Football clubs are destroying players’ chances at a normal life

Luis Suarez bite
Source: Getty Images

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We were all shaken when we heard about the lamentable scandal that arose among some Leicester City players. Nigel Pearson’s son, James, Tom Hopper and Adam Smith posted a repulsive video of themselves having an orgy with three Thai prostitutes while mocking them with racial slurs.

James Pearson+Sex scandal
Source: @football_ie (outset)/ Still of the horrific video (inset)

It was a horrific incident that did no favours for the club’s reputation and the three culprits were all sacked. While it was certainly shocking behaviour, we regret to report that it is merely a symptom of an epidemic that’s eating away at the culture of football.

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We wish we were better versed in Latin so we could give you a neat scientific term that sums up the startling lack of boundaries and accountability that plagues most footballers’ behaviour. When so many of them see fit to give in to their baser instincts and damn the consequences, there is a much larger problem at hand than just an odd personality disorder or two. We believe a lot of it has to do with their clubs’ failure to parent them adequately.

The bad behaviour epidemic

Red Card issued
Source: Wikipedia

Ask us for examples of footballers being totally out of line and the list is endless. Mario Balotelli, AC Milan’s on loan Liverpool, wildly popular striker, is also well-known for his mercurial temperament on the pitch. In April 2012, he’d racked up so many red cards that coach Roberto Mancini declared that he was finished with him for good.

“I’ve finished my words for him. I’ve finished. I love him as a guy and [he] is a fantastic player. But at this moment, I’m very sorry for him because he continues to lose his talent, his quality. I hope, for him, he can understand that he’s in a bad way for his future. And he can change his behaviour in the future. But I’m finished. We have six games left and he will not play.”

Perhaps an antic like this one inspired the red cards and the ensuing rant. Here he is kicking Tottenham Hotspur player Scott Parker in the head in January 2012.

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Another famous face, Luis Suarez, has gained so much infamy that his controversies have their own Wikipedia page. The most notorious of these are the three times he’s literally bitten opponents on the pitch.

Of course, it doesn’t stop when they leave the pitch. Drunken brawls and infidelity are all too common in football culture. The likes of Jack Wilshere and Wayne Rooney have been spotted getting involved in physical skirmishes while intoxicated and others like Giroud have made tabloid headlines for sneaking around on their significant others. And who could forget Newcastle scumbag Andy Carroll, who combined the two evils by assaulting his girlfriend in 2010 because she caught him cheating on her?

A lot of this behaviour seems utterly shocking in grown men. It all seems rooted in a sense of entitlement and lack of control that borders on animalistic, especially in Suarez’s case. It’s almost as though the men who shape football culture are stuck in a prolonged state of adolescence, chasing the highs without regarding the consequences of their actions. You may raise your eyebrow at us for saying this, but we really think the majority of them don’t know better.

So why don’t they know better?

It is common practice for footballers to be signed on at a questionably young age. Wayne Rooney was 9 years old when he became a part of Everton’s youth team, as was Jack Wilshere when he joined Arsenal Academy and became the club’s youngest debutant at 16.

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A young Jack Wilshere. Source: Youtube

As you can see from the clip above, crowd pleaser Messi was drawing raucous applause at the tender age of 8, long before he left Newell’s Old Boys for FC Barcelona when he was 13. So asking them if their mothers taught them any manners would be quite pointless, as they barely had time with said mothers.

Not only do they miss out on valuable time spent growing with the family, but they also miss out on a great deal of schooling. Sports psychologist Stuart Biddle of Loughborough University has commented on this reality:

“The critical fact is that 99.9% of professional footballers get sucked into the game very early – therefore, their exposure to higher education is minimal.”

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Wayne Rooney at age 10. Source: Daily Mirror

This has a profound psychological effect on them. They miss more than the basics of algebra and world geography; they miss out on the hallmarks of a normal childhood. So much of school is learning how to interact with other children, how to respect authority and how to cope with increasingly difficult workloads. As a result, many professional footballers find themselves floundering when it comes to these crucial skills most of us pick up in our formative years. As the challenges of growing up in the limelight start to impinge upon their lives, they are ill-equipped to deal with the pressure.

