While South Americans have dominated Spanish soccer for decades, much rarer is the successful player from the Northern half of the hemisphere. For every successful Mexican like Hugo Sanchez and Rafa Marquez, a disappointing Omar Bravo returns home with his tail firmly tucked between his legs. For Central Americans, the numbers are even sparser. And that's why Jorge Alberto "Magico" Gonzalez's 1983 season at Cadiz was so unforgettable.
Many South American stars seemingly cakewalk to the big European leagues. They effectively intern as teenagers at a big Argentine club like River Plate and, in a few years, a payday of Euros lands in their lap. At the other end of the spectrum, the Central American trail to Europe is far from a beaten path. And that's especially true for Magico Gonzalez. Nicknamed "mago" (wizard) and the "flor blanca" (white flower) in his native El Salvador, he plied his trade in relative international obscurity at C.D. FAS in El Salvador. Despite guiding the Salvadorean national team to a World Cup berth, he still garnered minimal interest from abroad.
After Espana 82, though, it was a different matter. In the first group stage, El Salvador lost every game and conceded 13 goals. Despite this putrid collective result, Magico Gonzalez put on a show for the ages. Gifted with searing pace off the ball and with it at his feet, he broke more than a few defender's ankles figuratively if not literally. Nobody could nick the ball off him. And tricks? Foot-skills you ask? The Cruyff turn. The elastico. Step-overs. Magico mastered them all. His elastic legs and quicksilver feet knew no mortal limit like the laws of physics. My favourite move of his was the audacious "autopase" (self-pass). Time after time, Magico simply poked the ball past a defender's left foot and himself dashed around the defender's right hand side.
In sum, Magico's relationship with defenders was a mix of sadistic square dancing and Stockholm Syndrome - defenders wanted out, but couldn't escape nor did they dare. Even though he hailed from the then-soccer outback of Central America, any scout with eyes could see a future star. After the World Cup, Spanish club Atletico de Madrid offered him a pretty pay package, but Magico settled with Cadiz, even though the Andalusians played in the second division. It was more than a wise choice: it was a match made in heaven.
At Cadiz, a laid back coastal town with a population of about 130,000, Magico was embraced with open arms and patient hearts. Patient hearts, you ask? Yes, you read that right. For all his tricks and skills, Magico's love of the nightlife sometimes impacted his ability to kick a ball during the light of day. Of course, Cadiz CF, founded in 1935, had only recently tasted topflight football for single-year spells in 1977 and 1981. Thus, the local fans appreciated moments of genius in sporadic fits. There were no capital city sports dailies to moan Magico's misses (on and off the field).
Magico's goalscoring touch led Cadiz back into the topflight during his first season. His pace and technical ability was simply too much for second division defenders. However, a look at the roster raised serious questions - could the Andalucians surround Magico with top-tier talent? Would they? The answer was a simple no. Like El Salvador's shellacking at Espana 82, Cadiz's 1983-84 La Liga season was a collective failure. They won only 5 games at home and a single game away as visiting team. They managed a single big scalp: beating Atletico de Madrid 3:1 at home.
Nevertheless, Magico Gonzalez lit the nets aflame. He finished with 15 goals, two shy of pichichi-winner Jorge da Silva and three more goals than Mexican Hugo Sanchez (then of Atletico de Madrid). The highlight was his amazing slalom goal against Barcelona. Picking the ball up just behind the halfway line, he simply outran one midfielder, duked and sidestepped one defender, slowed down, pushed off a defender, froze another, and then calmly slotted far post. If you didn't believe in Magico before that goal, you couldn't help but be a believer afterwards.
Despite his individual heroics, Cadiz finished six points from safety and were relegated. It was the brightest of flares that shot out from a sinking ship. Magico departed for Valladolid and first-division football, but returned to Cadiz after only a year. Andalucians' warmth had never left his heart. Yes, his career was marked by collective failures with bursts of individual brilliance, but, in the bigger picture, Gonzalez blazed a trail since followed by Wilson Palacios, Roger Espinoza, and other Central American players now plying their trade in Europe. They can thank him for opening doors, and we can thank him for the unforgettable moments of magico.
Elliott Turner is the author of Real Madrid & Barcelona: the Making of a Rivalry