! (laughs) The last time was in the Showbol [an indoor tournament held in Argentina] a little while ago. He laughed and said to me: “You again! You don’t leave me alone even in friendlies!” He’s up there with the best I’ve faced in my life.
Where does Magico Gonzalez fit in?
Magico was one of the greats and we’re pals. He was quick and could go past people just like that. He was a genius who came alive on the pitch and always showed up when things got tough. Maradona said he was the best he’d ever seen. When I watch videos of Johan Cruyff I feel like I’m watching Magico.
And what kind of player were you?
In pretty much the same mould as Jorge Bermudez or Carles Puyol. Very committed. It goes without saying that it’s easier to destroy in football than create, and we all worked for Magico.
You went to Japan in the early 1990s for the launch of the J-League. What was that like?
If I hadn’t gone to Germany or Finland first, I don’t know if I’d have stuck it out in Japan. It was hard. Everything’s different there: the culture, religion, food, discipline, training times and the language. I remember saying hello to people in English and them not answering or even looking at me. The coach spoke English, but not to me. He said I had to learn the language and adapt because I was the foreigner. I stuck at it, though. They’ve changed their mindset and they’re a major power in Asia now, most of which is down to Zico if you ask me.
One last question. You’ve always seemed to achieve all your goals. Is there any dream you still want to see fulfilled?
I want El Salvador to reach the World Cup again and for other young players to do what I did. There’s nothing that’s impossible in life. We qualified in the middle of a war and now we’re going through tough times with the gangs. I want kids to look at [Lionel] Messi, Neymar and [Cristiano] Ronaldo and say: ‘I’ll be there one day’. It can be done.