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SANTIAGO EFFORTLESSLY avoided a lunging tackle and closed on the goal.
The Newcastle faithful, a sea of black and white on all four sides of St. James’ Park, roared their approval as Santiago brushed off a second challenge.
His eyes lifted for a split second and his brain made the instinctive and instant, computer-like calculation: range, trajectory, power.
And then, with hardly a break in stride, Santiago struck a perfectly weighted and flighted ball past the despairing dive of the keeper into the top corner of the net.
The crowd erupted, joyously celebrating what was to be voted the Premiership goal of the season as Santiago raised both arms to the sky in acknowledgment of their adulation.
The fans’ roars thundered around the stadium, into the city streets, and down to the River Tyne.
And as Santiago stood, arms raised, the echoes of those cheers could be heard across Europe in a darkened room at the very heart of Spain.
A group of men, all expensively suited, were staring intently at Santiago’s frozen image on a huge plasma screen.
They spoke softly, almost conspiratorially, in Spanish, as if they were afraid that unwanted listeners might overhear their words.
The electronic shutters on the windows slowly began to open and daylight spilled into the screening room, revealing a desktop cluttered with photographs, sheets of statistics, videocassettes, biographical notes, everything dedicated to the life and football career of one young man: Santiago Muñez.
The man at the center of the group turned to one of his colleagues. “Harris and Muñez played well together at Newcastle; maybe they would be good together here.”
“Buy they play in the same position now,” came the instant reply.
He nodded toward the plasma screen and within seconds the Muñez highlights reel was rolling again, cutting to a different match and a bustling run by Santiago that ended in another spectacular goal.
“Exactly,” said the first man.
Santiago had grown to love Newcastle and its people, who had adopted him as an honorary “Geordie,” which is how the locals were known.
It was a long way from his Mexican roots and just as distant from the run-down district of Los Angeles in California where he had grown up and developed his natural skills as a soccer player.
He would, almost certainly, have still been playing local league soccer, as they called it back home, had it not been for a chance encounter with Glen Foy.
Glen, an ex-Newcastle player himself and a onetime scout for the club, was on vacation in L.A. when he saw Santiago playing in a park match. He knew instantly he was watching someone special, someone blessed with footballing gifts granted to very few.
Against all the odds, Glen arranged a trial with Newcastle for Santiago, and what followed had since become part of the folklore of the famous Tyneside club.
Sometimes, even after a season and a half, it still seemed like a dream to Santiago—a dream come true.
He missed the sunshine of L.A. and he missed his grandmother, Mercedes, and his younger brother, Julio, but life in Newcastle had incredible compensations—the designer clothes, the top-of-the-line BMW, the beautiful new home.
And then, of course, there was Roz.
Roz was a nurse; they had met soon after Santiago arrived in Newcastle, and little more than a year later, they were planning their wedding.
Life was wonderful. It could hardly get better. Santiago had moved swiftly from park player to St. James’ Park hero.
Fans of Newcastle United, collectively known as the Toon Army, knew he was a great, natural goal scorer, and many of the faithful predicted that someday he would challenge the scoring feats of even the legends, Jackie Milburn and Alan Shearer.
But, of course, that depended on the club being able to hang on to a player now regarded as one of the hottest properties in football.
Text copyright © Robert Rigby, 2006
Film material copyright © Goal Limited, 2006
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Posted November 6, 2008