Being a footballer has always meant being something of a globetrotter. Football exists in the way that it does because people left their own countries to make new lives for themselves all over the world, and they took their pastime with them. Later, the nations to which those railway workers and factory owners had voyaged sent youngsters of their own back in the opposite direction. In the meantime, football went global, inspired by human migration as much as human migration was inspired by it.
The annals of football are littered with stories that are variations on the many standard expat tales. Those who went native (Cantona), those who had their eyes opened (Waddle), those who seemed to change the fabric of the footballing cultures they encountered, as if by sheer force of will (Cruyff). Those tales constitute one end of the spectrum. At the other, you have Brazilians moored in Tórshavn, Brits struggling to find Rice Krispies in Milan and Nicolas Anelka lost in Madrid.
The amount of information available to us means that we probably know more about the lives of the current crop of footballers than any before; they are more rounded, more human. Yet in a context in which footballers are increasingly being commodified, and as the universe they inhabit gets further and further away from our own, the risk of their being seen not as people but as objects increases. No-one benefits from such a situation, but the globetrotters are among those who have the most to fear.
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People have many identities. We often define ourselves by what we do – journalist, teacher, IT consultant or even footballer – but we are never just that. We are spouses, children, parents, friends, lovers, colleagues. We are also characteristics; the funny one, the one who offers the best advice, the one who introduces their friends to new, interesting people or new, interesting music. Much of the stigma unemployed people feel is that they might struggle to answer the question “so what do you do?”, but they can at least fall back on the other identities they have within their family or among their friends. They still have value.
In a new country, especially when stripped of the ability to communicate, your identity and the things that define you change. No-one knows you as the funny one or the guy who gives good advice so, in a sense, you cease to be those things. Even if, before leaving, you had planned and prepared mentally for many possible outcomes, automatically being rendered the stupidest person in whatever room you happen to be in will be a shock to the system. Without the things that defined your past life, you must then devote the energy that would ordinarily be directed at them and repurpose it towards whatever might be at hand. The logical response to such a crisis might be to throw yourself into the one part of your identity that remains: your job. So you stop doing the things that matter to you. You might even stop sleeping. All in a vain attempt to keep the wheels turning on the last remaining thing available to you that reminds you that you do, in fact, have value.
This does not work, because the mindset required is utterly all-consuming. The best case scenario involves becoming a semi-sentient automaton. The worst case scenario is mental disintegration. The latter is more likely because few brains can handle being operated in this way. No time truly counts as relaxation time, such are the self-imposed mental strains, and without the ability to relax, any ability to work efficiently is lost. When unable to work efficiently, the quality of the work that is turned in becomes subject to doubt. Eventually, you start to perceive that you are not doing very well at your job. You start to be sure of it.
What then defines you is not who you are, because the people who understand that identity are too far away. Nor is it what you do, because as far as you are concerned, you are not doing it well enough. What defines you is the fact that, both socially and professionally, you are failing. Your identity is that of a failure, nothing more.
Unless the personal or professional situations change, the internalisation of such a message becomes inevitable. You are incompetent. Worse, you are a scumbag, a thief, your salary the stolen money of the very people who are depending on you. You are worse than incompetent, you are a hindrance, actively preventing the people around you from succeeding. Your colleagues know this. They look at you like some excremental disappointment. What the fuck is this entity doing here? Hey, you, what the fuck are you doing here? You do not belong here. You are worthless. You do not deserve what you have. You deserve to die.
Many people are propelled into the depths of depression by their own paranoia about their own poor performance, the imagined hatred of colleagues or acquaintances. Imagine for a moment how much worse it must be to have that hatred rendered real, audible and visceral in the booing and whistling all about your ears upon being substituted off after another poor performance. How could anyone survive such an experience on a weekly basis?
Imagine a footballer. Imagine him moving abroad to a country whose language he does not speak and in which he has no contacts. The layers of his personality are stripped away, and he ceases to be a complete, rounded human being. He becomes a footballer, a commodity, and nothing more. Shorn of alternative ways to exist or express himself, he devotes himself to his work, but confidence will not come because he still cannot speak to nor form any real connections with anyone. Shorn of confidence, he struggles to play well. Fans of his team, as impatient as fans tend to be, were expecting more. And they do not hide their disappointment, irritation or anger. He has to undergo the weekly humiliation of being yelled at by people who are supposedly on his side, without even knowing what exactly it is that those people are yelling.
Consider the likes of Robert Pirès or Didier Drogba, who overcame the doubts and whistles of their own fans to become legends at those same clubs. How possessed of some other-worldly self-confidence they must be. Conversely, consider the fate and quite probable anguish of Albert Luque, prince of SuperDepor’s left wing, reduced to a punchline on Tyneside. Or Mateja Kezman, who tried and tried and tried some more but never recovered his PSV form, either in London or Paris. Some of the actions of the latter group, seen from this perspective, suddenly make much more sense.
The slightly-too-candid interviews homesick footballers give to press outlets from their native countries come to mind, first amongst them the notorious interview Nicolas Anelka gave to France Football that earned him a month-long ban from Real Madrid. When a person is stripped, so to speak, of the constituent parts of a personality that defines them, it is logical to experience an incredibly strong desire to reconnect with an environment where they do make sense. Sentiments that do not get or cannot be expressed in the new environment flow freely once plugged back into a world where these individuals have not only an identity but also value, as someone whose opinion is sought at all.
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Football is not as physically dangerous as it once was, for players or fans. Players are better protected and, for the most part, the more homicidal tendencies of their fans have been checked. But other risks remain, especially in a context in which human beings are increasingly being seen by managers and supporters as commodities. Neither fame, nor money, nor any other material benefits that being a footballer offer, will protect them when standing on the edge of an abyss. The only safeguard is support.