By Andrew Misra
There’s something about the Goal films which hit the footballing world hard after 2005 (maybe not so much the third incarnation). There’s something unique about how fondly they are remembered by a whole generation of football fans – you’re probably smiling just thinking about them now. For most, that something is the brilliant Santiago Muñez, a wonderful player and a nice, humble chap. He’s a bit of a virtual cult hero and there have been attempts aplenty to recreate his legend in the worlds of Football Manager and FIFA videogame series. Sadly, and whisper it quietly, it is highly unlikely that Muñez actually exists. But his was a career all about the realisation of a dream – so why can’t we dream too? Who was he? What sort of player was the Mexican hotshot? Let’s take a look…
The light filters through the blinds in a darkened room situated in the centre of Spain. A huge LCD screen entertains a small group of thoughtful, serious-looking men. Amongst them of course is Florentino Pérez, his clear-rimmed rectangular spectacles focussed absolutely on the next target for his Galácticos project. They speak slowly, deliberately and discreetly as they observe the fleet-footed forward dancing across the screen in action for Newcastle United. There aren’t many words exchanged largely because there aren’t many words that can justify Santiago Muñez at his best. The Toon faithful had long since discovered that.
As the footage ends, the lights reveal the dossiers scattered across the table. It’s no longer a question of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when’ the Mexican will sign for Real Madrid. His teammate and close friend Gavin Harris had already switched the River Tyne for the elegant boulevards and the Buen Retiro of the Spanish capital. Pérez et al. had set their eyes on reuniting the forwards at the Bernabéu. But for all this to even be contemplated took a troublesome, tumultuous journey for Muñez…
Muñez grew up in the dregs of one of the poorest Mexican towns, Oaxacaro. Besides the graffiti adorning the shacks in which people live, there was little colour in this, the dustiest and greyest of upbringings. The game of football was a distraction for many a young boy in the town but for a ten-year-old Santiago it was more than that. It was a passion, an art yet a science, a pastime turned religion which drove him like a primal force.
But it was other forces that soon after uprooted him from the town. It was off to the perhaps not-so-bright lights of Los Angeles via a pickup truck, which saw him and his family barely evade immigration police and illegally pass across the border into the USA via a hole in the fence.
Ten years on, the family remained in Los Angeles as poor illegal immigrants. The twenty-year-old Santiago still lived with his younger brother, father and grandmother. He worked a menial job in a Chinese restaurant as well as part-time with his father in a gardening business.
While his father Herman was moody, his brother Julio and grandmother Mercedes were forever kind. Crucially, it wasn’t cars that Mercedes loved, but football, and she loved it like few other grandmothers do. She understood the game and had more than an inkling of the ability her oldest grandson possessed.
It was with her encouragement that Muñez continued to play for the amateur club Americanos on the dusty tracks of LA. Just as there was not a blade of green grass to be seen, neither was there a green card to be found in the Hispanic-filled team. Santiago was always the undisputed star of the side, but this became especially the case after two of their other players of note were picked up by immigration officials.
His own escape route was carved via a chance occurrence which saw the star player spotted by Glen Foy, a Scottish former Newcastle United player turned talent scout. Foy was visiting his daughter Val, who was living in southern California at the time. After a few seconds watching Muñez dazzle the opposition with an array of trademark roulette turns, jinks and dummies, the hard to please Scotsman uttered that the Mexican was “quite a player”.
Such is the strength of the hunch that Foy had over Muñez, he wasted no time in setting about trying to arrange a trial for the Mexican at his beloved Newcastle. In his excitement, he famously paid no attention to the time difference between California and England, waking up then Newcastle manager Erik Dornhelm at 3am to excitedly tell his former employer that he had found a pearl of a Californian gem and that he must promise him a trial.
Fondly recalling that phone conversation, Foy remarked about how he convinced Dornhelm to agree:
“I told Erik that I don’t dazzle easily, the last time it happened it was a young kid called Jermain Defoe“
With that, the Swede agreed. But given the illustrious career that the Mexican went on to have, perhaps even Defoe would agree that Foy undersold his charge initially.
Getting to the trial was a major challenge in itself for Muñez. His work hardened father baulked at the idea that he should chase his dream. Herman subsequently thought nothing of using his son’s savings to buy a pickup truck and start the family’s own gardening business.
