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Tragedy on the field: soccer player sustains life-ending injury, referee recalls the tragic moments

The player who collided with him stood frozen in shock beside him, tears streaming down his face as he murmured, “Why? I didn’t mean to hurt him.”

  • 3 weeks ago
  • May 29, 2024
5 min read
Gabriel enjoying a friendly soccer game when he's not busy refereeing matches. | Photo courtesy of Gabriel Bertrán Gabriel enjoying a friendly soccer game when he's not busy refereeing matches. | Photo courtesy of Gabriel Bertrán
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Gabriel Bertrán, 35, resides in Bella Vista, Corrientes, Argentina. Since 2012, he has served as a dedicated soccer referee, combining his expertise on the field with his roles as a physical education teacher, trainer, and lifeguard.
background information
Ángel Ojeda, a 23-year-old player from the Pedro Ferré team in the Bella Vista League, tragically lost his life following an accident during a game. After colliding with a perimeter wall on the field, medical evaluations revealed that Ojeda suffered severe cranioencephalic traumatism, leading to a subarachnoid hemorrhage and subdural hematoma.

CORRIENTES, Argentina — A lot can happen in a soccer match and as a referee, I always prepare for the unexpected. However, nothing could have prepared me for dealing with a death on the field. Since the day a player died during a match I officiated, I knew my career and life would never be the same. It became a sobering reminder of the responsibilities of being a referee, fundamentally changing how I approach each game.

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Referee’s routine disrupted during match: “He spun into the air and, tragically, collided back-first into a wall just off the pitch”

On April 28, 2024, I arrived early at General San Martin Stadium to referee a local league match between Citrex and Pedro Ferré. As usual, in the busy stands, fans heckled us. I settled into my role, accustomed to the routine jeers. The game started normally with Citrex in yellow, controlling the pace with a slow, strategic passing game. It allowed me a moment to catch my breath. In contrast, Pedro Ferré, clad in red, played a faster, more vertical style, challenging me to sprint constantly to keep up with play.

As the second half began, Ángel Ojeda of Ferré took a forward pass on the left flank. After a minor collision with a defender, he stumbled but regained balance. Opting to apply the advantage rule, I closely monitored the play, ready to blow the whistle if needed. Suddenly, Ojeda attempted to control a slightly overhit ball. At that moment, the defender’s light touch and high speed caused him to lose balance.

He spun into the air and, tragically, collided back-first into a wall just off the pitch. The stadium fell into stunned silence as he hit the wall with a thud that echoed. The impact appeared severe. As Ojeda lay motionless on the pitch, I witnessed his limbs twisted unnaturally, and he soon began to convulse. Recognizing the severity of the situation, I blew my whistle urgently, signaling for medical attention. Paramedics, already on alert, dashed onto the field to assist him. The crowd watched in stunned silence as the paramedics turned Ojeda over, revealing the blood streaming from his nose and mouth. 

Tragic turn: as the ambulance departed with Ojeda, the stadium slowly emptied, leaving me alone with my thoughts

The player who collided with him stood frozen in shock beside him, tears streaming down his face as he murmured, “Why? I didn’t mean to hurt him.” Teammates from both sides, overwhelmed by the scene, began to cry, forming a circle of grief around their fallen colleague. Ojeda’s father pushed through the crowd to reach his son; his face etched with despair.

I wanted to cry as well. I felt utterly helpless, unable to do anything for the boy dying before my eyes. The emotional toll felt immense, yet as a referee, my role as an authority figure required me to maintain composure to instill calm in others. Amidst the chaos, players looked to me for guidance. As a referee, I had to maintain a calm demeanor, providing stability in a moment fraught with emotion and uncertainty.

Though my heart was heavy, I had to embody strength and control to help manage the situation. I held off my tears. The match was immediately halted, with no thoughts of resumption. The severity of the injury made it clear that the day’s soccer was inconsequential compared to the life hanging in the balance. As the ambulance departed with Ojeda, the stadium slowly emptied, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

Tribute for Ángel Ojeda: “This tragic match marked a definitive before and after in my career”

Alone in the locker room, I waited for updates from the hospital. I felt haunted by a similar experience from the previous summer. While working as a beach lifeguard, I ushered a group of teenagers away from a dangerous swimming area. Later that day, I learned that they returned, and tragically, one drowned. This memory intensified my current stress over the Ojeda incident, leaving me to question if I could have done more.

During my solitude, I cried, releasing the emotions I usually concealed at home to protect my young children from worry. Later that evening, the hospital confirmed Ojeda’s death, deepening the sense of loss and responsibility I felt drained, gathered my belongings, and headed home, my thoughts with Ojeda’s family and the unimaginable grief they were experiencing.

Days later, I attended a tribute for Ángel Ojeda at a local futsal field. Although I had no personal connection to him or his family, I felt a moral obligation to offer my condolences. Approaching his father, I was struck by the depth of his sorrow—a profound sadness I could empathize with but could never fully understand. I spoke sincerely from my heart and then walked away, feeling somewhat relieved as if I had shed a heavy emotional burden.

This tragic match marked a definitive “before and after” in my career. It altered my perspective on the sport and my role within it. When I returned to refereeing weeks later, it was with a fresh sense of purpose and a renewed appreciation for every moment I spent on the field.

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