The Miracle

Daniel Ochoa de Olza for The Players' Tribune

Para leer en Español, haz click aquí.

Looking back on my life, I’ve had three perfect days. 

The first was the day that Real Madrid came calling for me. 

The second was the day that my son Benicio was born.

And the third was the day that my son Bautista was born. 

For that third perfect day, my family had to go through hell. 

I want to tell you that story. I’m not usually a talker. I like to keep things to myself. But I feel I need to tell it, because I know it can help some people. Especially guys like me who prefer to hide their pain from everybody. And trust me, there are a lot of us in South America. 

But in order to tell this story, we have to start at the beginning. 

If I am going to talk to you as the man that I am now, then you have to understand the boy that I was. 

In Uruguay, things are just different. Hardship is in our blood. I don’t like to say we were poor. I prefer to say my mom and dad were hustlers. 

My dad worked as a security guard at the casino. My mom sold clothes and toys from a street cart at the flea market. I can still hear the sound of the wheels as she was pushing her huge shopping cart full of boxes down the street. It seemed like something only The Hulk could do, and it was just my poor little mum! But she was a warrior, man. She was going to get that cart to the market — in the heat, the cold, the thunder. 

I used to go along with her sometimes and sit on top of the boxes, watching the cars go by, without realizing her sacrifice. The worst part was that, at the end of a long day, you had to fold all the clothes and pack up everything again and push the f****** cart back home! Then cook dinner! And wash my dirty socks! Can you imagine? I’m telling you — my mother, she’s my hero.

Courtesy Valverde Family

She worked from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and my dad worked 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. So you can do the math. We had one golden hour to sit together and eat our little piece of meat for the three of us. And what’s incredible to me now, thinking back on everything, is that my mom always made sure that I had my Coke. Man, I was a little brat about my soda. In Spain or in America, it will seem like nothing to most people. “It’s just a Coke. It’s almost free.” But for me, it was more like champagne. 

What she sacrificed sometimes so I could have my can of Coke, I don’t even know. I’m not sure I want to. As a kid, you’re naive. You see your mom not eating a meal, and you think, “Oh, she’s not hungry? That’s weird. I’m starving.” 

Looking back, you understand what she was doing. 

As long as we were together at the dinner table at the end of the day, that was her happiness. 

To me, this moment we lived together every night is la garra. It’s like our grit, our spirit, our courage. For an hour, sitting together with our little piece of meat, we were happier than anyone. 

Maybe we didn’t have enough money to paint our entire house, but we painted one of the walls in my room, and it felt new. Or my dad would spray me with the hose outside and we pretended that was our little swimming pool. 

That’s la garra. 

Still, if I am being honest, our circumstances marked me. Once you start playing football and you see that your friends have more than you — even if it’s just a little more — it can be embarrassing. I remember not wanting my teammates to come over to my house because we only had three channels on TV — the free ones! In the summer, you would go to bed at night and hear the cockroaches chilling in the corner. My bed was just a mattress on the floor. The springs were so busted that if you laid in the middle, you’d get “sandwiched” and have to yell for help. Hahaha. 

It’s funny to me now. But back then, I was a bit ashamed. You know how brutal kids can be at 11, 12 years old. I thought they would bust my balls if they saw how we lived. So I was a very quiet kid, always to myself. 

I channeled my emotions into football. And through football, I was able to change my family’s situation. Unfortunately, it also changed me. When I turned professional with Peñarol at 16, I thought that I was a God. I don’t think people understand how crazy it is to go from being a nobody to walking down the street in your city and all of a sudden you have grown men wanting a selfie with you. You’re getting DMs from girls who wouldn’t even look at you last week. Everybody wants to be your friend. 

Even if you have great parents like mine, it’s impossible not to stray off the path. For those of us who grew up in the social media era, the influence is too strong. 

For every 1 kid who succeeds moving overseas, you don’t see the 100 who fail. 

Fede Valverde

I remember my dad telling me, “Hey, why don’t you hang out with So-and-So anymore? What’s wrong with you? He was your boy from way back when you were playing in the street!” 

But I had replaced old friends with new ones, like a lot of young footballers. 

It’s not like I was doing anything too crazy. But I was a brat. I remember little kids waiting behind the fence for my autograph and thinking, “Ehhhh. I’m too tired today.”

All these kids screaming: “Fede! Hey, Fede! Please!”

It would have cost me two minutes, and I turned my back. 

Looking back, it kills me, because my parents didn’t educate me like that. In reality, I was nobody. I was just one more idiot who was playing football, fighting for his dreams. What happened to the kid who was happy with a Coke? 

