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Chilean football star is among 33 people trapped in mine collapse

Former international whose playing days ended before era of big wages turned to mining after retirement

On the football pitch he was known as el Mortero Magico – the magic mortar. Throughout the 1980s Franklin Lobos had a glittering career in the Chilean premiership, playing for top side Cobresal and representing his country in its attempt to make it to the 1984 Olympics.

Fans in the dusty northern city of El Salvador, where Cobresal is based, remember a stocky midfielder with powerful free kicks and the ability to hurl the ball prodigious distances.

But today, the 53-year-old is one of the 33 men trapped in the San José gold and copper mine desperately waiting to be brought back to the surface in an audacious rescue attempt that has captivated the world.

In the next few days emergency workers hope to begin construction on a concrete platform which will soon house 28 tonnes of vital digging equipment. Engineers will bore a shaft large enough to winch the men to safety.

But conservative estimates suggest it could take up to four months to pierce through the 700 metres of rock lying between them and the trapped miners. Relatives at Camp Esperanza, the makeshift tent city that has sprung up on the arid hillsides surrounding the mine, have been told not to tell their loved ones how long they will have to wait to see daylight.

Psychologists say the men need to be kept upbeat and occupied if they are to make it through the mental strain of what lies ahead.

But as emergency workers begin planning one of the most complicated rescue attempts in mining history, attention has shifted to the remarkable resilience and bravery shown by "los 33".

From the 63-year-old mining veteran who has finally started writing love letters to his wife after three decades of marriage, to the group leader who kept his men alive by rationing them to one tablespoon of canned tuna a day, the men's personal battles have kept Chileans glued to their television screens as they pray for a successful outcome.

Mr Lobos's story is a world away from the gilded lives of Britain's premiership footballers. But it is typical for a man born into a poor region of the world, where mining is one of the few regular forms of employment.

The San José mine, owned by the Compañia Minera San Esteban Primera, lies within the Atacama Desert, a 40,000 square mile plateau trapped by the Andes and Chile's coastal mountain range.

It is regarded as the driest place on Earth, with some Atacama weather stations yet to record a single drop of rain. As one former colleague of Mr Lobos put it: "The only bit of greenery in El Salvador was the football pitch."

The desert is an unforgiving place to live in, but what draws people to the area are the vast deposits of copper, gold and silver lying beneath the windswept landscape.

Although Chilean mines tend to have better safety records than their neighbours, scores of wildcat and illegal mining operations have sprung up as people cash in on the current high prices of metals like copper and gold.

As a young man, Mr Lobos avoided the mines thanks to his football skills, spending most of the 1980s at Cobresol.

One of his team mates was Ivan Zamorano, who went on to become one of Chile's best known strikers, earning international wages at clubs like Seville and Real Madrid.

"When you played with [Lobos] he was very mature, very simple and very humble," recalled Mr Zamorano, who sent a note of support to his former team mate down the six-inch borehole that is currently the only link between the trapped miners and the surface.

"I am the grandson of a miner. My father was a miner and my uncles were too, so I know the suffering miners go through. I pray that Franklin and the other miners are well and can be rescued alive."

But playing for a Chilean team, even a premiership side that won the league, was no golden ticket to a guaranteed income for life.

"The Cobresal team never paid huge salaries," Manuel Rodrigo Araneda, a former technical director of Cobresal in the 1980s, told Chilean newspapers.

"The salary was around 100,000 pesos (£127) between 1983 and 1989 and [Lobos] would save all of it."

Many of the companies backing local football teams in northern Chile also own mines and it is not unusual for older players to be offered employment in the copper and gold industries once they are past their sporting peak.

Mr Araneda said Mr Lobos had agreed to work in the mine to help fund his daughters, Karina and Carolina, through college.

"To us, Franklin was a joker," he said. "He was very good at bowling and a smooth-talker with women. But he was very close to his family."

In a heartfelt note which was sent down the borehole, Carolina joked about how her father could use his time underground to shape up for football.

"We wanted to send you a soccer ball," she wrote, "but it wouldn't fit through the hole and you can't play down there anyway."

Her father replied: "Thank you for all your words, thank you to all the fans, I hope to get out soon."

Praise, meanwhile, has been lavished on Luis Urzua, the 54-year-old former football coach and self-appointed leader of the miners, whose rationing system helped 33 men survive for 18 days on emergency food supplies meant to last just 48 hours.

In a phone conversation with Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, he begged the Chilean authorities to keep digging. "Mr President, we need you to be strong and to rescue us as soon as possible," he said. "Don't abandon us."

Mario Gomez, at 63 the oldest of the trapped miners and one who has worked in Chile's mines since he was 12 years old, has emerged the romantic of the group. In a letter to his wife, Liliana, he told her of his feelings.

"The letter said that he loves me," his wife told AFP.

"I've never received words from him like that, even when we were engaged."