By Mike Woitalla
Watching Jorge Campos navigate San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf reminds one of what made him such a delightful soccer star.
During his futile search for a Starbucks -- he settles for a Peet’s -- he's always smiling and cracking jokes. Later in the day, he's signing autographs in San Jose and enjoying himself as much as the children who idolize the Mexican goalkeeping legend.
It’s been nearly a decade since Campos retired and we’ve not seen another goalkeeper like him. He played like an 11th field player while the world’s best sweeper-keeper, a now bygone concept. His 16-year career included two World Cups (1994-1998) and the boost he gave MLS, when it launched in 1996, rivals the influence David Beckham had on the league. At 5-foot-9, he compensated for size with agility, anticipation, speed and smarts -- an inspiration for all young keepers not blessed with height.
But what one misses most about a player like Jorge Campos -- especially in the goalkeeper position where there’s so much barking and grimacing -- is the infectious joy he displayed.
“It’s a game!” Campos says. “It’s hard sometimes. There’s a lot of pressure. I always tried to enjoy myself and usually did.”
Upon retiring, Campos served as Mexico’s goalkeeping coach at the 2006 World Cup. He currently lives in Los Angeles and commutes to Mexico City for his work as an Azteca TV commentator. He’s in the Bay Area making appearances for Alianza de Futbol, which for a decade has conducted talents searches for young Latino talent in the USA.
I ask him what advice he’d give to young players …
“Enjoy yourself! … Have good character. Practice everyday. Take care of yourself. Go to sleep early and wake up early.”
Advice for youth coaches:
“The first thing is to let them play. The most important thing is that they’re enjoying themselves.”
Advice for parents:
“Parents are always asking me, ‘Can you watch my boy play? Do you think he can go pro? Do you think he can get a scholarship?’ … They should be more concerned that their children are having fun.
“I go to youth games, U-10, U-11 -- in the United States and Mexico -- and the parents are screaming, ‘Go up! Go back! Do this! Do that!’”
He finishes mimicking the parents’ gestures and shakes his head.
Campos grew up in Acapulco, and when he describes his childhood sports besides soccer -- surfing baseball, basketball -- he acts them out despite the fact that his English is good. After he tosses the imaginary basketball, he recalls his youth soccer days:
“My father created a soccer team [Deportivo Campos] and I played with my older brothers. Goalkeeper and forward. We also played on our own a lot, often on the beach. My brothers helped me a lot.”
At age 16, he left for Mexico City to try out as a goalkeeper for UNAM Pumas but was deemed too short and sent home:
“My father said, ‘First, you study for a couple years and then go back.’ So I did and I practiced a lot. I practiced on the beach. Jumping in the sand helped give me spring.”
When he returned to Pumas at age 18, he was offered a spot on the third team.
“So I practiced even more on my own. In the morning, in the afternoon. I shot against the wall and made saves. I found people to take shots on me.”
By age 20, he was starting for Pumas, for which he also had stints at forward, and in 1991, at age 24, he played the first of 125 games for Mexico. In 1993, he helped Mexico, in its first Copa America appearance, finish second to Argentina. I asked him if he agrees that the Tri of the mid-1990s was Mexico’s best national team ever.
“Mexico is better now,” he says. “We now have more players playing in Europe.”
When will Mexico win the World Cup?
“I hope next year!” he says, punctuating yet another sentence with the optimistic Campos smile.
Watch highlights of Jorge Campos and Mexico during his El Tri career HERE.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)