Atletico Madrid, Clubs, Saúl Ñíguez, Spanish Primera División, Story

Sid Lowe analyses La Liga’s situation after the coronavirus outbreak suspended play indefinitely.

“Bloody hell,” Saul Niguez says from the other end of the line, “the battery on my phone keeps going. This never used to happen, but now I’m having to charge up it up again and again. I’m on it all the time.”

Like everyone else in Spain, the Atletico Madrid midfielder is quarantined because of coronavirus, but he might even be busier than before. He always talked fast, a determination in what he says; today, Day 7 since lockdown began, he is flying. There is, after all, a lot to do. He is not sure what yet — he is still working all that out, along with the growing group of people around him — but he is going to do it. And the ideas tumble out quickly.

“It was the second or maybe the third day of the quarantine and I was talking to my agent on the phone, watching the news: China, Italy, here…” Saul says. “I was watching that and thinking about friends and family and the people who are being hit hard. Some of them couldn’t go to work. Some of them had to, even if that’s irresponsible; they’re at risk of getting ill or spreading the virus. There were people losing their jobs, people who are going to have a bad time of it. Health comes first, but there’s more too — and the need to get back to normal when we come out of this, which is going to be a long time — and I said to him: ‘Let’s help them.’

“He said: ‘It’s not as simple as that.’

“‘But there’s something we can do, right?’ I replied. We discussed some ideas, the ways we could have an impact. He had a look into it, and came back and said: ‘Saul, let’s do it.'”

Saul got on the phone and has hardly gotten off it since. Sergio Busquets, Oliver Torres, Alvaro Morata and Miguel-Angel Moya are among the footballers already on board with a movement called “Saldremos Juntos” — we’ll come through this together — but, as Saul explains, they are only the public faces of a growing project.

Saul Niguez has been with Atletico Madrid for more than a decade.

“There are so many people, working day and night on top of their actual jobs, which they’re all doing from home now: replying to emails, contacting people and businesses, setting things up, handling the logistics, people who know. I’m so grateful to them.”

“The aim,” Saul continues, “is to help PYMES [small business], autonomos [the self-employed], and health workers who are doing hours and hours and hours for everyone else, because they’re especially affected by this and the sooner we can get back to some sort of normality the better for everyone.”

Those who need the help can register directly on the Saldremos Juntos website, which was designed and launched in a day. Assistance takes many forms: The plan is to set up a fund via donations to help, but it’s not just about economic support; it’s also about providing expertise and advice, material, ideas and visibility.

Then there is the impact that players can have in helping businesses back onto their feet, including donating match tickets, experiences like training with a professional, or memorabilia that appeals to the customers of small businesses: Buy two pairs at “Santi’s Sock Shop” and get the chance to win two tickets to the Metropolitano. Have the chance to win a signed, match-worn Morata shirt if you spend a certain amount at “Juan’s Hams.” Employ Pedro the painter to do your house.

Footballers have reach and “publicity” is a word Saul uses often, so maybe soon there will be adverts for your local hairdresser starring some of the most famous players, for free. It is not an idea that has been fully fleshed out, but nor is it one that he discards. Every player involved will help in a way they can, he says, and will do what they are comfortable with: “It might be that some think it is good for them, even if economically there’s nothing in it.”

More players are getting involved, celebrities too, while bigger business and institutions have been targeted to contribute financially or with support. The chase for collaborators is going well in what Saul says is still a “sign-up stage” and there will be announcements soon, big ones. But this is about everyone.

“We’re still trying to build the strategy, coordinate it all, but it’s about helping, about people contributing with whatever they can,” Saul says. “When we come out of this, maybe I join with the team and we go and meet an autonomo or some local business, spend 30, 40 minutes with them, ask them how we can help, study a strategy with them. We have lots of different types of people working with us, people who know business, law, and so on. I can take two, three hours and go with them and see four or five people at a time, a couple of times a week.

“Or maybe it’s publicity,” he continues. “Or boots, tickets, a prize, something. There are things people can donate, relationships they can draw on. There’s the public as well: maybe someone can only give €5, but that helps. Or maybe they have some of the materials, or the knowhow, a small business needs. And if people want to help us too, then we’re delighted: if they can do things that we need, send a CV. I mean, I wouldn’t get my dad to deal with the emails; he can hardly use a computer! But people have all sorts of skills, ways of contributing.”

Saul admits that this will not solve all the problems or save every small business, but he is determined to help people in need to restart.

“For the government so far it’s health, health, health and that’s what really matters now,” Saul says, “but we can help in other ways, when it comes to recuperating some normality. And it’s good to think big. Even beyond Spain. Italy, the UK … no, I’m not saying we’ll go there, but let them copy this idea if it works. People with a public profile have the ability to help, so let’s help. Let them help, do something. Not with this necessarily, but in some way. There are players — I know Sergio Canales and Betis are working [with food banks] in Seville, for example — who are helping in other ways.

“And that’s the point: helping. Help your neighbour, the people around you. It’s time to think about other people. If we’re going to come out of this, we have to do it together.”

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