On May 27, 2023, after PSG won the Ligue 1 title on Saturday night, many of the team’s players took to the streets to celebrate. Some went together to Monaco, where the F1 race was to take place the next day. And reserve goalkeeper Sergio Rico boarded a private jet to southern Spain.
Rico goes to El Rocio, a small Andalusian village that hosts one of Spain’s biggest religious festivals. Hours after arriving, a tragic accident left him fighting for his life. He suffered serious head and neck injuries after being trampled on by a horse. Rico spent 36 days in the intensive care unit, being in a coma for 19 days. His family and friends have endured the agony of waiting for signs that the goalkeeper will revive.
Let’s review Rico’s life-and-death journey.
Every year, the village of El Rocio welcomes Catholic pilgrims from all over. In just a few days, this village of no more than 1,500 inhabitants in the swamps of the Guadalquivir River was completely transformed. It is estimated that one million people came here on the last weekend of May. It’s a tradition that’s been going on for centuries, with pilgrims arriving from all over Spain on donkeys or on horseback. They camp outdoors, or even sleep on the go. It has a legacy of equestrian art, which has become a source of local pride.
During the religious festival, many of El Rocio’s houses are open to the public, with free food and drink on the streets. It is almost impossible to turn down an offer of a glass of wine or sherry, a delicious local ham or a bowl of fresh salmorejo, a cold soup similar to gazpacho. At the end of the week, there will be a procession with a procession of painted wooden statues of the Virgin Mary carrying the Child Jesus along the dusty dirt streets of El Rocio. The statue, called Blanca Paloma (White Dove), was carried out of the church with a heavy altar on the processor’s shoulders.
The church of Santuario de Nuestra Senora del Rocio and the surrounding streets were packed with people trying to reach the statue. Crowds gathered in a tight space often cause injury by excessive frenzy. Hands reached out towards the statue, some holding their own children, making their way through the crowd hoping to touch the statue and receive blessings. Many of the pilgrims are members of one of the 127 religious fraternities in the area. Rico, a devout Catholic, is a member of The Brotherhood of Redemption. The 29-year-old was born in Seville, about an hour’s drive away and El Rocio is his wife’s village.
Having gone on pilgrimage many times, but Rico especially wanted to go this year. Two years ago, his father’s death had a profound effect on him. This year’s pilgrimage is to pray for the deceased. Rico has asked for an extra break after the match against Strasbourg on May 27. He flew to Malaga and traveled 3 hours by car to the village of El Rocio at 5 am on Sunday, May 28. He went straight to visit friends at their home in the village while his wife, who also attended the festival regularly and had a passion for horses like Rico, decided to take a break.
At 7 a.m., Rico rode to a friend’s house. He dismounted, left the horse outside, and entered his friend’s house. According to a local police report, Rico left the house and arrived at the horse harness around 8 a.m. Just then, a donkey that was being tied across the street suddenly became agitated. It ran like crazy, dragging a cart behind, causing Rico’s horse to panic, leaping up on its front legs, knocking Rico to the ground. And then, the horse’s front hooves hit Rico’s neck and head. Fortunately, his spinal cord was not damaged, but if the wound was only half a centimeter deep, he would die instantly.
Rico was knocked unconscious by the kick for half an hour, before paramedics arrived. As Rico lay on the ground, two passersby who happened to be nurses gave him first aid. At 8:15 a.m., the Andalusian emergency service received a call about “a rider falling from his horse”. A doctor immediately arrived in a private car, followed by an ambulance.
What caused the animals to become agitated is not entirely clear. The police report said they could not conclude exactly what happened, and also noted that they could not draw conclusions from nearby eyewitness accounts. In general, everyone thinks that “the donkey in a panic broke the stake and rushed out into the street and collided with the truck”.
The cause of its panic may have been the siren of the garbage truck. But the judicial police in Aracena in charge of the proceedings did not question the occupants of the garbage truck. Likewise, two witnesses were not investigated after they told police that “they did not witness how the incident happened and could not provide any information about it”.
Because of the popularity of the El Rocio religious festival, two temporary medical stations were set up by the government nearby. However, they decided to transfer Rico to Virgen del Rocio hospital in Seville by helicopter at 10 a.m., after receiving the injection. Rico was taken to the intensive care unit, where he was sedated, intubated, and stabilized. There were no open wounds or major scratches. At that time, the Andalusian press began to share the news, after the announcement of the SAS (Andalusian emergency agency) and Rico’s relatives and representatives also showed up at the hospital.
Many PSG teammates are also worried and have called their families to ask about the situation, including Sergio Ramos, a native of Seville, and his wife also often attends this festival. They all wanted to see Rico but couldn’t, as he was unconscious and in the ICU. Kylian Mbappe immediately shared: “I want to think of Sergio Rico first. There are more important things than football. We are all with him.”
Rico’s family has been in contact with PSG sporting director Luis Campos, president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and the club’s doctor. Campos and Al-Khelaifi had planned to go to Seville, but due to the player’s condition, they wanted to make room for their family. On Monday morning, the hospital issued its first statement, a brief statement acknowledging several serious injuries, including brain injury. No further details were provided on the advice of the medical team. The first 72 hours will be crucial, and they don’t want to jump to conclusions.
That same morning, Sevilla president Pepe Castro, who has a good relationship with Rico’s family, visited him at the hospital. He promised to do something special before the Europa League final in Warsaw. Meanwhile, Carlos Soler, Rico’s teammate at PSG, came and stayed for hours with his family. Rico’s wife Alba Silva posted her first statement on Instagram on Tuesday, in which she referred to Rico and opened her heart to the world: “Don’t leave me alone. My love, I don’t know how to live without you. Husband, come back, I love you so much.”
The diagnosis was always changing, and Rico’s life was still in danger. He developed pneumonia from intubation and a high fever, but Rico continued to fight. In the following days, Rico underwent more scans with no signs of concern. By Friday of the first week in the ICU, the sedation had stopped working, the fever was gone, and it all seemed to be coming to an end. It was a small miracle. Meanwhile, Rico constantly receives support from PSG, Real Madrid and Mallorca. “Go on, Sergio Rico,” the message was printed on the players’ T-shirts.
During that time, the police took statements from people who witnessed the accident. A judge later concluded there was no evidence of a crime and that it was purely an accident. And the hospital side constantly gives out both positive and negative information.
At this point, after almost 3 weeks in the ICU, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for Rico. As a result of the stampede, the victim suffered many complications. Rico has lost more than 20kg, every week in the ICU causes him to lose about 30% of his muscle. Right now, however, all efforts are focused on bringing Rico back to normal.
Without neurological problems, the PSG player was aware of his surroundings, began to breathe on his own and made gestures and responses to stimuli. Stopping the sedation, Rico began to feel pain and began breathing and stretching exercises with his doctor just four weeks after his devastating accident. Rico also began to smile with his eyes, even when he couldn’t speak, and began to recover on his own.
“You don’t know how tight his hands are,” said those around Rico, excited by his miraculous recovery. Rico still gets tired easily and has a lot of mucus in one lung, keeping him in the ICU. But then, not long after that, he was released. Initially, Rico spoke with a weak voice but gradually recovered and he was able to communicate with fans and teammates online.
Finally, after more than 5 weeks in the ICU, Sergio Rico was transferred to the nursing home with the expectation that he could be discharged in about 2 weeks. Before that, he will have to undergo a final CAT scan. While waiting for the results of the ultrasound, the possibility of returning to the field is unlikely. But after this miraculous recovery, nothing can be ruled out.