If it hadn’t been for grandmother Mercedes flogging her jewellery and hoarded lifetime savings, Muñez would never have made it to that trial, Gavin Harris may never have made it to the World Cup with England and Los Blancos might never have won La Decima – their 10th Champions League trophy, in 2006. They could have been waiting almost a decade longer for that particular accolade.
Baptism of fire at Newcastle
Mal Braithwaite, the first team coach of Newcastle at the time, recalls in his strong Geordie accent how ineffective Muñez had been at his trial with the reserves:
“The ball kept bouncing off him. He clearly wasn’t used to the wet, muddy conditions in the North East! We saw one or two flashes of brilliance but you can see that from any young player. It’s fair to say that we weren’t convinced (by Muñez) after that initial sighting, but Glen Foy was convinced that we should give him another chance. We did and well, the rest is history, as they say.”
It was a sharp culture shock for the Latin American forward, who was tested physically and mentally by battle-hardened reserve team veterans, particularly the much-vaunted Hughie McGowan. The sharp winds and biting cold worsened Santiago’s pre-existing asthma and the popular view of the time was that players of his mould simply were not fit for English football.
Braithwaite told Muñez in no uncertain terms that he doubted that he had “the pace or stamina for the English game”. What the Geordie did concede to his colleagues though was that the Mexican clearly had the skill. It didn’t take long for that much to become apparent. His most obvious talent was always his knack to dribble past anyone with the ball at his feet, but his technique was also impeccable, finishing deadly and he retained the penchant for the spectacular that Foy had seen back on those Californian dustbowls. The main attribute that was lacking was aerial ability, something that future international teammate Javier Hernandez would have in abundance. If it wasn’t for those deficiencies in the air, Muñez would’ve been the complete forward.
None of those traits, though, made Muñez predestined for success at Newcastle. He had to apply himself not just physically in the gym, but mentally too. Former teammate Alan Shearer noted how the Mexican went from barely being able to leg press 10% of the Englishman’s standard load to matching him kilo for kilo within two months. “The guy was ferociously dedicated and he should actually have taken my place in the starting eleven much sooner”, he said.
It was the versatility across both forward and wide midfield areas that Muñez demonstrated to Dornhelm that convinced him he could be trusted in the starting lineup. He was gradually introduced to the first team on the right wing – certainly not the best place for his dribbling, but Santiago adapted well.
Finding his feet
Initially, the Swede thought that Muñez was too selfish on the ball. But similarly to Cristiano Ronaldo in his early days at Old Trafford, the Mexican began to show how much of a team player he really was, and that sometimes the best way he could help his side was to trust his own ability on the ball, which so often far exceeded the likes of James Milner around him.
It wasn’t long before Muñez graduated towards his preferred position in a central striking role. He worked best in a pair, as was most common back then. Whether that was with the prolific but ageing Shearer or with Harris didn’t matter too much, Muñez had the pace and instinctive touch of a natural predator and the goals flowed readily. He easily hit double figures for goals and assists in his only full season at St James’ Park. You could probably call him a false nine in more sense than one…
His free-kicks, another facet honed on that muddy training ground, came along leaps and bounds in that second season at Newcastle and were a key reason behind the determination of Pérez to secure his services. Deploying a strange mixture between a traditional Beckham-esque curling method and the ‘knuckleball’ technique perfected by Juninho Pernambucano, opposition goalkeepers so often took a fatal step the wrong way and they were done for. Before they knew it the ball had swished through the air and bulged into the corner of the net.
Santiago had been adopted as an honorary Geordie quicker than any foreign signing in recent memory. It is still staggering to remember that he was only at Newcastle for a short period of time. Many thought he would go on to challenge the likes of Shearer in both the club’s, and indeed the Premier League’s, goalscoring charts. It was heart-wrenching but the lure of Real Madrid was too much for a Latin American. The conversation between Gavin Harris and Muñez still incites rage from Newcastle fans to this day. While the latter remains a cherished hero, the former is resented for his role in depriving them of their one true Mexican love. The rest, as Braithwaite said, is history…
Usually found writing about more real-world matters, Andrew Misra is a founder of 5WFootball, presents the weekly podcast and writes regularly for the site. You can see his work for 5WF here. He also contributes to The Anfield Wrap and you can follow him on Twitter here. He also maintains a general sports blog.