(Reuters) - The novel coronavirus has crippled the global economy and devastated lives and families but Atletico Madrid and Spain midfielder Saul Niguez believes there is a way out if people show solidarity with each other.
With football on hold during the health crisis, Saul, 25, has launched Saldremos Juntos (We'll get through this together), a campaign to boost Spain's freelancers and small businesses whose livelihoods have been bludgeoned by the pause in activity.
"I was watching the news and everything was negative so I spoke to my agent and I said let's do something to help out," Saul told Reuters in an interview on Skype.
"The idea came to me in five minutes and he told me it was very difficult but I said let's do what we can. In two hours he had formed a team."
Saldremos Juntos has assembled 44 high profile ambassadors including athletes, actors, social media influencers, to provide publicity to stricken businesses.
Saul's Atletico team mate Alvaro Morata and Barcelona's Sergio Busquets are among those to have pledged to help the 18,000 small businesses and freelancers who have signed up asking for assistance.
128 companies have also joined the campaign, which is launching three funding streams. La Liga has donated 50,000 euros ($54,300) to the campaign through an online concert held last month.
"The idea is to link a business, Saldremos Juntos and the famous person and for the business to get something positive out of it," Saul explained.
"So a tennis player can donate a racket or a motorcyclist their helmet and we auction it and raise money so a business can get a little boost. When you have famous people backing you it's easier to have a big impact."
Few countries have been hit as hard by the virus as Spain, which has the top rate of infections in Europe at more than 200,000 and the second-highest death toll, with more than 20,000 people losing their lives.
Around 900,000 jobs have been lost, while Spain's 3.2 million freelancers and small business owners, who have long complained of having little social protection and paying high rates, are up against the wall.
"This crisis is going to be much bigger than anything we've experienced and anything we do will not be enough but my aim is to help, it might not be enough in some cases but I have to try," Saul added.
"I have no fixed aim, I'm talking with lots of people about what they can do. People don't have to give lots of money, but famous people can use their image and can attract people to businesses who need them.
"Every way of helping is positive, we need to get everyone to help and support each other and above all when this crisis passes we need to continue to show solidarity with each other."
'FOOTBALL IS SECONDARY'
Saul's last act on a football pitch before the spread of the virus halted sporting competitions across the globe was helping Atletico pull off a momentous extra-time victory away to Champions League holders Liverpool.
As organisers struggle to find ways to complete the season, there is no guarantee Atletico will be able to continue competing in Europe's top competition, but Saul insists returning to football is not on his mind.
He has been training in a gym in his Madrid home and keeping in touch with team mates through video meetings, where coach Diego Simeone continues to offer tactical instructions.
"The club will call me when it's time to go back to work, I'm preparing myself mentally and physically to deal with it in the best way possible but football is secondary right now," he said.
Footballers in England have been criticised by politicians for their initial reticence to agree to a pay cut during the crisis, while some clubs took advantage of a government scheme to furlough non-playing staff.
But Saul, who along with his Atletico team mates has shouldered a 70% pay cut while football is on hold and guaranteed non-sporting staff will get their full wages, disagrees with the perception footballers live in a bubble.
"We agreed to a pay cut because we want to help our club and employees, all other clubs are doing something similar so everyone is helping in one way or another," he said.
"But whether or not you are a footballer it's up to you how you act at a time like this. The only way we will get through this is by supporting each other."
($1 = 0.9208 euros)
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)
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