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John Williams, director of the centre of football studies at the University of Leicester, says most people underestimate the tremendous social difficulties footballers face.

“People sometimes forget that footballers lack the social skills to deal with certain situations, all they see is the money players earn. 

“They seem to forget that if a lot of these lads weren’t professional footballers, a lot of them would have very ordinary, mundane lives.

“They are not extraordinary people, they are normal people who have been placed in an extraordinary situation.”

He also points out that as ordinary as these players might have been otherwise, the high-profile nature of their livelihoods makes it impossible for them to return to the ranks of the everyman and alienates them from friends outside of the football world.

“It is very difficult for them to keep old mates because of the sums of money they earn and the jealousies that come with it. Yet it is also difficult to move in other circles because socially they don’t fit, don’t have the right kind of interests or social capital.

“They always fall between two stools. It is hard for them to find a place in the world and they are insecure.”

We can definitely see how poor conduct could mask a shaky sense of self. After all, they haven’t had much of a chance to develop an identity outside of their vocation. From an impressionable age, their lives are centred around the beautiful game. They learn how to defend, to tackle and to net goals with finesse, but not how to behave as functional adults. As a result, they grow up to become unbalanced individuals without a sense of real world limitations. Without friends who can provide a measured outside perspective, they are in a dire position indeed.

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Add that to the fact that they are showered with more attention and money than they know what to do with and you have a recipe for disaster. It’s always tricky when young people come into riches and fame before they come into maturity and it’s even worse when it’s young people who’ve been taught to prioritise football to the exclusion of all else. How do you spend wisely or make other advantageous life decisions when you don’t really know who you are? Instead of allowing these things to enhance your life, you’re more likely to let them define you as a person.

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In that sense, the budding football player is much like the child actor gone awry. He’s hardly known anything apart from this distorted reality where girls are throwing themselves at him, money is pouring into his bank account at an exponential rate and the accolades stream in by the dozens. So it’s understandable that he thinks that everything he touches is gold and that his actions are devoid of consequences.

How can clubs change this?

Louis Van Gaal with kids
Source: ING Nederland/Flickr

We think Johan Cruyff touched upon something as he was discussing Balotelli’s behavioural difficulties. According to them, the issues have little to do with the man himself but with his education, or lack thereof.

“What I think of Balotelli as a player and as a man? We always talk about the person, I prefer to talk about the education of a person. Balotelli doesn’t behave well and we have to ask why.

“To me, if someone is not educated, he doesn’t play. To me, it is not the fault of the player, but of the team who makes him play. The problem is not Mario, but of the education that was given to him.

“If he had been educated in a certain way, he would not behave this way.”

We very much agree. Clubs need to start taking far more responsibility for the young men they are depriving of a well-rounded upbringing. They must act as de facto parents instead of star player factories, teaching their charges that there is a life outside of football. There are relationships they must maintain, money they must learn to manage, egos they must keep in check and goals that don’t always involve kicking a ball into a net. This is the education we feel Balotelli and his ilk missed out on, not a bachelor’s degree at Harvard. To find our place in the world, we all need role models who can teach us how to navigate life. If clubs won’t do that for their players, who will?

Marcus Rashford

We think Manchester United has made a great head start with Marcus Rashford by sending him back to school 24 hours after demolishing Arsenal earlier this year. The 18-year old has A-levels to contend with this year and we applaud the club for not allowing him to forgo these responsibilities.

If all clubs followed that example, we think footballers would be doing pretty well as human beings. Players need to be encouraged to cultivate interests and ambitions that have nothing to do with the game. Even if they never end up being successful in any other field, they would at least build an awareness and appreciation of other disciplines. They’d build character by being humble enough to learn something they have less of a natural aptitude for. Most of all, they’d develop an unshakeable sense of self that will anchor them firmly in the ground through the fickle ebb and flow of fame.

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