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Footballer Nahuel Tuya on mental health: ‘You have to say what you are going through’

05 May 2021
Nahuel Tuya suffered his first panic attack just six days after football was suspended in Uruguay because of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

It was 19 March 2020 and the 18-year-old City Torque central defender had travelled to his native city of San José de Mayo for fear of remaining stranded in Montevideo and not being able to see his family for months.

It was a sunny Thursday afternoon and the weather was ideal for taking a walk round Rodó Park with his girlfriend Jimena and having a few cups of mate tea. When evening came, Nahuel left his girlfriend at her house and started walking towards his family home, six blocks away. Before setting off he called his mother and asked her to pick him up on the way.

And then suddenly everything turned sinister: “I walked just two or three blocks and began to feel nervous, with a pain in my back. I carried on walking but immediately felt short of breath. My chest was tight”, said Tuya in an interview with FIFPRO.

“Suddenly I couldn’t see properly and began to clutch my head in the street. I didn’t understand what was happening. I felt dizzy. That’s it, I thought, it’s all over inside. I had a sort of shivering, with a terrible headache, and felt as though I was dying. Then I saw my mother coming. I got on the motorbike and begged her in tears to take me to the emergency department. I was crying because I didn’t want to die.”

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Almost exactly a year later, on 14 March 2021, Tuya himself announced on social media that he had made a decision which was to change his life drastically: at the age of 19, he was abandoning professional football due to a depressive syndrome.

Gone were the days of his titles with River Plate de San José in the “Baby Football” division at 7 or 8 years of age and his debut at 16 in the First Division with Central de San José. Over the course of the previous year Tuya had come to understand that football was now a thing of the past for him. “The months after that first attack were terrible. Football returned, but by then I couldn’t train.”

Three missed passes in a training session. Failing to mark an opposing forward. Even the endorsement of a coach and confirmation that he would practise with the City Torque first team again the next day. Everything was a source of nerves, of pressure. Fear of facing what lay ahead.

“It was like living in an unreal world. It was tearing me apart. I was afraid of everything. I couldn’t get to sleep until I saw daylight. I spent the whole night with my eyes open and didn’t feel sleepy; I felt that if I fell asleep in the dark I would never wake up. Because of this I could only take part in the virtual practice sessions for a short time. When my teammates were just beginning, I was about to go to sleep, in the daytime”, concluded the ex-player, who at the time attributed his pains to a suspected brain tumor.

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In June he decided to return to his flat in Montevideo, but despite resuming face-to-face practice sessions, the fear and the pains did not go away. Then in September, a new attack he suffered the night before a match against Rentistas marked a turning point in his life.

“Everyone told me that everything would be all right but I saw nothing but pain. All I could see was that my death was approaching and new symptoms were appearing. I didn’t want to feel the pain of death any more. Then sometimes I was waiting for the bus to go and train, and when it arrived, I asked myself: ‘Why don’t I throw myself under it instead of getting on?’. The fact is I’m not going to make it.”

Those episodes with thoughts of suicide finally became the trigger leading to a resolution of the situation. Six months after the first attack, with the help of professionals, Nahuel Tuya managed to accept that he was suffering from a depressive disorder with anxiety attacks and had to work on them.

So he went through three months of suffering in team practice, with self-criticism and relapses every time he had a bad training session or a bad match. Gradually, the appeal of the epic story of a footballer from the Interior who had come far began to disappear. 

“You’ve got to tell people what’s happening to you.”

— by Nahuel Tuya

By December, the decision was made: “I played the last two matches of the year and on the 16th I called my agent and told him: ‘Don’t expect me back next year because I’m not going to play football again. I’ve had enough. I’m going to look for the solution somewhere else because I’ll end up killing myself.’

Tuya returned to San José, recovered a certain measure of stability for two months and by February felt like playing again. And then all the hopes he had built up were brought crashing down by news from Argentina: Santiago “Morro” García, a Uruguayan footballer who played for Godoy Cruz, had committed suicide after being unable to overcome another depressive syndrome.

“It was devastating. At the time I was feeling that I wanted to return and coming up against this knocked me sideways. I thought ‘well, if Morro couldn’t do it, how am I going to be able to?’. Besides, Morro was my lifelong idol for the way he always defended the colours of Nacional, the team my whole family supports.”

Constant talks with a psychologist in the city and with counsellors provided by the club enabled Tuya to stabilize and think through the decision to retire. The young man, now 19, accepted that to be able to continue his treatment and find a healthier life he had to stay away from the football field.

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Tuya’s case caught public opinion in Uruguay and much of Latin America by surprise. However, his case was part of a reality that hundreds of footballers suffer and that is still kept shrouded in a veil of taboo. Nobody wanted to talk about it.

Indeed, a survey of 1,602 professional footballers conducted by FIFPRO during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic showed that 22 percent of women footballers and 13 percent of men exhibited symptoms corresponding to a diagnosis of depression.

The Mutual Uruguaya de Futbolistas Profesionales (Uruguayan footballers’ union), in turn, is developing a project with the Sociedad Uruguaya de Psicología en el Deporte (Supde: Uruguayan Sports Psychology Society) on mental health problems among footballers. The main focus will be precisely on youth players and those at the start of their careers.

Today, having now come to terms with his health situation, Tuya has shown dedication and enthusiasm for finding new horizons. He has resumed his secondary education and has set his sights on pursuing a university course related to medicine or animals.

The ex-Torque City player has also sent a message of advice and support to his fellow players who are in professional squads and suffer disorders like those that still affect him: “It’s painful and you may have to live with that pain for the rest of your life. I’m not going to deny that there are days when I wake up and want to stay in bed all day. But you’ve got to fill that emptiness with something. You’ve got to tell people what’s happening to you. The good thing about hitting rock bottom is that you know things can’t get any worse.”

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