Jorge González probably wouldn’t have survived in modern day football. Or rather, let’s say, it wouldn’t really be for him.
Reverently known as ‘Mágico’ González (initially by the adoring faithful of Cádiz, the club where he spent the most fruitful years of his career, and later by all those who have had the fortune to witness him play or at least hear the tales) the footballer from El Salvador continues to be both an icon for football’s romantics and the inspiration for Central American footballers out to forge careers in Europe.
‘Mágico’ González is a humble man with goodness in his heart and was a supremely talented footballer with tricks up his sleeve. A man of such bonhomie, then, that it is of little surprise that he was so content during his years in the eighties as the talisman of Cádiz and remains, to this day, one of its very favourite sons.
Nestled contently on the golden coast of Andalucía, Cádiz is a small and charming city whose people are renowned for their alegría and sense of fun; the city’s annual carnival, to demonstrate the point, invites thousands from around the world each February as all present are led by the city’s joking, teasing, parodying chirigotas in an unbridled, shameless pursuit of laughter and revelry. The city’s higgledy-piggledy buildings with their white and yellow facades and terracotta rooftops look out to sea and evoke visions of Havana, while it was from its port that the Christopher Columbus set sail in 1493 to discover the ‘New World’. Five hundred years later, it could be said that the city had found its own jewel from the Americas in the form of El Mágico.
In 1982, on the back of intriguing performances for his country in that summer’s World Cup, hosted in Spain, González was actually supposed to be signing for Atlético Madrid. However, something caused that to fall through. Instead, he ended up signing for second-division Cádiz, his decision taken in a typically relaxed manner with the comment “why not, let’s try it”. The rest, as they say, is history.
A Spanish-language ESPN documentary about El Mágico, titled Destino Fútbol, commences with various figures from within the game, who had witnessed González in action, marvelling retrospectively at his astounding abilities with a ball at his feet. The presenter then introduces him to the viewer as “el futbolista que pudo hacer todo, pero no quiso”. Or, in English: the footballer that could do it all, but didn’t want to.
Because, for El Mágico, life was about pleasure; football to him was also pleasure. He claimed that if he were ever to treat football as work he would stop being himself. “Pleasure” was also to be found in the night-time, in the bars and discotecas of Cádiz. Anecdotes and myths surround the legend of Mágico turning up to training and even matches bleary-eyed after having spent the night on the town. However, whilst he accepted that sometimes he had never had any sleep before training sessions, he insisted that he was more professional when it came to matches and that stories (such as the one of him sleeping in and only arriving to a match at half-time, before coming on for the second half and inspiring his team to turn around a 2-0 deficit to end up winning 3-2) are all simply commendably well-crafted myths. El Mágico believed that going out on the town at night was an ‘art’ and claimed it was something that even his own mother would not be able to hold him back from enjoying. In the early hours of the morning, he could even often be seen in a bar sharing a drink and a laugh with the other favourite son of Cadiz, the flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla. Spain was a playground to him, unlike his native El Salvador; in fact, as astonishing as it may seem given how inclined towards it he would become, El Mágico claimed to have neither even smoked nor drank alcohol before he arrived on Spanish shores.
There was another nimble Latin American playmaker dizzying defences and causing a stir in Europe on and off the pitch at this time and, unlike Mágico González, his name was ubiquitous: he was Diego Maradona. Yet whereas Maradona was stocky, Mágico was skinny; however, both players possessed the rare gift of being able to captivate an audience when the ball was at their feet. And it is a testament to the magic of El Mágico that, whilst he considered Maradona to be amongst the very greatest, the feeling was mutual. There is a clip from a relatively recent press conference of Maradona, upon being asked about the merits of González, replying with total sincerity that he was “without a doubt amongst the greatest ten players I have ever seen play, in all my life”.
Tantalisingly, he came close to securing a full-time move to Barcelona and forming what would have been a mouth-watering partnership with his celebrated contemporary, Maradona. On the documentary, Destino Fútbol, an elderly gaditano sat in a bar draped in Cadiz scarves reminisces on Mágico’s brief affair with the Catalan giants. As he recalled it, at a time when the patience of the Cádiz board was wearing thin with the Salvadoran’s thirst for the nightlife, El Mágico was invited to join Barcelona on their pre-season tour of the United States as they considered signing him and, despite therefore being under careful scrutiny from the Barcelona management, lived up to his reputation for being unreliable as he managed to miss the flight out to New York and so had to be booked onto the next one.
