An AFP photographer’s up-close take on Croatia’s W. Cup joy

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 realized 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.

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 realize there was a photographer buried under them in that mountain. When they realize 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 realize it was a viral phenomenon.”        -AFP

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