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The lonely death of Diego Mendieta: Football's forgotten man

By James Masters, CNN
updated 1:24 PM EST, Thu December 6, 2012
Diego Mendieta's former teammates carry his coffin at the Paraguayan footballer's funeral in Solo, Indonesia. Diego Mendieta's former teammates carry his coffin at the Paraguayan footballer's funeral in Solo, Indonesia.
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Tragic end
Widow's grief
Loss of father
Indonesian infighting
Happier times
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paraguayan footballer dies at the age of 32 in an Indonesian hospital
  • Diego Mendieta was owed $12,500 in wages, unable to pay for medical treatment
  • Mayor of Solo to pay player's hospital bills after his death
  • His plight highlights a schism in Indonesian football

(CNN) -- Diego Mendieta was a man who needed help.

There he lay, helpless. Alone. Dying.

There were no news stories. There was no #prayforMendieta hashtag, not even a line on the internet.

With the world oblivious to his plight, the Paraguayan, thousands of miles from home, passed away at the age of 32 in an Indonesian hospital on Tuesday.

Mendieta was a footballer who formerly played for Persis Solo, a club based 90 minutes' flight from the capital, Jakarta.

He had longed to return home to see his wife and two children but had not been paid four months' wages -- worth an estimated $12,500.

Mendieta fell ill and died of cytomegalovirus, a common infection that can be spread by coughing or sneezing.

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In his final days, without enough money to finance his medical treatment, he changed hospitals three times and lost about 17 kilograms (about 37 pounds) in weight before his death.

His skeletal frame was left on a stretcher, covered by an old Real Madrid shirt, with a few football fans for company.

It is a story that has spread around the globe and left another stain on the sport in Indonesia, where two rival organizations are battling for control of the game.

"After his contract expired in June and his former club had not paid his salary, Mendieta suffered financially. He played in some rough football matches to survive in Solo," Indonesian journalist Sam Hadi of Kompas Daily said.

"He was unable to pay for his rented room in the last six months. He even had difficulties to pay for food, so his friends, colleagues and fans raised money to help him.

"His agent had advised Mendieta to go home by preparing the flight ticket for him. But Mendieta reportedly said that he was ashamed of not bringing back money to his country."

Having fallen ill in early November, Mendieta was first diagnosed with typhoid. By the time he reached his third hospital, where he could not afford his medical bills, the cytomegalovirus had crawled to his brain, Hadi said.

"It was very, very sad situation for him."

Football in the Asian country has been torn apart by infighting between the Indonesian Soccer Association (PSSI) and the breakaway Indonesian Soccer Rescue Committee (KPSI).

Football's ruling body, FIFA, has threatened to impose sanctions unless an agreement is reached.

Both bodies, which have their own competitions, have agreed to run just one league next season to avoid punishment from FIFA, whose executive committee expects to have to rule on the matter at its meeting next Friday. The PSSI did not immediately respond to CNN's request for comment.

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"Unfortunately yet again, it seems that the set objectives will not be reached and we, therefore, anticipate that the PSSI will be sanctioned," FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke wrote in a letter to Indonesian sports minister Andi Mallarangeng.

"We are fully aware that Indonesia is passionate about football and that sanctions will have a major impact. We have tried tirelessly to solve the problems, but we are afraid that there will be no choice unless the objectives are met or that significant progress has been made."

The division has caused great ructions within Indonesian football, with players often the victims both financially and physically.

"Mendieta's death raises questions of how he was treated by Liga Super's management. Why was he not paid his salary for so long?" PSSI official Rudolf Yesayas told AFP.

"Managing football is a complicated affair. Mendieta's death highlights the importance of having one football association, not more."

The national team has also suffered, losing 10-0 to Bahrain in a World Cup qualifier in March, a result that was investigated by FIFA because of suspicions of match-fixing.

"It has been almost two years since Indonesian football split," Hadi said.

"However, the financial problems do not only hit the breakaway clubs but also the clubs which play under the PSSI competition."

He said 13 clubs from both leagues are months late with payments, according to the players' association.

"On this matter, PSSI said on its official website that they would help the cost of flying Mendieta's body back to Paraguay, but they won't pay the players' salary as Persis did not play under PSSI competition," Hadi said.

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"On the other hand, Persis officials said they have transferred Mendieta's salary to his wife in Paraguay. "

Hadi said an out-of-contract Brazilian footballer, Bruno Zandonadi, also died in similar circumstances three months ago after being infected during treatment in an Indonesian hospital.

While Solo Mayor Hadi Rudyatmo has said he will pay Mendieta's hospital bills, the act of charity has come too late for FIFPro, which represents footballers around the world, with a membership of 60,000.

FIFPro launched a "Black Book" this year, detailing the abuse of players in Eastern Europe. It has repeatedly fought cases for players facing violence, arbitrary termination of contracts and non-payments of salaries.

It has also taken up the case of 2010 World Cup finalist Wesley Sneijder, who has been asked to extend his contract for no additional pay by Italian club Inter Milan.

"FIFPro demands that the Indonesian football association make an end to the structural mismanagement of countless football clubs," the Netherlands-based group said in a statement.

"It is a disgrace for the whole of professional football in Indonesia," added Frederique Winia, secretary general of FIFPro's Asia division.

"I know countless stories of players who are intentionally not paid by their club and have to wait for months for their salary. But I have never before heard a story where a seriously ill player has been left completely to his fate by a club.

"I assume that both the club and the national football association of Indonesia realize that they have seriously failed and that they have much to explain, particularly to the family and relatives of Diego Mendieta. The least the club can do is to pay the arrears in salary to his family."

Mendieta's body has been transported back to Paraguay, where he will be buried.

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His wife, Valeria, remains adamant that the Indonesian authorities are solely responsible for Mendieta's death.

"He was practically abandoned. The only help he received was from three Paraguayan companions, nothing other than that," she told Radio Cardinal.

Mendieta's plight has drawn widespread sympathy.

"It's a heartwrenching tale," Indonesian football expert Antony Sutton said.

"As an expat myself, I know what it's like to be on your own in a foreign country and left to fend for yourself," said Sutton, author of the Jakarta Casual blog.

"He hadn't been paid in four months and was all alone without anyone to pay the bills. The Persis Solo fans, who are extremely passionate, did their best to raise money and made about $300.

"But before I found out about the story, it was too late and he was dead. It's a real tragedy."

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While the case of Fabrice Muamba, the former Bolton player who collapsed on the pitch after going into cardiac arrest, drew intense media coverage, Mendieta did not have the same fortune.

Muamba's collapse at Tottenham's White Hart Lane in March was broadcast around the world after the midfielder's heart stopped for 76 minutes.

Twitter went into overdrive, players around the world wore "Muamba" shirts to express their solidarity, and news channels jumped on the story.

His subsequent recovery has also been well documented, with interviews beamed around the globe, and an autobiography recently released.

But in Indonesia, where football is not king and the sport is in disarray, Mendieta had little chance.

It is only after his death that his name has become commonplace.

"He always complained of being lonely," said Guntur Hernawan, head of the internal medicine division at Moewardi Hospital in Solo.

"He said he wanted to go home because all of his relatives were in Paraguay."

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