I'm Santiago Mele, I'm a goalkeeper and today, at the age of 25, after having gone through a period of personal healing, I'm proud to be contributing something positive through my work as a footballer. In addition to having a social impact, it also sends a good message about football.
Since 2020, thanks to an idea my lawyer Nacho came up with, I have included a performance-based charity clause in my contracts. In other words, I do my utmost to make saves – which then has a positive impact on other people.
I started doing this when I came back from Turkey to play in the Uruguayan league, at Plaza Colonia. In 2021 I was able to include a similar clause when I signed for my current club, Union Santa Fe, one of the major clubs in the Argentinean provinces.
At Plaza, the clause was triggered for every penalty I saved. Now, at Union, I have to play in five games without conceding a goal. It gives me a lot of motivation and confidence to tell a club that I have so much faith in myself that the bonus I might earn must be used to help others.
It’s also a way for all of us footballers to realise that having a good career is not the most important thing. Luckily, my team-mates are very supportive of what I’m doing. Both at Plaza and here at Santa Fe, I have been surrounded by some incredible people.
At Union there are a lot of people who want to give back, realising that there is more to life than football. Thanks to the clause, I went with some team-mates to donate professional balls and equipment to Los Buhos, a team that represents the province in the Argentinean blind football championship.
It was a very exciting day, and I had an incredible time with them. It's a way to get out of the football bubble, and to get perspective on the fact that no matter how much you dedicate your all to being a footballer, winning or losing is not the most important thing in the world.
This is a very competitive profession, and can be a very selfish one. Being of service and being in contact with reality is gratifying in a different and more fulfilling way.
In Uruguay, I was able to do something similar with the penalties I saved: I gave playing equipment to a team of amputee footballers, and a vegetable garden to children with Down's Syndrome and schizophrenia. These are the areas where I like to focus my social actions.
Sometimes people ask me why I decided to do this, and it's very difficult for me to explain exactly where it came from. It just came about. I remember times from my childhood, when my mother, who is a doctor, helped people who slept on the streets or in very poor neighbourhoods. She educated me about people in need, and that had a crucial impact on me.
But it really started in earnest when I was in Turkey. I reached a point where I didn't want to stay there a single day longer. I questioned whether I was going to continue playing football. I spent two years not playing, in very difficult situations where I was far from my family and far from my home.
I suffered from anxiety and couldn't stop eating. I didn't feel the burning desire to dedicate myself to being a footballer that I knew I could have felt.
I wanted to go back to Uruguay but my agents at the time insisted that I stay in Turkey. I started trying to understand who I was, who Santiago was. Because since I was a kid, I had always played football and there were many things I had never questioned.
My search included my father, because I didn’t grow up with him. I didn’t have a relationship with him. And I also had to come to the realisation that I needed to connect with my inner child, the one who dreamed of playing football.
When I came back to Uruguay, a friend who worked in a charity foundation took me one Children’s Day to play with the kids. It renewed me spiritually.
I also rediscovered my faith. I was missing something inside, and nothing would fill that hole: not food, not football, not money. And that relationship with God was the missing piece.
I decided to change my focus and the people around me, because their interests were not in tune with mine. I decided to stay in Uruguay and start again, doing things the way I wanted to, in the surroundings I wanted. I went back to enjoying myself.
Through that long process I realised that, although I am a footballer, first and foremost I am a person. And that I am in a place where I can have a big social impact. What a footballer does and says carries more meaning.
There are many people who do similar things, but if a player does it, it has much more visibility. For example, my work is getting a lot of publicity and new projects are emerging without any sporting objectives being involved. Companies are approaching me who want to collaborate on whatever is needed, and that’s great.
In the meantime, I’ve already achieved four clean sheets once more. Together with the club and my people, I’m working on what new action we can take when I reach the fifth.
FIFPRO's Community Champion series highlights a professional footballer’s activities that positively impact the lives of others. Discover more HERE.