Juan Silva Cerón, a former Uruguayan football player, lawyer and professor of the Johan Cruyff Institute’s Diploma in Sports Law in Montevideo, was part of the largest movement of football players in defense of their rights and now optimistically sees “the time for a new generation to lead the change in Uruguayan football”
Juan Silva Cerón was part of the movement of football players in Uruguay in defense of their rights and now sees with satisfaction a greater awareness among the players’ collective about having their own identity and being an example for those who come up. The former Uruguayan footballer and law professor of the Johan Cruyff Institute’s Diploma in Sports Law in Montevideo, recalls that “the players of the national team marked a path from 2010 with the World Cup in South Africa, and by 2016 there was a very strong movement of footballers in Uruguay who began to professionalize in many areas. Players began to think about their rights and to understand that football was not enough. It’s time for a new generation to lead the change in Uruguayan football.”
He didn’t have to be taught anything, he had the example at home, and River’s stadium just around the corner. So, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and his father, both River players, and his mother and sister, lawyers by profession, Juan Silva’s path was laid out for him to follow, as a professional footballer and as a lawyer. Law books gave him the weapons to fight for his concerns and, while still an active player and three and a half years into his law degree, he found himself surrounded by colleagues who first asked him for advice, and later encouraged him to join a much more ambitious cause. It was the most important revolution in the history of football in Uruguay, starting with the movement ‘Más Unidos que Nunca’ (More United than Ever). Football was brought to a standstill, two marches of up to 450 footballers were organized in the heart of Montevideo, and they caught the attention of the political scene, with the president at the time, Pepe Mújica, at the forefront.
Juan Silva remembers that moment as the awakening of Uruguayan football, to which he continues to dedicate himself fully from his law firm. As of July 26, he will be part of the group of professionals who will take part in the face-to-face module in Montevideo to complete the Diploma in Sports Law in Uruguay offered by Johan Cruyff Institute.
The participants of the diploma course will learn about his experience in his own words. We have had the opportunity to get to know him a little better through a pleasant and sincere interview, in which he tells us his story, what he has contributed, what he continues to work for, and what he hopes the new generations will contribute to Uruguayan football.
Both football and law run in your family. How was that transition?
That’s right, my mother, although she was not in sports law because it exploded in Uruguay some 15-20 years ago, was dedicated to labor law and, in addition, she was a lawyer at River. We were born very close to the stadium, in the Prado area, the lungs of Montevideo. I used to walk to the stadium to watch the first team training sessions. At the same time, my mother got her law degree at the age of 40 and my father also graduated as a notary just when he stopped playing. So, I followed in the footsteps of my grandfather, my father and my mother. I had good examples in the family. Being a professional football player was my great desire, my passion, and I achieved it, but I always knew inside that I was going to finish my studies and graduate. I had practically finished my law degree, I only had a year and a half left, and I graduated shortly after retiring.
Why did you decide to retire?
Football and I started to let go of each other’s hands for several reasons. On the one hand, because the coach stopped counting on me; football in Uruguay became totally commercial, it turned towards the exploitation of 16, 17, 18-year-old players, and it was much easier for the club to make the decision to play with young players than to continue giving space to more experienced players, although there were still 4 or 5 veterans in the squads. I began to understand that football was not going to last forever. I was reaching my expiration date, despite not having any injuries and a great relationship with everyone in football, players, coaches, trainers, physical trainers, directors, managers… My retirement was orderly; I knew that I would stop playing and in a year and a half I would have my degree. As a job opportunity, I reinvented myself and dedicated myself to advising football players and non-football players on real estate investment. It was my working base to later, calmly, be able to graduate and dedicate myself fully to my professional career as a lawyer.
It must be good for a football player to know about the law during his career…
The player must have a base, if only to be able to read the contract and understand where the contractual relationship with the club is going. To know that, in contracts, equality between the parties is very important and that there should be no imbalance. The player should be able to read and make the best decision, which does not mean that they should all be graduates. But it would be very good for them to have basic training in economics, sports law, management, in order to have a more open mind so that when they are faced with certain situations that generate some uncertainty, they can defend themselves with good tools.
How did you combine professional football and studies?
I knew that the two things had to go hand in hand and that they were not incompatible. Although when I played in Europe and Central America it was the time to focus more on football and resume my studies a little later, it was always something very natural for me. Since at home they were very passionate about law and football, the two things went hand in hand. I had to occupy my free time, and at home I spent it studying.
“Besides football, you have to occupy your time and, in my house, it was occupied by studying”
Although you did have some problems with a coach, who was not so clear about studying, right?
Yes, that’s true. At the beginning and at the end of my career as a footballer. When you make your debut in the first team, you’ve already been in the lower categories for eight to ten years and there I had a coach who told me ‘don’t study, it’s useless, dedicate yourself to football, you’ll do well’. It was a big mistake because you may do well, but you have to keep cultivating your mind. And at the end of my career, I met a coach with whom I had serious difficulties. He docked part of my salary for missing a training session because of an exam. I had informed his coaching staff, they authorized me to miss the training, but when I went to get paid I saw that they had deducted part of my salary. Although it was just retaliation for the fact that I had confronted the situation, for having given advice to my colleagues when I saw things in football that I did not like. As a matter of fact, today I’m handling a youth protection case and it is against the club project with the same person who sanctioned me.
