football sport

Mental health in football

mental health football
Written by Michael Mitchell

It’s a hot topic, so what’s it like in the world’s biggest sport?

We’re all very aware of what mental health is, of the different types and how it can affect us and others. This week I’m looking at how we treat footballers, how their mental health can be affected and whether we really are as aware as we think we are.

Footballers are forever put in this bracket of being lucky, Premier League footballers earn tens of thousands a week at a minimum and appear to have an incredibly enviable lifestyle. They’re untouchable, their lifestyle unattainable and as we pay their wages we are entitled to abuse them to our heart’s content. Why shouldn’t we? Tens of thousands of us in the stadium are doing it, we’re not alone. Maybe even more are doing so on social media and then while pundits’ criticism may be strictly professional, it’s criticism nonetheless.

Harry Maguire

It isn’t hard to imagine how this may mount up on a person. We’ve seen racial abuse in the game, players have told us how it feels to be racially abused by thousands of people. Peter Crouch has told us both through his podcast and television that even as an adolescent he was verbally abused by grown men. At the end of the day, we’re all allowed to criticise, they’re performing for our entertainment. However when does this criticism turn into abuse and why do we not collectively seem to spot the signs

Most recently I spotted these signs in the abuse Harry Maguire has received. I’m not talking about the confusion around his £80m price tag, nor necessarily any particular performance, all players have bad games. I’m talking about how now football is back we’ve all forgotten what he experienced in Greece. We may not know the entirety of what happened, but whether he was right or wrong, I would imagine this experience will have stuck with him. This happened in August and yet by the middle of September Maguire is back playing for arguably the biggest club in England, if not the world. Millions of eyes are on him each week and since the start of this season he has consistently made mistakes. Once again Twitter comes alive as thousands question his ability, a player who was only in 2019 the subject of many songs in his favour due to his performances in an England shirt. After all, he had just helped England to two semi finals in one year.

I write this now just after the 1-0 defeat to Denmark, in which Maguire received a red card after two poor challenges. Personally these challenges were not of the player I’m used to watching, they were by a man whose head was elsewhere, a viewpoint concurred by The Football Ramble this week. Let’s go back now to 2018 and 2019, the summers of which England fans emphatically sang positive songs about Maguire, songs however which featured his ‘massive head’. It seems even when times are good, we’re drawn to his appearance and as also noted by The Football Ramble, we are drawn to his appearance when times are bad now he is being compared to a pub player. I imagine if we criticised a female player for the way she looks, for her aesthetics, there would be an uproar.

Possibly none of the above affects Maguire, possibly as a professional footballer he is able to rise above all of this, but what if he isn’t? There are very few of us, I not being one of them, who can imagine what kind of toll that kind of criticism and abuse can take on a person. I’m not here to discuss the line in which criticism turns into abuse, but I guarantee that those stepping even close to that line will also post tributes and mental health awareness posts on their social media, the same accounts used to abuse the man, if he ever took his own life. According to The Guardian, in 2019 4303 men committed suicide, account to three quarters of all suicide deaths that year.

Lightening Rod

Maguire however appears to be simply the current lightning rod for the abuse, even our greats have faced it in the past. Try and imagine that David Beckham was once arguably the most hated man in England. A simple kick out at an Argentina player in World Cup ‘98 led to a red card and nothing short of a torrent of abuse from all angles. This was a time before social media, before we had direct contact with our celebrities, with everyone. This was also a time that Beckham’s face was stuck in the bullseye of a dart board by The Daily Mirror, an effigy of Beckham suspended from scaffolding and a man stalking Beckham in his home. How does it feel to let your Country down? Beckham was asked after he fled to New York

Abuse Beckham received after a game against Portugal in 2000 was described as ‘unprintable’ in an article in The Guardian by Kevin Keegan in the aftermath of that game. Keegan goes on to explain that the abuse he witnessed is some of the worst he’s ever seen and if Beckham receives that regularly, Keegan believed that he handled it exceptionally well. I suppose those fans were fortunate Beckham is such a strong individual.

I understand we’re talking about a situation two decades ago but if you really look, you’ll see this every time England plays, every time your club plays. I’ve been guilty of joining in a song that maybe later I would regret, we’re not perfect, but hopefully we can think about what we’re doing and how that might affect the human being inside the unattainable, enviable lifestyle. Understanding mental health is exactly the same as understanding racism. Amongst all of this, I do not wish to ignore the horrid racial abuse that players face, it isn’t my intention to ignore this. I do feel though that this is a slightly different issue and possibly one I am not entirely qualified to talk too much about.  However, it’s simply not enough to say you oppose it, to plaster it on your Social Media when others are, it’s something we have to practice each day and it is our duty to fight injustice where we see it. To make others question what they are saying, what they are doing and to always think of the human inside, whoever they are.