|By Tom Simpson|
Some years before he died in 1995, during the years of his youth development at Osasuna in Pamplona, Spain, Eduardo Yoldi told his brother one day, “there is nothing in the world better than to be the goalkeeper for Osasuna, not even an astronaut.” Shortly after he revealed his dream, Eduardo Yoldi realized it when became the goalkeeper for Osasuna at the age of 19.
However, Eduardo’s personal luck wasn’t good. His untimely death would be all the more tragic because everyone who met Eduardo felt lucky to have done so. Eduardo was the shining star of his family, his friends, his team, and of his beloved Pamplona. His light shone brightly, not just as the great goalkeeper he was, but because Eduardo had what few of us have: an uncompromising love of life, the passion to live it to the fullest, and the uncanny ability to make others feel that our world is a great place to live.
Eduardo’s luck ran out the first time during his first year as Osasuna’s goalkeeper. He trashed his knee, tearing his anterior cruciate and his medial collateral ligaments. Surgery failed to fix the knee the first time. After a second surgery it healed, but so much time passed that Eduardo’s restart at Osasuna met many difficulties. Foremost was Osasuna’s concern the knee might not hold up. Osasuna dropped him from the roster. His career hit a low. He tried coming back through lower level clubs, but the obstacles he faced gave him pause and he rethought his direction in life. He returned to school, and his educational aspirations brought him to San Francisco.
After coming to the Bay Area in the early 1990s, Eduardo’s life changed in ways he enjoyed and deserved. He was admitted to Berkeley’s school of business where he studied for and ultimately completed a Master’s Degree in Business. I met him in the last year of his studies. Ståle Søybe, a Seals player and the greatest player to bless the USF Dons program in the 1990s told me about Eduardo. Ståle is a no bullshit kind a guy who had played in a pickup game with Eduardo in Marin. He put it to me as plainly as he could. “I have just met the best goalkeeper I’ve ever played with.” It was a compelling testimony from a credible witness. I asked Ståle to introduce me and after the introduction asked Eduardo if he’d ever thought about giving the game a try again. Eduardo gave it a thought and said he’d like to give it a go.
Although Eduardo was highly gifted and played with a passion I have seen in few players, he wasn’t an immediate success. After all he hadn’t played for a few years. He had put on weight and his sharpness was gone. But this part of the story ends well. Within a few months the weight began to trim and the sharpness was on its way back. By the time the Seals 1995 season started it was quite clear why Osasuna made the teenage Eduardo their goalkeeper.
In 1995, the Seals won 17 games in league play, lost only once and were the division champions for the third year in a row. They went on to beat the Colorado Stampede for the Regional championship and headed to Richmond, Virginia to play the Richmond Kickers for the National Championship. That game was the crowning glory of Eduardo’s comeback. He blocked everything conceivable and inconceivable during the match. He had catlike quickness and moved like a demon within the six yard area. He didn’t allow a goal during 90 minutes of regulation play and 30 minutes of overtime.
Some of the shots were point blank. He was impenetrable and we played with a confidence that no one, absolutely no one, would ever score on us. Eduardo shut out a heavily favored opponent, considered the strongest team in the USISL, for 120 minutes. The highly vaulted Kickers had 12 players who would move into the newly formed MLS the following season. Richie Williams, Brian Kamler, and Rob Ukrop, the 6’5” scoring leader and MVP of the USISL were just a few many starters who graced that roster. Although a 5-4 shootout was to spoil Eduardo’s chance for a National Championship ring, his performance put Eduardo front and center for consideration for the new MLS. Dave Dir, the MLS director of player development, who was shortly thereafter named one of the inaugural head coaches of the MLS, approached me after the game.
Dave told me he really liked a number of our players. He mentioned Marquis White, Tim Weaver, and the great CJ Brown. Two years later, all three would be drafted in the top four of the 1998 draft. Guillermo Jara also caught his interest and signed an MLS contract for the 1996 season. Dave mentioned a number of the other players as well, but he reserved his special comments for our goalkeeper, Eduardo Yoldi. “That guy (referring to Eduardo) we want (in the MLS) more than anyone else.”
When Eduardo got word of the MLS interest, he felt his soccer career had come full circle. He was once again “in” the game. He might never again play for his beloved Osasuna, but he would play, it seemed, for an MLS team in the top professional league in the United States. That, for Eduardo, fulfilled a dream that he had never really imagined could be possible.
At the age of 27, Eduardo’s luck had reversed itself. No one was more deserving. He worked extremely hard that year to regain the form he lost 8 years earlier. But Eduardo was far more than a goalkeeper. Eduardo was as complete a human as God has dared to bless this fickle, unjust world of ours. Eduardo was handsome in a way that made men wonder, women swoon, and artists inspired. But it wasn’t his beauty that made him wonderful. That was just a teaser. His heart was of gold, his sympathy for his fellow man was unending, his empathy for those who had less than others was uncanny, his gusto for living life was unending and his capacity to swear could make a seaman blush with envy.
He was the eternal, enigmatic man, aristocrat of the heart, a plebian of manners, who drove his motorcycle with the wind, could show up unannounced at your house with a paella pan to cook you a meal, smile his way into your heart, and in the case of women, laugh his way into their bedrooms. He was as much at home enjoying a moment with a mentally retarded child as he was on the soccer pitch enjoying the glory of the game. He simply had it all, but Eduardo’s good fortune ended shortly after his return to the good graces of the game he so passionately loved.
On September 10, 1995, just 2 weeks after playing for the USISL National Championship in Richmond, Virginia, Eduardo was preparing to go home to Pamplona, to see his mother, Pilar Yoldi. He wanted to tell her personally about the great news that he would soon play in a new professional league in the United States which meant, of course, that he was to prolong his stay away from home. We were together at a soccer game at USF’s Negoesco Stadium that fateful day. He left at halftime to prepare for the next day. He took off on his motorcycle and a few minutes later, sirens could be heard just outside the stadium.
Eduardo collided with a vehicle that had turned in front of him as he crossed the intersection of Stanyan and Turk. Eduardo’s unlatched helmet flew off his head, leaving him unprotected as he shot forward off the motorcycle seat. He cracked his skull on the side of the vehicle and fell to the ground. Almost immediately, he stood again and picked up his fallen bike and just as quickly fell with his bike back to the pavement. The ambulance was there within minutes and brought him to San Francisco General Hospital, one of the top trauma centers in the United States. He was in the operating room within minutes of arrival, and in spite of their efforts, the surgeons pronounced him dead about two hours after the collision.
The outpouring of grief for our visitor to San Francisco from Spain was beyond what anyone might expect. Hundreds showed up at St. Ignatius Cathedral on the USF campus to show their respect, love, sorrow and loss for this spectacular human being. It was all spontaneous, and almost beyond the comprehension of his brother, Ignacio, or “Nacho,” as he prefers to be called. Nacho flew out from his home in Scotland to fly his brother back home to his family in Pamplona. Nacho couldn’t have anticipated just how much his brother was loved in his adopted foreign city and how profoundly the loss was felt by the community of individuals whom Eduardo had touched during his time in the Bay Area.
There were children he coached, players he played with and against, women he loved, women who loved him, there were coaches, friends from the Spanish community, and more, all gathered at the church to say goodbye to a wonderful human being who was, incidentally, the greatest goalkeeper to ever wear a Seals jersey. His number, 1, was retired permanently and his jersey given to the family to keep. Still, today, every Seals player wears sewn on his sleeve a small flag, in Spanish colors, with the letters “WUA,” for “With Us Always.”
Over 12 years have passed since Eduardo’s death. I was his “coach” as we are called in the States. “Manager” is a better term. Eduardo actually did his own coaching. In any case, I had a recent opportunity to remember Eduardo when I visited Pamplona once again on January 20, 2008. Eduardo’s Osasuna played Bilbao in a very important local “derby” for bragging rights and what the locals called a 6 point game (a win puts one team three points ahead and a loss puts the other team 3 points behind). In soccer math, that adds up to six points, but no matter, it wasn’t the points, but the pride that was on line that day. By good fortune and the generosity of Nacho, the brother of Eduardo, I was there to watch a game I would never have attended if it wasn’t for the bad fortune of our fallen, beloved hero of the game.
It was during that game that Nacho told me about Eduardo’s words, those mentioned in the beginning of this passage. As the second half started, Nacho took me from our superbly positioned seats perched about 10 rows vertically above the field near the half way line. “Come, let me show you something.” He brought me to the area immediately behind the Osasuna goal. “This is where I watched my first match and where I saw my first Osasuna goal.” He referred to many years ago when he was a small boy as is his son, Mikel, who was there that day and watched with every bit as much enthusiasm as the Yoldi men who precede him. The goal was but a few feet in front of us.
We were looking through the net. The air was filled with a mist giving a dreamy quality to game in front of us. Play had restarted and both teams just happened to have lined up in the penalty area for a set piece. The fans were crazy with anxiety. Bodies were moving chaotically in front of me, partially obscuring my vision, and occasionally allowing me glimpses of what was happening on the field. There was a free moment. I got a photo. We couldn’t stay. We were bumped and shoved. Chaos reigned. The fans were in a frenzy. This game meant everything because Bilbao is a hated rival. They “steal” Osasuna’s best all the time by offering so much that players have little choice but to leave Osasuna or stay and remain less well paid. That night number 25 of Bilbao, who had played for Osasuna the year before, was booed, jeered, and provided the most obscene gestures every time he touched the ball. When he was substituted out in the second half, the Osasuna house went berserk in a frenzy of delight that I had never before witnessed.
Eduardo told me a bit about his experience in goal for Osasuna. From behind the net, the passion of the people is palpable. When they are for you, there is nothing like it. When they are against you, your life might be in danger. “It’s no yoke (joke),” said Eduardo who illustrated his point with an anecdote from his past. One day Osasuna went to play a small town team as part of the Spanish Open Cup. Osasuna was winning the game 1-0 with five minutes to go. The opposing fans were besides themselves. Their screams filled the small stadium with a constant deafening shrill and intermittent explosions of passion from cheers to rancorous hate. They hurled anything and everything at the Osasuna players, while insults and threats poured from their mouths. Eduardo was pelted with food, rocks and bottles.
The fans, only a few feet from his net, threatened his life and that of his mother’s and every family member they could think of. When Osasuna scored the ire of the stadium population fell onto the shoulders of the referee. With only minutes remaining in the game, the referee called the captains of both teams to a brief conference while setting up a free kick. His instructions were clear. “I will not blow the whistle at the end of regulation time. If the score is still one nil, Osasuna officially wins but I will add one unofficial minute to the game to allow the home team to score.” Osasuna cooperated as instructed, permitting the host team to score. Immediately after the hosts scored this wonderful come from behind tying goal, the referee blew his whistle. The home team fans were ecstatic that their team had tied the game dramatically in the final seconds of the match. During the excitement and celebration by the home town fans, the referee and the Osasuna players quietly walked off the field to the safety of their locker rooms.
As Nacho and I were returning to our regular seats, I said something like, “this is their field of dreams” referring to the fans we had just witnessed at the goal mouth area. My comment triggered a thought in Nacho who looked at me at that moment and told me about Eduardo’s dream, the one quoted at the beginning of this brief story about the Seals greatest goalkeeper.
I was not at all miffed by the words of the youthful Eduardo restored to the present by his brother. I look forward to the day a San Francisco youth will say, “there is nothing in the world that beats playing goalkeeper for the San Francisco Seals.” When you visit Pamplona and hear the fans scream for their beloved players, see them deride their hated rivals, witness a full stadium holding their scarfs above their heads, rocking side to side and singing in unison, creating a rhythm that has more in common with our most basic tribal and anthropologically primitive inclinations, you know that Eduardo could have said nothing other than what he did say, and quite frankly we would expect absolutely nothing less of him.
Eduardo’s ashes lie humbly below soil marked with a few stones at the top of a small mountain near Pamplona. Those who visit can see in the distance the valley of Eduardo’s ancestors where they once farmed. His mother visits frequently. She has Eduardo’s sparkle in her eyes. She radiates his essence. There is no question from where Eduardo came. You know when you meet her. His father, a retired physician, struggles on a daily basis with quiet dignity to restore the meaning of his presence on our planet since losing what was so precious to him. Eduardo’s brothers move forward with their lives with purpose and determination, their rear view mirror forever filled with the vision of their lost brother. They are proud to have called him brother and know how lucky they were to have him in their lives. And what of Osasuna?
They play on, just as if the loss of Eduardo goes unnoticed. There is something cruel about the indifference of the game to those who must leave the arena, either because they can no longer meet the expectations of those who watch or for some more permanent reason, like death. No one seems to care. The game is about the excitement of the moment. The fans who attend want to know what the players can do for them today or maybe tomorrow. What was done in the past is of a different matter, for a different arena.
Tom Simpson is the coach and general manager of the SF Seals: SFSeals@gmail.com
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