Saint Stephen’s Tower doesn’t ring many bells with most tourists who visit London, until they find out that it’s the tower which houses probable the most famous bell in the world: Big Ben. Similarly, the name Manuel Caceres Artesero will not ring many bells with many people, even perhaps to the thousands who have shaken his hand or posed next to him for one of the many photos that he smilingly and uncomplainingly accedes to.
However once you put a large black beret on his head and a big drum in his hands and place him on the terraces of a football stadium anywhere in the world, then there are few people in Spain (or a lot of other places) who would not recognise ‘Manolo, el del bombo’.
Manolo has earned his reputation as being the Spanish team’s player number 12; the one who is always there to raise the spirits of the Spanish national team and its supporters when needed.
Manolo’s popular bar/museum can be found (where else?) next to Valencia F.C.’s football stadium, and is always packed on match days (any match) as supporters flock there to see the game (and pose for a photo with Manolo) on one of the bar’s many TV screens, indoors or out.
I found him there when Valencia were playing away to Athletic de Bilbao one Saturday afternoon, and he told me his story. I have to admit that, having seen him on TV, I was expecting some kind of egocentric clown, but in fact I was impressed by his honesty, sincerity and simplicity, and his kind patience in dealing disinterestedly with the many people who wanted his photo or autograph.
He also gave me a couple of free beers, which will never fail to make my articles spill over with favourable adjectives.
Despite his fame throughout Valencia, Manolo was born in Ciudad Real and brought up in the city of Huesca, Aragon. His first connection with Valencia was in 1970 when he came here on his honeymoon.
He remembers Huesca as being a very musical city and that spectators would frequently take musical instruments to the matches to cheer on the local side. From the age of 18 he got into the habit of taking a drum along to the games. His pilgrimage with the Spanish national team started at the end of the seventies when he went to Cyprus. He immediately remembered the score (0-3) as he frequently did throughout our conversation.
At the beginning he travelled the hard way, frequently hitch-hiking around the world (not the easiest thing with a large drum) although today, in recognition of his status as Spain’s number one fan, he is normally given a free seat on the team plane.
I asked him whether he made money out of all this, surely his fame would sell? Today, David Beckham spends more time advertising fizzy drinks than missing vital penalties, and even the least photogenic Real Madrid player can still make a few extra Euros advertising anti-acne cream.
He remembered that a magazine had in fact once given him 1,300,000 pesetas to take a group of musicians to the world cup in Italy, but that he’d ended up spending 1,600,000. What would be considered an economic catastrophe by some is, however, shrugged off by him.
Of course, being a football fanatic can bring problems and for Manolo the problems arrived in 1982 when, on returning home from seeing Spain play in Austria, he found that his wife had left him and taken their four children with him.
That’s now ancient history of course. Today he has re-made his life with a new relationship and a new young daughter.
Publicity and Public Relations seem to be the ideal world for him and he had worked in various jobs in the bar and restaurant industries, including quite a lot of work in Benidorm when, while hitch-hiking from Alicante to Barcelona in 1982, looking for work, he got a lift to Valencia from an ambulance carrying the corpse of a pilot who had been killed while flying an advertising banner around the beaches. Fate had brought him to what would become his new home.
In the same year that he separated he set up his first bar; the present one which is filled with photographs of football scenes, and his own favourite, one of him meeting the King, Juan Carlos I, was set up in 1989.
The bar has become quite a magnet for sports lovers; so much so that there is now a regular visit from groups of British tourists from Benidorm every Thursday, and who then eat in his bar after a visit to the football stadium.
But for him the bar is a weekend diversion to bring lovers of football together and to finance his true passion: his trips to watch the Spanish football team.
So far he has followed them to seven World Cups, and his ambition is to double that and to retire with twelve world cups under his belt, (a challenging enough ambition for someone born in 1949!) although I suspect that if he makes it to number twelve, someone will have an easy job convincing him to go for number thirteen. Maybe he’s just superstitious.
Someone once said that “football is life, the rest is detail” and football can certainly rule the waking hours of people like Manolo. But, as he says himself, he used to sign bank credits, now he signs autographs.
In the film ‘Fever Pitch’, based on the Nick Hornby novel, the actor Colin Firth points out that football is like a family, but one where you don’t have to justify anything and you are accepted immediately. Manolo comes from a big family, having six brothers and sisters, and of course he has five children of his own, although he recalls being unable to attend the birth of the first-born, as he was stationed in the Sahara doing his National service at the time in the days before paternal leave.
Today, perhaps his greatest regret is that he spends so much time facing the public trying to get them going during the matches, that he often misses the goals. And yet, it’s a price he’s prepared to pay, and a Spanish game wouldn’t be the same without his unmistakeable figure.
At a time when others get their three seconds of glory by running onto the pitch stark naked but for a toilet seat or false beard, Manolo has earned his recognition the hard way.