The only way that I can explain it is that I was blinded by the sudden fame. 

That’s also when I really started to learn about the business side of football.

If you Google me, you will see stories about how I almost went to Arsenal when I was 16. That’s maybe half-true. It’s nothing against Arsenal, but I never wanted to go to England. At that time, the business side of football took over. Certain people were telling me, “Who wouldn’t want to go play for Arsenal? You want to stay here in Uruguay? That’s crazy!” 

What they were really saying under their breath was, “We can all make a lot of money if you go.” 

You realize that your life is not your own in football. Especially at a young age, you feel more like a hostage. Even your family becomes a hostage. Football is an escape to a better life, especially for us in South America, and the vultures know that. They put the pressure on you in a “nice” way.

“Damn, Fede, if you go to Arsenal, you’ll have a nice bed and a shower that stays warm for 30, 40 minutes! Who wouldn’t want that life?” 

They sent me on trial to London for a week, and I just wasn’t comfortable. If you only think of material things, it sounds great. But we are not robots. The reality was that my family couldn’t come to London with me. I’d have to live alone, not speaking the language, at 16 years old. 

For every one kid who succeeds moving overseas, you don’t see the 100 who fail. 

Daniel Ochoa de Olza for The Players' Tribune

I was either crazy enough or courageous enough to say no. Give me freezing showers as long as I can stay with my family. In my head, I was thinking I would stay in Uruguay for my whole career. 

Then I got the call that changed my whole life. I was playing at the South American Under-17 Championship in Paraguay. I had been killing it, and we were about to play a big match against Argentina the next day. I was sitting in my hotel room, and my parents were there staying in another room. My mom called me and said, “Hey, come to our room right now. There’s some people here who want to talk to you.” 

We had a curfew and weren’t supposed to leave our rooms, so I said, “I can’t, Mum. I gotta go.” 

I hung up. 

She called me back, “Fede, come now. These men are from Real Madrid.” 

Literally, I thought she was pulling a prank. I rushed over to the room to see what was going on, and sure enough, there were two guys there I’d never seen before. She had tears in her eyes. But she’s always crying, so I still didn’t know what to think! 

I said, “Mom, without being disrespectful….”

She said, “Fede. Shut up. Listen to these men. They have some good news for you.” 

I remember thinking that the guys must be from Peñarol. I thought they were going to give me a new contract, and the first thought in my 16-year-old brain was: Damn, maybe I can buy some nice new Nike boots for the match against Argentina. Maybe I can even get a PlayStation. 

Norberto Duarte/AFP via Getty

The guys started speaking in Castilian, not South American Spanish, and I thought: Holy shit. They’re not from around here. Is this real? 

They told me, “We’re from Real Madrid. We believe that you can become a star for us. We want you and your parents to move over to Madrid.” 

I looked at my mom. I looked at my agent like: “Nah. You’re f****** with me.” 

My mom looked back like: “Shut up, Fede. We are not f****** with you.” 

There are 500,000 players in the world and Madrid want to sign me? What???

I literally ran out of the room. I was yelling, “Where’s Dad? I need to tell Dad!!!”

I ran down to the lobby. My dad was standing around talking to one of the other parents, and I said, “Dad!!!! Dad!!! Madrid are here!!!!” 

He said, “What? What do you mean they’re here? Where?” 

I said, “Up in the room! They want to sign me! Real Madrid want to sign me!” 

He looked at me like I was the craziest person in the world. He said, “Up in the room??? Well what are you doing down here??? Get back up there, you idiot!!!!” 

Hahahah. Zoom — I sprinted running back up to the room, and thankfully the guys from Madrid were still there, and it wasn’t all a f****** dream. 

That was the first perfect day of my life. Because I saw how excited my parents were. My mom cries for anything, but my dad is a rock. It takes a lot for him to show emotion, but I saw a tiny little crack! Hahahah. I saw the light in his eyes, you know? 

“My son plays for Real Madrid.” 

Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty

There’s no price in the world you can put on that sentence. 

I was on top of the world. For a few months. Then life reminded me to be humble, as it always does. 

I can tell you the exact moment when I realized that I was a punk.

Listen, you have to understand something. Really imagine that you are me for a second. 

You are 17 years old. Two years ago, you were sleeping in the sandwich bed on the floor. Now you’re signing for Real Madrid?

Man, how can you not become delusional? 

When I came to Madrid, I thought that I was Messi and Cristiano in one body. Hahahah! Seriously! 