However, it was an episode in the team hotel which was to put a definitive end to the chances of Barcelona signing him on permanently. As the story goes, El Mágico had been made aware beforehand that the hotel’s fire alarm was to be set off in the middle of the night and knew the culprit would be Maradona. Therefore, when it did sound in the middle of the night, El Mágico, busy in his hotel room bed with a waitress, simply ignored it. However, the hotel security’s stance on the matter was not so relaxed and shortly afterwards El Mágico and his partner were hauled out of their bed and brought down to the hotel lobby. With that Barcelona decided against making El Mágico a bona fide azulgrana. The way El Mágico sees it, though, is that it was simply the departure of the manager, the Argentine César Luis Menotti, which prevented Barcelona tying him down to a permanent deal.
The Cádiz board finally reached the end of its tether by January 1985 and it was Real Valladolid, a club languishing in the lower spots of la Primera, who decided that El Mágico was worth the gamble. And so it was that El Mágico was uprooted from the costa dorada and dragged up north to the harsh plains of Castilla and León, where the climate has been described as ‘three months of hell and nine months of winter’ (which has much more of a ring to it in the Spanish for which it was coined: ‘tres meses de infierno, nueve meses de invierno’). On a snow-covered pitch at the Estadio Nuevo José Zorrilla, El Mágico, shivering, his chin tucked deep into his jacket collar, was presented to his new club and when asked how he felt about signing for the blanquivioletas, simply answered that he was “very cold and very sleepy”. It was a relationship that was never made to last.
A measly nine appearances and two goals later, the club president of Cádiz, Manuel Irigoyen, despite having previously vowed that he would never re-sign him, submitted to the wishes of the club’s supporters who were pining for the return of their idol and so he did exactly that: he brought El Mágico home. His return delighted the gaditanos but there were several new conditions in the contract for the Salvadoran, with all forms of indiscipline being punished by fines. However, this simply resulted in a multitude of fines amassed off the pitch, whilst on the pitch he continued to be the pride and joy of the supporters. His second stint also included one of the finest solo golazos La Liga has ever seen, coincidentally against the mighty Barcelona. Essentially, El Mágico was back and nothing had really changed.
So content was he with life in Cádiz that, when representatives from Atalanta came over to watch him play, with the intention of bringing him over to what was then the strongest league in Europe, El Mágico deliberately failed to impress in training so as to dissuade them from signing him. It worked. This decision was supposedly made after asking if, wherever Atalanta was in Italy, he would still be able to enjoy the pescaito frito to which he was so accustomed in Cádiz and being told that, no, he would not.
Just as all good things come to an end, eventually, El Mágico disappeared from Cádiz. Some said he returned to El Salvador, to his boyhood club, some even said he became a taxi driver. Some said that in the evenings he could be seen playing football whilst others even perpetuated a story that, in one final act of magic, he simply disappeared altogether.
Nonetheless, despite what they may have been speculating in Cádiz, El Mágico returned to his true homeland, El Salvador, and continued to pursue his love of the game for as long as his body permitted. This resulted in him becoming both the oldest goalscorer in history for the national side at 35 years-old as well as, when just three months short of his fortieth birthday in a 2-0 defeat to Jamaica, its oldest ever player. He officially hung up his boots in 2000.
George Best, a similarly gifted footballer and lothario, once famously quipped, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered”. It would seem, then, that in Mágico González he would have found a kindred spirit. Both players represented countries which were never capable of challenging in international tournaments and yet both felt immensely proud of their roots and regret nothing from their careers. Therefore, for all their perceived misdemeanours off the pitch, it would seem both Best and Mágico were quite content to be considered a flawed genius.
El Mágico gladly recognized that he strayed from the orthodox manner of doing things as a professional footballer. However, he also cited his upbringing as an explanatory factor for his failure to learn certain lessons: “In my country,” he said, “footballers come from the barren land, from the tough pitches, and suddenly you come to Europe… It’s like going to university without first going through school”. He pointed out that for a young boy growing up in El Salvador, being the underdeveloped country that it was, there were no ‘football schools’ and as such he felt he had no real example to offer when he arrived in Spain. The stark differences at the time between life in Andalucía and life in his homeland were not lost on El Mágico. “In Spain, they spoilt me, I lived very well,” he has since reflected. “But it made me feel a bit bad. I wondered, ‘how can I be living like this here, whilst in my country there was a civil war?”
The fact is that, for better or for worse, he was a flag bearer not just for his native El Salvador, but for all of Central America. He has always been proud of where he is from, carries himself with humility and alegría and has always looked to live by his mantra of having a good time without causing any harm to anybody else. El Mágico inspired future generations of footballers and fascinated countless more football fans across the world with his extraordinary gift for playing football.
Nowadays we tend to enjoy looking back on the icons of an age of the beautiful game which is no longer: the age of perms and of mustaches, of footballers who moonlit as philosophers and political activists, of the playmaker in short shorts and low-tucked socks. Sócrates. Cruyff. Best. Maradona. Yet there’s one name that tends to be forgotten: “Mágico” Gonzalez. Not that he would care too much, mind you.
By Eamonn Foster
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona