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GOAL-GETTER : Campos’ Colorful Style and Outgoing Personality Have Made Him a Budding Celebrity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is only a chain-link fence that protects Jorge Campos from the onslaught. A few strands of wire that keep him and the hundreds of fans--most of them young women and girls--apart.

But the fence can’t stop the sound.

“Jorge, over here.”

“Jorge, please.”

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“Jorge, we love you.”

Campos grins the boyish grin that sets off another round of teenage screams. It’s tough being an idol on both sides of the border--all that money, all that fame, all that attention.

He is standing outside the locker room at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, in front of a half-circle of out-thrust microphones and tape recorders. Reporters, as usual, are hanging onto his every word, even if his English is hesitant and uncertain.

He looks the part, this Los Angeles Galaxy and Mexico national team star. Just look at how he is dressed. Black loafers with silver buckles, blue jeans, a long-sleeved white shirt and that tie.

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“Did you design that?” someone asks.

“No, it was a present,” Campos says of the green, purple, blue and yellow creation.

Campos and color go hand in hand. If his Galaxy uniform these days is not as loud as his uniforms of the past--he recently has favored a fluorescent lime green outfit that probably glows in the dark--then why not make a statement with his neckwear?

Image is everything, and no player in recent years has capitalized as much on his appearance as this 29-year-old surfer, horseback rider and goalkeeper from Acapulco.

And now Jorgemania, once confined largely to Mexico, has arrived in the United States.

It helps explain the extraordinary crowds the Galaxy is attracting at the Rose Bowl and on the road.

Campos is a hot ticket.

That is why, after Los Angeles has beaten San Jose, the fans, instead of heading home, are pressed against the fence. Mothers, who have dressed their children Campos-style in bright orange or pink or lime green, jostle with wide-eyed teens clutching pens and scraps of paper. Trying to catch a glimpse of Campos, trying to hear what he is saying, trying to grab his attention, trying to get his autograph.

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Trying to be a part of the dream Campos is living.

“Jorge, aqui.”

“Jorge, por favor.”

“Jorge, te amanos.”

*

Major League Soccer made Jorge Campos the first foreign player it signed. There was never any doubt as to why, just as there was no doubt as to which team he would play for.

“He was our first international player,” said Sunil Gulati, MLS deputy commissioner. “We thought [signing Campos] was extraordinarily important then and, frankly, I think it’s even more so now.

“Jorge’s been very important to the league and to the team in many ways. Back then, we wanted to send a message about [acquiring] an attacking, entertaining player, and even as a goalkeeper he does that, which is not easy to do.

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“And we wanted a Hispanic player. We obviously knew that in L.A. he would be a draw. But I think he’s crossing over markets now. I wouldn’t call it general market appeal yet, but it’s getting there.

“I don’t think at this point that I’m ready to say we’re going to see a [Michael] Jordan-type effect across the league whenever Jorge is playing, but he’s certainly been a big part of our success in a number of games, both home and away.”

Campos’ impact on the field is visible to everyone. After 10 games, he leads the league with a 1.01 goals-against average. But Danny Villanueva Jr., the Galaxy’s general manager, looks beyond statistics when assessing Campos’ value.

“The effect he has on our young players is the one I really appreciate the most,” Villanueva said. “The guy has a playful yet very self-assured manner. I think that gives the young guys a whole lot of confidence and lifts them up.

“That’s an intangible. It’s something about the way he is, his manner. You just can’t replicate that. Either you have it or you don’t.”

In games, Campos puts on a serious face, at least until the Galaxy--unbeaten in its first 10 games--takes the lead. After that, the clown in him emerges. He dives and rolls and scrambles about the net, swings off the crossbar or runs far upfield with the ball. All in the name of entertainment.

The defenders playing in front of him used to visibly panic when he tried such tricks. Now they know what to expect and how to work with him so that the crowd stays entertained and the opponent stays frustrated.

And whenever the Galaxy scores, Campos races the length of the field to be part of the celebration.

It’s a game, after all. It should be fun.

