AFP photographer's up-close take on the Croatian miracle

By Robin Toskin: Saturday, July 14th 2018 at 00:00 GMT +3 | World Cup 2018
[PHOTO: COURTESY]

AFP photographer Yuri Cortez has covered wars, coups, natural disasters and humanitarian crises around the world in his three-decade career.

But nothing prepared him for the 40 seconds that have brought him international fame: ending up beneath an avalanche of Croatia players celebrating the goal that sent them to the World Cup final.

Cortez was on the sidelines photographing Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time goal at Wednesday’s semi-final against England when he found himself swallowed up in the celebration, buried beneath a pile of ecstatic Croatian footballers.

When they realised he was beneath them, they helped him to his feet, asked him if he was OK and put his glasses back on his head. He even got a kiss on the cheek from defender Domagoj Vida -- an image that instantly went viral.

Ever the professional, the grinning Cortez kept his shutter clicking throughout, sending a touching series of photos that gave the world an unusually intimate look at a moment of pure football joy.

The 53-year-old El Salvador native, who caught a flight home just after the match, arrived on Thursday evening back in Mexico City, where he is AFP’s chief photographer.

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He had one hell of a story to share.

Q: How did you end up beneath that mountain of Croatian footballers?

“I was using my 400-millimeter lens, which is the one we normally use for football. Then I see the goal... I see (Mandzukic) celebrating, and I see him coming toward me. I figure my lens is going to be too long, so I grab my other camera, with the wide-angle lens. When he arrives in front of me, I start taking pictures of him. At that moment, more players arrive... then more and more. When the players from the bench arrive, this kind of avalanche throws me back, with them on top of me. Fortunately I didn’t lose my camera.

“I guess at that moment they didn’t realise there was a photographer buried under them in that mountain. When they realise I’m there, they help me up, ask me if I’m OK, and then come all the emotional moments -- handshakes, the kiss from Vida, which has become so famous...”

Q: When did you realise you’d become a celebrity?

“I had to leave right away for the airport.... That’s when I started getting call after call. My phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I figured it must be about this. But I was driving, using the GPS, there was no way I could answer the phone.

“I glanced at the screen at one point and there were hundreds of missed calls.... That’s when I started to realise it was a viral phenomenon.”

Q: You’ve covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, violent coups, devastating natural disasters -- how does this compare?

“The thing they have in common is the adrenaline rush -- you’re running on 10,000. But when your life is at risk, the situation changes, the adrenaline is different. You hear shots, explosions, and you know they’re aimed at where you are.... This is different. I never felt my life was at risk. I did get some bruises though.”

Q: Were you worried you would miss the big shot?

“No, I knew I had good material, and material that was completely different from everyone else’s, because of the situation. I just kept shooting. That’s something I’ve always planned, no matter what the situation. In war situations I always thought about that: no matter what happened, I was going to try to keep shooting.”

Q: You weren’t even supposed to be at this match. How did you end up in the right place at the right time?

“I was only supposed to cover the World Cup until July 4. That’s how it is, as teams get eliminated, you need fewer photographers. But when Mexico (the team he was following) made it through the first round... they extended my stay in Russia until July 12. And now, here I am (laughs). After what happened, we tried to extend my stay, but it wasn’t possible.... I would have loved to stay for the final. Especially after this!”

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