Denis Leiva 1

Denis Leiva: “I’m not allowed to play because of an arbitrary and unconstitutional rule”

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Denis Leiva 1
Denis Leiva

Denis Leiva

Denis Leiva has 18 years' experience playing in different levels of the Guatemalan football pyramid. He is one of those affected by the age limit imposed by the national federation.

Until July of this year, I thought that when I retired from football, I would be able to live the life that my wife and I had been talking about for so many years. But no, these last few months, I have faced uncertainty like I never imagined.

I am 38 years old and have been playing football professionally in Guatemala since I was 20. I wanted to play for two more seasons to build up my savings and start my own business when I retired, but suddenly, it was all cut short. That was a real blow.

The reason why it was cut short is very simple: the National Football Association of Guatemala, FedeFut, made an unconstitutional decision to impose an age limit on our football players. In the First Division, the second tier here, there can be no more than three players aged over 35 per club. And in the Second Division, the third tier here, only three aged between 27 and 32 years old.

This changed life overnight for many of us. It never should have happened and has seriously affected not only our lives but also our families who suffer with us. Many of us didn't finish school and football is how we fulfil our dreams.

We are supporting each other because it is a very difficult situation. We are parents and we have our obligations, but we are living day to day, using savings we put aside for something else, anything we can find to survive. Here in Guatemala, we call these odd jobs chapuces: building work, painting, electrical work.

I have a motorbike and when I go out, I also work as a courier, so I've become a jack of all trades. I also play some informal matches famously known as cáscaras here. Thank God we've already had a career in football so when it comes to playing in an amateur league or at an event around here, we receive some payment for it.

Denis Leiva 2

However, this is not the same as playing under contract, with a decent fixed salary and medical cover. Especially with what is happening now in the country, where everything is getting much more expensive. Prices are sky high, as they say.

I am constantly fighting to get my job back because it is my right and the same goes for my colleagues. I continue to train on my own in my spare time, I get up every day to exercise and stay physically fit, because it's not the same to be able to keep going at 38 as it is at 20.

I can't lie, mentally it's very hard; football depression they call it. There were times when I didn't have the strength to get up. I locked myself away, not wanting to do anything. I just cried, and I cried a lot because I was the bread-winner for our family, bringing in our main income.

Of course, they weren't giving me anything for free. I worked day in and day out, training hard. I often had to travel far away, but it was worth it because I knew I was doing it for my family, so that I could also save for when my body was past it.

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My primary driving force to keep going is the big man, God. I rely on him a lot. Secondly, my family, my two children, my wife. They are my support network who encourage me and offer their advice because this really takes its toll on you emotionally.

I also remember my dad, who died a short time ago. He was a warrior throughout his life and taught me to be a fighter. Despite the low points and doubting myself, that's what I'm doing: being a fighter. 

Firstly, because I love being a footballer and I still have a lot to give. And secondly because it's the right thing to do. They can't discriminate against us this way. Age should not dictate a player’s talent and conditions. Football is a way of life that should last as long as your body can take it, not until an arbitrary, unconstitutional rule says so.

“There were times when I didn't have the strength to get up. I locked myself away, not wanting to do anything. I just cried, and I cried a lot because I was the bread-winner for our family, bringing in our main income. ”

— by Denis Leiva

Some of us also raised the situation with the Human Rights Ombudsperson. The response from the president of FedeFut, Gerardo Enrique Paiz Bonifaci, was to report them to the Ethics Commission of the FedeFut for not having first made their claims at the football institution level. I don't understand why they want to inflict more damage.

Luckily our footballers' union, SIFUPGUA, is supporting us every step of the way and I have a lot of faith in their work. They have filed a lawsuit to assert our rights. Sometimes we hear that the rule is going to be removed, and sometimes we hear the opposite, and that gets to us.

We are all hoping that the court's decision will allow us to go back to work, to go back to being footballers, because as Diego Maradona used to say, 'the ball doesn't get dirty'.