24 April 2020 – Toni Dovale should be getting his season underway in Asia, Iragartze Fernandez preparing for her next match as an assistant referee, and Estela Fernandez studying Madrid CFF’s next opponents in the Primera Iberdrola. However, COVID-19 has changed all that.
In recent weeks, millions of people have been staying at home to prevent the spread of the virus, while others have been battling it directly on the front line. Thanks to their studies and professions that are compatible with football, the aforementioned trio are all helping to curb the pandemic in Spain, one of the worst affected countries.
Here, they share their stories with FIFA.com.
IRAGARTZE FERNANDEZ: Referee and nurse
With her father a footballer and several other members of her family in the healthcare profession, Iragartze was sure from a young age that she wanted to pursue both careers. Five years ago, an injury brought an end to her playing days, paving the way for her move into refereeing.
Before the season was interrupted, she was working as an assistant referee in the Primera Iberdrola (the Spanish women’s top-flight) as well as the men’s third division. Moreover, she combines her refereeing duties with her work as a nurse in a health centre.
“When I decided to become a referee, my father feared for me a bit, but he very much supports me and even points out my mistakes. He’s like my personal VAR,” she said with a laugh. The concern her family felt for her is back, however, though it has nothing to do with football this time: “My parents are worried because we’re on the front line.”
Since football ground to a halt, Iragartze has offered to work full-time at her health centre, one of only four in Bilbao dedicated solely to COVID-19 patients. “We’re operating to new protocols and continually changing the way we work. That can cause psychological exhaustion, but I really like challenges, which, for us health care workers, this certainly is.”
She admits that refereeing has prepared her to deal with stress better. “Every weekend you have to make quick decisions… and it’s a bit like that here. With COVID, you have to make very important decisions,” she says.
To counteract the stress and exhaustion, she finds exercising at home helps. As does the public applause for health and care workers,which usually coincides with the end of her work shift.
“People see us coming out to work and encourage us even more. They could be clapping us for ten minutes, with music, dancing… They throw a few parties… And that motivates us. You say to yourself, ‘Tomorrow I’ll go in with even more enthusiasm’.”
All that helps stave off the inevitable nostalgia for football: “I really miss those Fridays when I used to pack my bags, refereeing flags and gear and that feeling of looking forward to every weekend.”
TONI DOVALE: Footballing globetrotter… and pharmacist
“I studied pharmacy at the same time I was pursuing a career in football,” Toni explains. A graduate of Barcelona’s Masia academy, the striker has played for Celta Vigo and Rayo Vallecano in Spain, as well as for clubs in the USA, India and Thailand.
The start of the crisis coincided with his being back in Spain as he considered his next destination. However, given that his mother has a pharmacy in Coruna, the player didn’t think twice. “I have a qualification that enables me to help people in these difficult times, and this is the best way I can do that.”
Before going to work in the morning, Toni trains. “It’s a little rudimentary. I use what I have at hand: water containers, furniture etc…”. Then it’s time for him to don his gown and safeguard himself as much as possible, despite shortages of personal protective equipment. “Until recently we were making our own masks with kitchen roll and staples” – to be able to attend to people.
The lack of masks, gloves and hand sanitisers was a constant worry in the early weeks. Fortunately, Toni anticipated this. “I knew how the situation had been in Asia for months and warned my family.”
For the 30-year-old, day-to-day life is far from easy right now with the fear of contagion ever present. Understandably, he also misses football: “the pitch, the smell of grass, the sound of the ball, the adrenaline of playing in a packed stadium… For now, though, the priority is human life,” he says.
In the face of such uncertainty, one thing is for sure. “Whatever way you look at it, each day brings us one day closer to getting back to normal life.”
ESTELA FERNANDEZ: Professional footballer and police officer
“In general, people are taking quarantine seriously,” Estela is relieved to say. Just as Toni’s work dispensing medicine and Iragartze’s treating sick people are essential tasks, so too is ensuring the public’s compliance with lockdown rules, something the midfielder has been tasked with doing by her police station in the Madrid municipality of Parla.
“I think the best thing about this crisis is that we’re becoming more united and realising the importance of families and partners… The worst thing is realising how vulnerable we are.”
Like Iragartze, Estela decided to follow a family member into her chosen profession. “My father’s also a police officer and I’ve always regarded him as a great role model,” she says.
Being on the front line involves risks, as the midfielder knows only too well – her father having tested positive for the coronavirus a few weeks ago. “He caught it but is ok now. We’re waiting to be tested so I can return to work. I can’t wait to get back to it.”
In spite of all this, Estela has not been neglecting team training – “we’re doing it these days by video conferencing” – and is in regular contact with her team-mates. “They’re like my family and I miss them, just as I miss the sensation of arriving for a game and having those butterflies and hunger to play.”