In my defense, when you are 17, you have no clue how dumb you really are, especially if they give you a little bit of money and praise. That combination is a hell of a drug. 

But I got my wakeup call really quick. My first training session with Real Madrid Castilla, I came into the dressing room like I was walking on clouds. I was so confident. Vamos. I don’t even remember anything about training. It was a blur. But I do remember afterward, everybody was getting dressed, and I’m looking around, taking it all in … and then I actually start noticing what everybody is wearing. 

Gucci belts. 

Brand new Nikes. No scuffs. 

Louis Vuitton wallets. Louis Vuitton toilet bags

Remember, this is not even the legends! We are not talking about Benzema and Modrić and Marcelo! These are the kids! 

I had this realization, like a thunderbolt: Oh shit, Fede. You’re wearing a two euro T-shirt. 

For me, Zara was expensive. In Uruguay, if you’re wearing some Zara, you’re a boss. I’m looking around seeing guys wearing watches that cost more than my parents’ house back home. 

It all hit me, in one moment: There’s levels to this game, you punk! You’re nobody! 

Daniel Ochoa de Olza for The Players' Tribune

So I’m sitting there still in my dirty kit, and I’m not even taking my boots off.

Everybody starts going to the showers and I’m seeing guys wearing Gucci underwear. Gucci f****** underwear, bro!!! When did they invent that??? How much does that even cost??? 

Hahahahah. I’m thinking: Hopefully mine don’t have any holes today! Pray to God my mum checked the laundry.  

I sat there for 20 minutes pretending that I was checking something really important on my phone. It was pure time-wasting. Guys were looking at me like, “Is something wrong, bro? You O.K.?” 

I’ve never felt so small. 

I waited until everybody showered and went out to the parking lot, and then I finally got changed when it was just me and the kitman.

That night, I went to H&M and I said, “I need 10 packs of your best underwear.” 

Hahahah! I remember saying to myself that night, “Man, who do you think you are? This is Real Madrid. You think you are Cristiano? You aren’t shit.”

I was a boy. 

That’s the funny thing about football. You can have millions of followers, or millions of dollars, or millions of people telling you that you’re the greatest, and still be a stupid boy. 

I had not won anything yet, and neither had anyone else in that dressing room. Why are we wearing Gucci underwear? Why do we need Louis Vuitton to hold our toothbrush? I’m not criticizing them, because I was just as naive. I’m just showing you the world of football, and how it changes you. 

Thankfully, I had the values of my parents as my foundation. Once I realized that I was nobody, I started to appreciate everything I was given. 

The feather mattress I was sleeping on. 

The air conditioning. 

The 50 channels on the TV. 

The kitman coming with our new boots. 

What the f***! This is paradise! 

I remember driving into the players’ parking lot with my BMW X3, and it felt like I was driving a Ferrari. I pulled in like, “Guys, watch out. Don’t scratch the paint!” 

It was the cheapest car in the lot. Hahahah. But it was the first car I ever owned, and I felt like a king. 

This was the beginning of a beautiful time for me, because even though I had not made it yet at Madrid, and I was still a nobody, I was on the path to becoming a man. 

But the thing that unlocked everything for me — in football and in life — was Benicio. 

For me, the most important chapter of my story is becoming a father.

Even when I was 19, 20 years old, playing football, making money, driving nice cars, I was still a boy. Only when my first son was born when I was 21 did my life truly change. 

That was my second perfect day. 

Before that day, I would obsess over my performances. If I had a bad game, I would not even speak to my parents for 24 hours. I would go to my room and just sit alone and stew about my mistakes. I don’t know if that is healthy, but when you are playing at Real Madrid, the pressure is the most intense in the world. So you live it 100%. 

Only when Benicio was born did I feel like a human being when I arrived home after a poor result. Once he could walk, he would come running to me at the front door with his Buzz Lightyear toy in his hands, and give me a hug. He doesn’t give a damn about the match. He doesn’t even know what football is. He just wants to “play Toy Story.” 

For me, his love changed me as a person and as a footballer. Mentally, I needed him, because nobody in the world is harder on me than me. And by the way — my wife? Mina? She is on another level! She knows the game very well, and she is Argentinian, and you know how they are. Hahahah. Whatever I do, it’s never enough. 

Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty

Remember when Ajax knocked us out of the Champions League? We got into the car after the match, and I was fuming, and the first thing she said to me: “Really, Fede? Are you serious? What was that? That’s how you are going to play for Real Madrid?” 

I said, “You think I don’t know?” 

