Abel Rodríguez is a 41-year-old Mexican-American who waxes floors in Los Angeles for Metro Transportation. Real Madrid's José Mourinho is one of the world's most famous managers. On the face of things, the two men have nothing in common. Yet recently they became the central figures in a surreal but true buddy story that took Rodríguez behind the scenes as a member of Real Madrid's team in the biggest games of world soccer against Barcelona and Manchester United.
How did Rodríguez become Mourinho's American good luck charm and end up meeting Sir Alex Ferguson, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Maradona, Mesut Özil, Kaká and Javier (Chicharito) Hernández? For the past seven years, Rodríguez has taken two weeks of vacation every summer to work for free chasing down errant balls and doing support work for Mourinho's teams when they train in Los Angeles in the preseason.
It's no small effort. Every day during his unpaid "vacation," Rodríguez leaves his house in Fontana, Calif., at 5 a.m., drives to the UCLA training site and spends the rest of the day setting up the practice field and helping with anything Mourinho and his staff need. He arrives home at 11 p.m., gets a few hours of sleep and starts over at 5 a.m. the next morning.
"I've been following European soccer since I was a kid," said Rodríguez, who moved to the L.A. area from Mexico at age 8. But he had never traveled to Europe, and he'd always wanted to attend a Real Madrid-Barcelona
But there were two barriers standing in his way. One, he had been saving for a vacation for his family, including his wife, Olga, and their daughters, Michelle (17), Eliana (13) and Paola (10). And two, he didn't have any contact information for Mourinho or any of his top lieutenants.
"I was really indecisive about going," Rodríguez said, "but the encouragement came from my wife, who said, 'You should go. It's always been your dream.' My oldest daughter came and said, 'You should go.'"
And so he did. On the morning of Feb. 28, Rodríguez arrived in Madrid and showed up unannounced at Real Madrid's Valdebebas training complex. He didn't have a ticket for the game. He didn't even have a hotel reservation. And when the security guy at the guards' shack refused to let him in, Rodríguez was forced to sit on the side of the road. It had snowed the night before, and the conditions were frigid.
"Thank God I was wearing the big coat my wife told me to take," he said. "My toes were frozen."
Yet Rodríguez still couldn't get in. He sat on the roadside for the next five hours.
"It was a miracle that I saw him," Mourinho said. "I saw Abel seated on the road outside the training ground. I was leaving in my assistant Rui Faria's car, and there are always 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.
"I came to visit you guys," Rodríguez replied. "It's my first time in Europe, and my dream has been to come and see games. I was hoping to see
"But there are no more tickets," Mourinho said. "Where are you staying?"
"I haven't done anything about that," Rodríguez said. "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."
That was when the magic happened. Mourinho called an assistant and arranged for Rodríguez to have his own room at the fancy hotel where Real Madrid was staying before the Barcelona game. Mourinho instructed him to get some rest at the hotel and meet him at the training site the next morning. That evening, the night before
As Rodríguez explained the story of his family wanting him to visit Europe, Mourinho stopped him. Real Madrid was leaving for England and its Champions League Round of 16 decider against Manchester United the day after the Barça game. Rodríguez was planning to return to L.A., but Mourinho would have none of it.
"I told him, 'No way, you come to Manchester with us and work as a kit man,'" Mourinho said. "'You help us and you live a bigger dream, a Champions League match from the inside!'"
Rodríguez said he'd love to, but he would pay for everything.
Mourinho shook his head and smiled. "When you're with me in Europe, you don't pay for s---."
Rodríguez started crying at that point -- tears of joy. He raced up to his hotel room and grabbed his passport. Mourinho took a picture of it with his cell-phone camera and sent it to the club's organizers to put Rodríguez on the travel list.
You never know when karma will come back and reward you for something. For seven summers Rodríguez worked for free for Real Madrid, even when the club was willing to pay him for his efforts in Los Angeles. Now he was about to experience the thrill of a lifetime.
The next four days were a whirlwind. On March 2, Rodríguez watched Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-1 in Estadio Bernabéu. The club gave him a good seat, and afterward Rodríguez visited the locker room, where he had his picture taken next to Cristiano Ronaldo and Maradona, who'd attended the game. (For good measure, he got another one with Maradona's girlfriend.)
Then came the trip to Manchester. Rodríguez was a member of the Real Madrid team this time, working as one of the equipment managers and dressed in full team gear. He helped assemble the bags for the flight to England, and he worked the team's training session the day before the game at Manchester City's Etihad Stadium. By now, Mourinho and the Real Madrid players were viewing him as a good-luck charm, going so far as to rub his stomach for positive vibes.
On March 5 at Old Trafford -- the Theatre of Dreams -- Rodríguez fulfilled one of his own lifelong dreams, and in doing so became one of the great Zelig figures in world soccer. His family and friends in L.A. saw him walk off the field next to Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson at one point. You can even catch a glimpse of Rodríguez at 0:31 of this YouTube clip next to the wall in the pregame tunnel to the left of Ronaldo.
A few seconds before that, United star Chicharito Hernández had pulled Rodríguez aside to tell him he'd give him his game-worn jersey after the final whistle. (Unknown to Rodríguez, Mourinho had told Hernández about his Mexican-born friend and asked if he could do him the favor.)
"These people treated me like I was part of the team," Rodríguez said. "This is something I'll tell my grandkids."
Real Madrid ended up advancing, of course, in a game that will be remembered by many for the controversial red card given to United's Nani, a call that changed the match. But even though Ferguson was so angry afterward that he refused to speak at the press conference, Rodríguez saw firsthand that he was still willing to share a post-game drink with Mourinho. Said Rodríguez, "He came out of the dressing room with a cup of wine in his hand, and he told me, 'Tell José that the wine is ready, and tell him to hurry up.'"
"You are true gentlemen," Rodríguez said to the two managers, and Ferguson winked and even took a moment to sign the American's book of pictures with top European players and coaches.
There were other memorable moments after the game that day. Outside United's locker room, Hernández followed up on his pledge and gave Rodríguez his game-worn jersey with a personalized dedication on it.
"The first thing he said to me was, 'How long have you been working for Real Madrid?'" Rodríguez said. "I said, 'The truth is I don't work for them.' I explained to him what happened, and he looked shocked at the beginning. But he said, 'You know what? That's amazing.'"
Back in Madrid's locker room, fullback Marcelo asked Rodríguez if he'd take his jersey over to United's locker room and try to trade it for Robin van Persie's. Rodríguez executed the exchange with a United trainer but decided to have some fun with Marcelo, hiding RVP's shirt behind his back and telling the Brazilian: "He said he'll exchange the jersey with someone else, but not you."
"Really?" Marcelo asked.
"I'm kidding," came the reply. "Here's the jersey."
In the end, Rodríguez took plenty of keepsakes of his own back to Los Angeles. They were gifts from people who knew his story: jerseys from Chicharito, Özil, Kaká and Michael Essien, as well as Kaká's cleats and even one of the match balls from the game.
But the memories are worth even more, he said. On Real Madrid's victorious team flight back to the Spanish capital, Mourinho was moving between the aisles, sharing glasses of wine with members of the delegation, and every so often he'd stop and point and wink at his friend Abel, the good-luck charm from America.
"Everybody at Real Madrid was happy," Mourinho said, "because they know him from preseason and know he is a hard worker and a great person. He was with us and we won both matches! People were saying he has to stay."
On the night the plane from Manchester landed back in Madrid, Rodríguez said, he didn't get the chance to say thank you to Mourinho. Ever the worker, he finished his duties as an equipment guy unloading the plane.
He still doesn't have any contact information for Mourinho. So this story is his way of saying thank you.