Like most little kids in England, when I was younger I wanted to be a footballer. Like most kids, I never got anywhere close to making that dream a reality, even as a semi-pro. From an early age it was obvious I was never going to be able to make that dream happen, much like my dream of walking on the moon, but to be honest, I’m actually glad that I never became a footballer. Most of what I’m writing is slanted towards playing in England (very few English players move abroad to play), but I think it applies to many other countries too. It may be even tougher for players in Spain's canteras or the football schools of Italy.
When we think of a footballer, particularly here in England, most people think of players playing at the top level. Players who make more money in a week than many people make in ten years. Players with all of the money, possessions, fame and women they could ever ask for. However, while that kind of lifestyle exists, it’s only available for an elite few players. Most players in England earn their living in the lower leagues, where things are very different.
In stark contrast to their Premier League (and to some extent Championship) equivalents, players in the lower reaches of league football can often be in a precarious financial position. These players, who still earn far above the national average, but way less than those players at higher levels, can face uncertain futures when their contracts expire. It’s estimated that only a quarter of players who were released or walked at the end of last season, have found a new club. It took England international Matthew Upson 3 months to find a new club, Thomas Hitzlsperger, a German international, still hasn’t found one at the time of writing. This situation would be even more desperate if the player is injured at the time they are looking for a new club.
Consider a player in their late twenties/early thirties who has just been released by their club. Many of these players will be married and/or have children to support; there is a good chance that they will also have a mortgage and other financial commitments that requires a steady income. These players probably aren’t in a position to be choosy about which club they play for, and may only get a short-term contract, meaning that it wouldn’t be viable to fully relocate, so there is a chance they may have to leave their families to work at the other end of the country.
In this, footballers aren’t that different to the rest of us, as in this current economy, there aren’t many of us with the luxury of saying that we are 100% guaranteed to have a job in 12 months time. Where the majority of footballers differ from most of us is that they aren’t qualified to do anything other than play football as they will have had to leave school at a young age to concentrate of football, or will have let their studies slide because they believed they were assured of a bright future as a footballer, so unlike us, they really don’t have many options to do anything else.
From a young age I loved playing football, and as an adult, I still do. I would hate to ever be in a situation where I no longer enjoy football. The romantic idea of playing a sport you love is probably very different from the day-to-day reality. There are many professionals who think of football as just a job, they no longer feel any great love for the game. Tottenham’s Benoit Assou-Ekotto admitted as much, and he won’t be the only one who feels that way. Some players have hobbies but many are discouraged from having any other interests outside of football, as it is seen as a distraction.
Also, a footballer’s career is short compared to the careers of most people. If they’re lucky, a footballer will play until they are in their mid thirties before retiring. Some may get the opportunity to go into coaching, or do media work, but many go into retirement without any financial security or with any real idea what they’re going to do next.
The journey to becoming a footballer is tough. Most players are scouted from a school team or a youth league team by a club and invited to attend a trial. Clubs are only allowed to sign youth players that live within a 90-minute drive. I grew up in North-West England, an area rich with football clubs, I counted that there were 20 clubs that theoretically I could have signed for (had I any sort of talent whatsoever), while still being able to live at home, so those kids who are able to stay at home do manage to have some kind of a normal childhood, though some find it increasingly hard to relate to their childhood friends as they progress through the youth ranks towards a first-team place. These players have to make many sacrifices; they cannot play football with their friends or for their school team any longer so not to risk injury, they can’t do many of the things normal children their age do, as they have to concentrate on football.
For kids living in areas of the country where there isn’t a local league club, it’s very different. The way clubs circumvent the 90-minute rule is to arrange for that player to move near the club, making them eligible to play. So a player could easily have to move away from home, sometimes by themselves (sometimes the club will assist the players family in relocating), away from all of their friends. What can easily happen is a situation where a player ends up with their entire social circle being made up of people in football, which isn’t necessarily a healthy environment to be in.
It’s even worse for those players from another country who’ve been signed by an English club. These players can arrive in a foreign country not being able to speak the language, with a culture completely alien to them, the foods different, the weathers different, and they can often feel extremely lonely and homesick. Most major companies help their employees who’ve relocated to settle in, but most clubs do very little to help them acclimatise to their new surroundings.
Also, from a young age, footballers are subjected to tremendous pressure. Not only is there the pressure to progress, so that they aren’t released by their club, but in many cases there is tremendous parental pressure too. Then when a footballer does make the first-team, there is the pressure to perform immediately. In my job, when I make a mistake, I can get a rollicking from my boss. When a footballer makes a mistake in a game, they not only get it from their manager, but from the media too and the fans, both those in the stadium and those on internet forums.
Premier League footballers are treated like celebrities, but that comes with the price that they are naturally wary when meeting new people, that there is some sort of ulterior motive behind people’s friendliness. Footballers can’t get up to much for fear of being hassled by fans, the paparazzi, or worse, fans of opposing teams, they worry about stories of their private lives ending up splashed over the pages of a newspaper.
There are many footballers who end up lonely and unhappy. Players tend not to make too many friends outside of football, as they don’t know whether or not the person is actually interested in who they are or just what they are. The same goes for women. Footballers are encouraged by their managers to marry young, as managers believe that this will prevent the player from participating in any wild behaviour. Some players marry a high-school girlfriend or a girl they met before they were famous, some players end up with someone in the public eye; and their relationship is played out in the press. It’s much worse for those players who happen to be gay, as they feel pressure to hide their true nature and live a lie, for fear of being on the receiving end of prejudice, ridicule and abuse from fans and team-mates that would be totally unacceptable in any other walk of life.
I may not make anywhere near the money a footballer earns, I don’t have legions of fans, women throwing themselves at me, or a big house filled with all the material possessions I could possibly want. But, I’d be willing to bet that I had a better childhood than most footballers, I’ve got a better education than most footballers, and I’d bet that myself and everyone reading this are more rounded individuals because we have the freedom to explore and develop interests outside of football. Even now as an adult, I have the freedom to do many things that a footballer can’t (or more accurately isn’t allowed to), and some of those things are worth more to me than any amount of money.