That I found myself, a grown man weeping to see the sight should have been no surprise to those who know me. As Leonel Messi, indubitably soccer’s GOAT, hoisted the gold World Cup trophy to the rapture of his younger teammates, I too, felt that my life in soccer, aka fútbol, had come full circle. Mine were tears of joy.
I consider myself a lucky man—in my lifetime I have witnessed Brazil’s Pelé, Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer Der Kaiser and Northern Ireland’s George Best play at Giant Stadium in Rutherford, New Jersey for the now defunct NASL; had seen on television Maradona’s 1986 “hand of God goal” against the English, the awesome talent of the world’s finest footballers –Argentina’s Mario Kempes (1978 World Cup), Brazil’s Socrates and Zico and France’s Michel Platini (1982 World Cup); had lived to see the La Roja of Spain win their first World Cup in 2010 using a revolutionary style of soccer called “tiki-taka.”
On its face, the attraction to what was once an un-American sport on the other side of the ocean, might seem odd. Yet when I re-located to Madrid, Spain for my Junior Year Abroad in 1975, the year the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died, I was living in an apartment just a stone’s throw across the Manzanares River from the Vicente Calderon Stadium, home of Los Indios–the Atletico Madrid. Ours was a hard-scrabble working-class neighborhood which resembled the gritty places within my ownBrooklyn, so I readily embraced the team and its aficionados.
It was an incredible year in which I crammed a lifetime of fútbol into my head—Real Madrid were the cross-town rivals…a soccer pedigree that was considered bourgeois and haughty. Even Real’s Bernabeu Stadium was located in an upscale neighborhood which warranted further disdain. The only exception to this contempt for our rivals was a crush on one of the greatest Spanish footballers of all time—nicknamed El Brujo or The Magician, Amancio Amaro Varela played for the All Whites as well as the Spanish national team. By the time I caught up with Amancio he had been playing 13 years for Real Madrid, had garnered nine La Liga titles and was in the final year of his career. But there was something about the handsome Spaniard with his white uniform, tanned skin and muscular thighs, something about those team photos within the magazine of young futbolistas with stylishly long hair squatting in the front and the others oozing machismo and confidence standing in the back row. Although my impoverished college circumstances were more befitting of a picaresque novel, I managed to scrounge a few Spanish pesetas and purchased a soccer magazine with Amancio on the cover. Thus began a serious relationship with both the Spanish Liga and European soccer.
During this time, iconic foreign players roamed the countryside—mostly in the big cities of Madrid and Barcelona. Spaniards were mesmerized by the play of the two Dutch Barca players, Johan Cruyff, the Striker, and midfielder Johan Neeskens. Real Madrid trotted out their own token foreigners—left-back Paul Breitner from Germany and defensive midfielder Roberto Martinez from Argentina. It was all a great build up to an encounter between the two teams now known as El Clasico.
But enough of my heroes from yesteryear. Let’s get back to my favorite subject—ME!
My roommate in Madrid for a few weeks was Patrick, an American from Youngstown, Ohio who had just completed a summer course in Guadalajara, Mexico. Patrick soon found lodging accommodations more to his liking elsewhere and met Alberto, a young Brazilian from Casa do Brasil, a dormitory residence in Moncloa, not only favored by Brazilian students studying in Madrid but within walking distance from the university. Patrick introduced me to Alberto who invited me to attend one of their weekly fútbol matches against various Spanish teams from the Complutense.
“Bring some sporting gear, just in case,” the curly haired Brazilian smiled.
That Saturday I showed up at the ‘hard as a rock’ dirt soccer field where a contingent of skilled Spanish players was taking the field. Alberto was desperate saying one of the Brazilians was AWOL from a party the night before and their team was down a man. “Can you play?”
“Not very well,” I pleaded as he pulled me onto the field and suggested I stay in one spot (center left).
“If the ball comes your way kick it back to the Spanish side,” he winked.
As the game started, I felt as if I were standing still. I had never seen athletes move so quickly. I felt vulnerable and lonely at my designated position. But that soon changed. One of the Brazilian forwards took the ball on the far-right side of the field and raced into the Spanish half drawing a pair of Spanish defenders with him. Like a lemming I drifted away from my position and followed several teammates toward the Spanish goal. What happened next is still hazy…a blur. My teammates’ collision with the Spanish backs took on the appearance of a rugby scrum. Out of the corner of my eye I saw defenders bearing down on our trepidatious forward who booted the ball with such force, it was heard throughout the pitch. It was a crossing pass but to whom?
It’s been almost fifty years, but I can still remember blacking out, feeling as if I had been mugged with a severe pain radiating from my skull. There were screams of joy in Portuguese and curses in Spanish and, when the dust settled, my teammates picked me up off the ground and embraced the “norteamericano.” I was groggy but relieved nobody else would pile on top of me.
“Unbelievable,” they screamed. “Incrivel!”
It was Alberto who explained what had just happened.
“You scored a goal! I thought you didn’t play soccer.”
I shook my bruised head, “no, hardly…”
“Meu Deus, it was one of the prettiest headers I’ve ever seen!”
If I had to explain what happened in a court of law, I’d say something like this, “I saw our forward streak downfield with the ball. As he crossed the ball I suddenly looked back toward the Spanish goal and lost consciousness. When I came to, I hurt all over especially above my right eye. The witnesses told me the ball bounced off my head through the Spanish wall of defenders and past their bearded goalie into the upper right corner of the net.
However, by the end of the match, both sides knew the “header,” the greatest goal I ever scored, was an accident, a fluke! My soccer skills were exposed for all to see—they were non-existent. I was a basketball player pretending to play the most popular sport on the planet.
Although Alberto invited me to return and play again, I decided then and there to retire from the sport.
There was no way I could ever duplicate the one in a million goal. However, maybe, just maybe, the players that day passed down to their children or grandchildren the story of the American player whose improbable goal had everybody fooled for a few minutes. Perhaps, just possibly, one of these offspring went on to play in a World Cup!
–-Kenneth Strange Jr. is a former FBI agent, PI, and author of “It’s Your Camino: One Couple’s 500-Mile Pilgrimage Across Spain.” He is also a rabid soccer fan having visited soccer stadiums in Argentina (Boca Junior ‘La Bombonera’) and Brazil (FC Flamengo).
 The Emperor
 North American Soccer League (1968-1984)
 The Red One
 The Indians. This could be construed today as a derogatory reference to a team which featured many South Americans.
 Brooklyn, New York
 Atletico Madrid were nicknamed the Red and Whites
 Soccer’s First Division in Spain
 Nickname for Barcelona football club
 An area in Madrid
 University of Madrid
 Soccer field: the word originated in England
 Incredible in Portuguese
 My God