She said, “You didn’t risk anything. You have to shoot. It’s the strongest part of your game.” 

Man, I had to crank the volume knob all the way up to drown out her analysis.

The worst part — and I would never tell her this, so I hope she is not reading — the worst part is that she was right. Hahahah. Damn!

We are a true football family — one Uruguayan plus one Argentinian — which adds up to f****** crazy

So when my son was born, it was an amazing change.

I guess it’s like my mum, right? When you look at your son before you leave for training, you feel like a warrior. Like The Hulk. It’s different than when you’re 17 years old and your whole world is about Gucci belts. When you play for your son, it’s like you have superpowers. 

I don’t think it’s a surprise that I had my best season in 2021–2022 when Benicio was two years old and turning into a little person with a real personality. When we won the Champions League that year, I felt like I had finally made my mark at Real Madrid. A few months later, we found out that we were pregnant again. We were so, so happy. For the first few months, everything was perfect. But then Mina went to see her doctor one day for some scans, and that’s when everything fell apart. 

The doctor told us that the pregnancy was at an extremely high risk, and that there was a very small chance that our son would live if she continued the pregnancy. The doctor said that they would monitor the situation for the next month, but until then, there was nothing we could do but wait. 

Imagine hearing those words…. 

“Your baby probably isn’t going to make it.”

I can’t describe the pain. 

Daniel Ochoa de Olza for The Players' Tribune

My wife was suffering physically and mentally every single day. Me, I just kind of shut down. I am somebody who locks everything inside. I know it’s not healthy, but that’s just me being real. I never want anybody to see me cry, ever. Even my family.

My parents would join us for dinner and my mum would start to say, “Fede, look….” 

Bam. That’s all it took. I would get up from the table and go to my bedroom to be alone. The 20 hours of the day I wasn’t at football, I would isolate myself. No phone. No iPad. Just silence. 

I felt like I had to be the rock, because everyone else was suffering. I was playing a character, you know? The strong, stoic guy, telling my wife, “It will all work out the way God intends.” 

But when I was alone, I would cry for hours. I used to go into the bathroom for 15 minutes, and for 10 minutes I’d be crying with my head in my hands. The morning of the match, when I was supposed to be concentrating and calm, I would be lying in bed, thinking about our son, spiraling….

Sometimes I wouldn’t play well, and I knew it, and I could hear the whistles from the fans. Then after the match I would have to answer questions from the media, and I didn’t want to show my emotions or tell people what was happening.

It was f****** hell. 

My advice to anyone going through something similar is that you don’t have to be stubborn like I was. You don’t have to suffer in silence. 

After a match in April against Villareal, things hit rock bottom. Everyone knows the headlines. They know both sides of the “story.” I don’t want to bring up these ugly things again. All I want to say is this….

On a football pitch, you can call me almost anything, and it doesn’t bother me. I am Uruguayan, for God’s sake. But there are certain lines that you do not cross. Not as a footballer, but as another human being. 

Speak about my family, and it’s not football anymore. 

A line was crossed that day.

Should I have reacted? Maybe not. Maybe I should have gone home and had a burger with my son — eat some chicken nuggets and watch cartoons. But I am a human being, and sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, and for your family. 

It hurt to see the way that the media portrayed me as a violent person. Many lies were told that were later proven not to be true. But honestly, I can say that I don’t regret anything, because it made me grow even stronger as a person, and it brought our family even closer together.  

Thank God, after that dark day, things got a lot better. 

Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty

When my wife finally told the world what we were going through, it changed everything for us. The way my teammates and the Madridistas had our back is something that I will never forget. They have me and my family’s respect forever. I would miss a pass, and they would respond by chanting my name. At the Bernabéu, where the expectations are so high, this is a small miracle.

To have 80,000 people supporting me like that, in my lowest moment, it felt like 80,000 hugs. 

To all of you…. All I can say is thank you. 

After a month and a half of pure hell, we got the best news of our lives. The scans were much better, and it looked like the pregnancy was O.K. to continue. Of course, the rest of the pregnancy was still an incredibly tense time. Until we were able to hold our son in our arms, we didn’t want to exhale. But, thank God, in June, our son Bautista came into the world. 

Healthy and happy. 

Our miracle. 

A third perfect day. 

You know.... I’m not easy on myself, in football or in life. I don’t think I’d ever felt satisfied before. I’d never felt like I had truly succeeded, or done enough. 

But that morning at the hospital, when my wife was holding Bautista in her arms, I thought, Fede, look at them. This is it.

You have won.