“You may do well in football, but you have to keep cultivating your mind”
How do we change this mentality that football players do not need to study?
In recent years, in Uruguay there has been a very interesting movement of football players, from the awakening of the national team and a very strong generational change, with more aware players who have their own identity and want to be an example for those who are on their way up. The national team players marked a path from 2010 with the World Cup in South Africa, and at the end of 2016 there was a very strong movement of football players in Uruguay who began to professionalize in many areas. Players began to think about their rights and that with football there was not enough. Many players have managed to combine their studies with football, thinking about the day after and that is very good. The case of Sebastián Fernández, who studied at Johan Cruyff Institute, is one of the examples. The football industry is very big and you can contribute in many areas. In Uruguay, the idea has taken hold that it is important for footballers to study while they are still active.
“In recent years, in Uruguay there has been a very interesting movement of football players, a very strong generational change; the idea has taken hold that it is important for footballers to study while they are active”
You became a defender of the ‘less successful’ players with ‘Más Unidos que nunca’ (‘More United Than Ever’), a platform that represented more than 400 players to claim their image rights. What was that moment like and why did you decide to get involved in that movement?
The movement was born in 2004, when I was a Deportivo Maldonado player, and I remember that with my colleague and friend Fabrizio Cetraro, we talked a lot about how to defend the most unprotected players. It was a subject that was very present throughout my career, and at the end of 2016 a group of players, among which there were some of the national team, shared the idea of partnering with local players. I had already retired, but they wanted me to be in that movement because it was what I had always advocated. We started to meet in groups, until at one point there were 150 players together in the offices of a local newspaper in the old city. The bombshell that exploded in Uruguay in 2016-17 was the image rights—from what they were, to how much they were worth, and to whom they corresponded. Although it was still a small portion of everything that was happening in Uruguay: the lack of salary protection, dismantled fields, poor equipment, cold water in the locker rooms, lack of clothes, total abandonment of young players, amateur players and players without contracts, etc.
“With ‘More United than Ever’ a change was generated; up to 450 players led a social movement and came out stronger”
The players’ union in our country, the Mutual de Futbolistas, began to take an obtuse stance, to take the side of the company that managed the television rights in Uruguay. And a group that ended up being 450 players led a social movement, they organized themselves and we forced the president of the Mutual to resign. There were two marches of 450 players to the door of the union and football was even stopped and the conflict reached the political scene. The president of Uruguay, Pepe Mújica, met with us, something incredible but very much in line with the interest he has always had in social issues. That generated a change in the union and in the mentality. As a lawyer, I defended many colleagues against criminal charges and in very unpleasant situations. But the football player came out strengthened from that situation and I was very grateful to be part of that movement which was joined by figures such as Santiago López, referent of Club Villa Española; Agustín Lucas, writer and player; Diego Scotti, former player and current president of the Mutual; Matías Pérez, current executive of the AUF; and players of the national team such as Diego Lugano, Luis Suárez or Diego Godín.
What are your days like now, what are you working on and what are the most recurrent cases in your law firm?
Right now, we are very focused on the Johan Cruyff Institute’s Diploma in Sports Law; it is a very interesting opportunity as it’s the first diploma course in sports law in our country. In Uruguay, there is only one course at a university that practically all lawyers have already taken. I saw the need for new wisdom, new ideas. It is the time for a new generation, so I want the diploma course to be successful, with a good attendance, and that it can be repeated. At the firm, the cases we have are a mixture of youth players who are signing their first representation contracts, and advising professional footballers. The scope of sports law is very wide, from working with a player who may have a social difficulty to a player who is about to sign a million-dollar contract. I am passionate about both realities.
“The scope of sports law is very wide, from working with a player who may have a social difficulty to a footballer who is about to sign a million-dollar contract. I am passionate about both realities”
Uruguay has had a Sports Law since 2019. Do you think it is essential to achieve the professionalization of the industry in the country?
It is key. In Uruguay, there was an intervention by FIFA and through the new AUF statute many things had to be corrected. Sports law is nourished by various branches of law: administrative law, criminal law, commercial law, labor law… In short, all of it through laws applied to sport. The clearer the rules and the more transparent the process of drafting them, the better for everyone.
What do you think of FIFA’s new regulations for players’ agents and representatives?
Good, because the reality is that a clear and transparent regulatory framework is needed in relation to agents. Today, the figure of sports intermediary is logical, but we need to know names and surnames and who is who.
You said that, in your last years as a player, the football business became very commercial. What is it like now?
I think we are now living a crisis of identity of the clubs. I am working in the management of a minor division of Villa Española. It is a social club, a non-profit civil association, as opposed to a SAD (public limited sports company). Clubs today are going through an identity crisis in Uruguay, clubs are born without fans, and Uruguay needs the people to continue feeding what is the historical Uruguayan football, with guts, without losing sight of the management and organization. On the one hand, there are the SADs, and on the other hand, there are the civil associations that many believe have an expiration date. But at the same time, there are examples in the world where SADs no longer work, in Germany or Norway, for example. Uruguay is going down that road, albeit more slowly. Uruguayan football can be miraculous, but at the same time organized. There are thousands of children in the street playing right now that will need good organization. And for that, it is necessary to study, think, structure and plan. For all that, this diploma course can help us a lot.