*

It is breakfast time, or a little past. Half a dozen sportswriters are waiting at a Pasadena restaurant for Campos. Like many stars, he is running a bit late.

Finally, he arrives. The other restaurant guests ignore him. The busboys, however, do double-takes, pointing and whispering. It’s him. No, it’s not. Yes, it is. Service at the Campos table is swift.

“Sorry I late,” he begins, pulling up a chair.

For the next two hours, aided by a couple of Galaxy employees who help him over the more difficult hurdles in the English language, Campos fields questions as easily and adeptly as he snares the shots of opposing forwards.

He answers all of them, not sullenly, even though he has been asked them a hundred times before, but cheerfully.

His patience is surprising. This is a day off. There is no training and the beach is waiting. But Campos stays until the final question is answered.

The impression, too, is that serious as Campos might try to be, there is an imp below the surface, just waiting to get out. He can’t hide the twinkle in his eyes for long. That grin keeps reappearing. This is a man enjoying life to the fullest. This is a little boy who can’t believe his good fortune.

Gradually, a picture of the player and the person begins to form.

He was born in Acapulco on Oct. 15, 1966, and returns there frequently, even during the Galaxy season. His family was relatively well off and owned a ranch where young Jorge learned to ride.

He grew up playing several sports, among them baseball, basketball and volleyball. But it was in soccer that he made his name, and it was soccer that eventually earned him a ticket to Mexico City and a high-paying position between the posts for the Pumas of UNAM.

His colorful style and outgoing personality, combined with solid athletic credentials, soon made him a star. He was so good, so versatile, that former Mexico World Cup coach Niguel Mejia Baron, now his club coach at Atlante in the Mexican first division, allows him to play two positions--goalkeeper and forward, depending on the team’s need.

He has done the same thing once for the Galaxy and probably will do so again.

Success in Mexico made it difficult to leave, but, after playing here in World Cup ’94, Campos said he was determined to come to the United States.

“I like to take risks,” he said. “That is the way I live my life and the way I play my game. I talked to Sunil [Gulati] about MLS. I thought it was a good idea. The higher the risk, the higher the gain.”

And how does he like Los Angeles?

“Muy bonito,” he said, then switched languages. “Pretty nice. Everything OK. Is good. It is nice for me. Different than Mexico City. The beach is near.”

Ah, yes, the beach. If truth be told, surfing, not soccer, is Jorge Campos’ first love.

“I like the ocean,” he says, which explains why he chose to live in West Los Angeles rather than near the Rose Bowl. It’s not Acapulco, but it’s not bad.

Does he feel pressure at being one of the league’s marquee players? Does he worry about failing?

Not a chance.

“All the world ask, ‘You have a pressure?’ ” he said. “Yes, I have pressure always when I go to play. But is more pressure when I go to surfing and thinking there is the sharks, maybe.”

At the end of the MLS season, Campos will return to Mexico and play once again for Atlante. The Mexican season will overlap the start of the next MLS season, but Gulati said Campos’ contract makes him available during the overlap to whichever team needs him more.

If Atlante is in the playoffs, he will be in Mexico City. If not, he will be in Los Angeles.

After two months, Campos likes the promise shown by soccer’s growth in the United States.

“In all the leagues in the world, four team or five is the best because they pay a lot of money for players,” he said. “They have the best players in the world.

“In the United States, I think later is coming many players. Depending what team pay a lot of money. In two or three years, I think is very good here.”

Today, Campos will try another new trick at the Rose Bowl. He wants to play for Mexico against the United States at 12:30 p.m. in the U.S. Cup ’96 tournament finale, then for the Galaxy against the Tampa Bay Mutiny in a key MLS game between conference leaders.

It is not something that has been tried before. It is a risk. Which is why, if he is allowed, he wants to do it.

He wouldn’t be Jorge Campos, otherwise.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Soccer Today

U.S. CUP

* United States vs. Mexico

* Time: 12:30 p.m.

* TV: Channel 7

* Radio: None

MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER

* Tampa Bay

vs. Galaxy

* Time: 3:30 p.m.

* TV: None

* Radio: KTNQ (1020)


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