Saturday, April 13, 2013

Santo Mourinho

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Abel Rodriguez (pictured here behind Cristiano Ronaldo)

How Mourinho plucked a Mexican cleaner from the gutter and gave him dream job at Real

Football has little time for heart-warming stories these days, but if anyone is going to create a fairytale it's 'Special One' Jose Mourinho.

In an extraordinary story, the Real Madrid manager plucked a down-and-out Mexican cleaner off the snowy streets of the Spanish capital and made him part of the club's backroom staff.

Abel Rodriguez, 41, who waxes floors in Los Angeles underground stations, had spent his last few dollars to fly over to Europe and try to watch El Clasico with Barcelona back in February.

Without a ticket, or even a hotel reservation in Madrid, it seemed a forlorn hope that he would see the biggest game in world football, let alone meet any of the players.

Undeterred, Rodriguez made for Real's Valdebebas training complex upon arrival, seeking the consolation of at least seeing his heroes in preparation.

He had no connection with them however, apart from a couple of weeks' unpaid work as an apparently anonymous ball boy during the Spanish giants' pre-season visit to California the previous summer, and was turned away by security.

Penniless, with nowhere to go and no chance of seeing the big game, Rodriguez sat shivering in the snow by the side of the road for five hours.

Then, the magic happened.

'It was a miracle that I saw him,' Mourinho recalled to Sports Illustrated. 'I saw Abel seated on the road outside the training ground.

'I was leaving in my assistant Rui Faria's car, and there were a lot of people outside. But I told Rui, "Stop! It's the guy from Los Angeles".'

'Amigo! What are you doing here?' Mourinho asked from the car.

'I come to visit you guys,' Rodriguez replied. 'It's my first time in Europe, and my dream has been to come and see games. I was hoping to see El Clasico.'

'But there are no more tickets,' Mourinho said. 'Where are you staying?'

'I haven't done anything about that,' the Mexican answered. 'My priority was to see you guys and then make my arrangements. If I didn't see you guys, I'd go to the stadium and try to get a ticket. And if that didn't work, I'd fly back home.'

If it had been remarkable in the first place that Mourinho had remembered the face of the helper from the UCLA training pitches they had used while in the States, then what he did next was truly remarkable.

Mourinho booked Rodriguez a room for the night at the same hotel the Real team were staying before the Barcelona match and threw in VIP tickets.

But he was far from finished.

Over dinner on the eve of the Clasico, Mourinho gave his new-found buddy a once-in-a-lifetime proposal - to work in his staff as a kit man for the forthcoming Champions League tie with Manchester United.

Mourinho said: 'I told him, 'No way (you're returning home), you come to Manchester with us and work as a kit man. You help us and you live a bigger dream, a Champions League match from the inside!'

Rodriguez dashed up to his hotel room and grabbed his passport so the arrangements for his new part-time job could be made. Overwhelmed by what had just happened, he burst into tears of joy at the Real dining table.

A few days later, he was at Old Trafford, dressed head to toe in official Real uniform and helping to lay out the kit in the changing rooms.

He'd even become something of a good luck charm, with Mourinho and the players rubbing his stomach so good fortune rubbed off on them.

After Real's controversial triumph that night, aided by Nani's red card, Rodriguez found himself intermediary between the rival changing rooms, fetching and carrying signed shirts and mementos between the two sets of players.

He was even asked by Sir Alex Ferguson to find Mourinho for their customary post-match glass of wine.

Rodriguez returned home with plenty of his own souvenirs, including shirts worn by Javier Hernandez, Mesut Ozil, Kaka and Michael Essien, and one of the match balls.

Reflecting on the moment he left his wife Olga and three daughters in LA to make the trip to try and watch his beloved team, Rodriguez said: 'I was really indecisive about going, but the encouragement came from my wife, who said, 'You should go. It's always been your dream.'

We bet he's glad he did.

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