33 HUGS OF GOAL
BUENOS AIRES -- Satisfaction, nerves, pride. That's what he must've felt when they told him the news. Perhaps the same feelings he experienced many years ago, when they told him he was making his debut in First Division.
He took the oxygen mask and got inside the capsule "Fénix II". Focused. Calm. While some colleagues made some last adjustments, others wished him luck. The "Strenght, brother" and "Go, Manolo" sounded loud as they pat the grid. A situation similar to that before a football match.
Now he didn't have to walk a few meters down a tunnel next to 10 teammates. This time he had to travel no less than 622 meters. He wasn't being expected by hundreds or thousands of fans in a stadium, either. Only 33 waited for him, and millions all around the world on the other side of the screen.
Orange anti-ignition kit, black goggles and a white helmet with his name on it: "Manuel González". This former footballer of O'Higgins of Chile, of 46 years old, faced the toughest match of his life. He became the first rescuer that went down to the gold and copper mine of San José, in Copiapó (800 km. north of Santiago), to save the 33 men that were trapped there since the 5th of August after a collapse of the walls.
He made enough to be there. González is an expert in mining fortification and vertical drilling and has 20 years of experience in Codelco and 12 as rescuer. He had a whole country behind him. Even the president approached him, not to give him an award, but to show him support. "It's the time for truth, you stay calm. Good luck, and may God be with you to bring the miners back," Sebastián Piñera told him.
Something unexpected came up. Not as simple as the damage to a football boot or his kit. When the 4 meter high and 450 kg. capsule made its first descent, it dented and the operation was put back. Once repaired, a second test trip was done. After that, they confirmed that the vehicle that had to go more than 600m. through a 60cm. wide tube was ready.
Oozing confidence, Manolo said goodbye with a "chao". The families of the miners came together in claps and started singing the national anthem, while others chanted "chi, chi, chi, le, le, le, los mineros de Chile". The camping was more "Esperanza" (Hope) than ever.
It moved at a speed of around 1 meter per second, and after 16 "long" minutes it reached its destiny. Down there, they were waiting for him. In awe. Expectant. Excited. The 33 of them. Between them, Franklin Lobos, another man who used to be very skillful with a ball.
He walked out of the capsule slowly. One welcomed him. González touched his head, hugged him. Little by little the rest approached him as well, in images that travelled around the world. Even the "cameraman" of the mine asked a colleague to hold it for him so he could hug the first new person they saw after 69 days.
The rescue out of the mine started on the Wednesday 13th of October. Destiny wanted it to be exactly 38 years later of that accident that starred an Uruguayan plane with 45 people, mostly members of the rugby club Old Christians, that was flying from Mendoza to Santiago de Chile. 10 days of fruitless searches passed and the passengers were thought to be dead. Until 72 days later, 16 survivors were found in the middle of the Los Andes Cordillera. It was called the miracle of Los Andes and reached the theaters with the movie "Viven" (They live). It won't take long before the 33 also make it to the big screen...
With his arms on his waist, like a superhero, Manuel González told them that how his trip to the bottom of the mine had been and gave them instructions about the rescue operation. "Excellent, the old man is inside the jail," he said about Florencio Avalos, 15 years younger, the first miner that came out of the mine. "Right, give the order," added who is now the new idol of everyone in Chile.
It was then when his name, that left no mark in the history of football, gained relevance to a world-wide level. "I'm extremely happy, but dying with the heat," he admitted later to the radio in between laughs.
When he wore shorts and football boots, Manuel González surely thought that the "descent" (to second division) was the worst thing that could happen to him. Today he could celebrate more than any won championship because this "descent" changed his life.
An image will always stay inside his mind. When he reached the mine, he received 33 hugs as if he'd scored a goal. Or much more than that.