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María Cervantes: "After five months of hell, the union helped arrange my knee operation"

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That moment when I came out to intercept a cross. That fall and that sound in my knee. It was a familiar injury. I’d had it in my other leg a year before and I knew what I was in for: weeks and weeks of rehabilitation, being sidelined again, and if the worst came to the worst, having to have an operation. 

It was 30 September 2021 and we were playing the first match of the new season for Universitario. It was almost unbelievable. In May that same year I had torn the menisci in my right knee when I was playing for Chiriquí and I’d only been back on my feet for a few weeks. It seemed my world was falling apart. I was optimistic, but my nightmare was only just beginning. 

After the injury, the doctor me told me I had a torn meniscus, that I would probably need an operation and that my recovery this time shouldn’t take as long as when I tore the menisci in my right knee. 

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However, in the first few days I already began to have problems communicating with my club about being able to meet the costs of the surgery. No director came to talk to me. The link between the management and me was my coach, who always tried to help me. 

Two weeks after the injury Universitario got in touch with me: I was told that the insurance policy all footballers in Panama have was not going to be able to bear the whole cost of the surgery. 

This was the situation: every year we have 10,000 dollars in insurance to deal with our health problems. Because of the costs of recovering from my first injury, Universitario told me that I only had 2,000 dollars of that insurance left and that I still needed between 2,400 and 2,600 dollars more to pay for the surgery. The club told me they were going to take care of the rest of the money, but the surgery was never carried out. I asked and they told me over and over again that I had to keep waiting. 

Two months went by and there was no reply. Almost the same time had passed as I had taken to recover on the previous occasion and I was still injured and couldn’t even set foot on the training ground. The situation with my knee was getting more and more difficult. I had to use a stick to get around, an image I never imagined having at the age of 20, and sometimes my knee got locked and caused me unbearable pain. 

That was why I got in touch with the Panama footballers’ association, Afutpa. I knew that my club was lying to me, that something odd was going on, but I couldn’t do anything on my own. From the start, we tried together to find the quickest possible way out of the dispute. 

The end of January, Universitario told me that the insurance had expired and that the club was going to sign with another insurance company. But the new company informed us that they were not going to cover the cost of the operation, since my injury had occurred before they signed the contract.

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My morale was at rock bottom. My teammates saw the situation I was in and told me to keep calm and try to stay positive. But there was nothing I could hold onto to give me any hope of getting an operation. 

Universitario assured me that their highest authorities would take care of the operation, but weeks and weeks more went by and it never happened.  

It was then that Afutpa showed me a light in the ordeal I was going through. On 11 March they published my problem on their Facebook platform and the effect was immediate and enormous. Even nationwide media picked up my story.  

As you’d expect, once the dispute was aired publicly, the answer quickly emerged. The Panamanian Football Federation was going to cover the costs of my operation. Finally, after waiting nearly six months, I had knee surgery on 19 March, just eight days after Afutpa exposed the story.  

Today I’m still on the road to recovery and my contract with Universitario has been terminated. I’m looking forward to getting fully fit and being able to find a place in another team in Panama. After all, football is my life, and my dream of returning to the field of play is still intact. Now I do have reason to believe it.