For many footballers, the end of their careers will come as something of a shock to the system. Whether it arrives suddenly as the result of injury or is simply down to the passage of time, it can be a jolting experience to no longer play the game to which you have devoted your life.
Some deal with the adaption period positively, carving out new careers within the game as coaches, managers, ambassadors or pundits – former Arsenal players such as Lee Dixon and Martin Keown are still heavily involved in the sport for example.
However a significant number fall between the cracks. The cases of former Gunners Paul Vaessen – whose tragic post-football life has been outlined in the William Hill Sports Book of the Year contender Stuck in a Moment: the Ballad of Paul Vaessen – and former magazine contributor Kenny Sansom highlight the issues that can emerge.
According to research by XPro, a charity for ex-players, around 40 per cent of professional footballers declare themselves bankrupt within five years of retirement. Not only that, but there are thought to be more than 130 former professional footballers currently in jail.
It can be quite a comedown to give up a life of fame, fortune and adulation. It is an issue that Arsene Wenger has given great thought to, and he told the Arsenal Magazine that he has come to the conclusion that there is one way forward for those who have come to the end of their playing days.
Arsene, why do you think some players run into such difficulties after they retire?
"It is for one simple reason: because you are at the end of your job at an age when life normally starts. That is something extremely difficult [to handle] when you think that most football careers stop at 32, 33 – when usually people start a career.
"You lose passion, fame and income all together at a very young age. To replace that is nearly impossible"
"Also you have dedicated the biggest part of your life to a job that ends, while other people invested time in learning other jobs. So if you want to compete for those other jobs, you have a huge handicap.
"The second thing is that you lose your passion. What is a man without passion? He is a sad man. You lose passion, fame and income all together at a very young age. To replace that is nearly impossible.
"If I tell you now that you will be one of the best people in the world at what you do, but from tomorrow it is finished you will start to think, ‘how can I become the best again now?'
"It is impossible; there is no way out of that. What you lost you cannot compensate anymore. If you analyse it there is only one way to be happy – to remain in touch with football."
Does football disguise some problems that may occur after retirement?
"We all have our weaknesses in our personalities and we find a balance with success in work or with a happy family life. This balance is destroyed [when a player retires] because you lose what you have put a lot of energy in.
"That means you have to find a new balance in your life. Some people even during their career – despite the fact they were successful at football – did not find that real balance and were already unbalanced. If, on top of that, they lose football as well then it makes the situation even worse."
There is a unique pressure involved in being a footballer too. How much does that affect what happens after a player retires?
"It plays a part. The resistance to stress is an important part in the success of a football player. But there is something more stressful than that stress: it is no stress. Then you are confronted with your own person and you have an emptiness in your life that is even worse.
"During their careers these people get used to dealing with that stress and they grow with the stress – they prepare every game, they always check their form and suddenly there is no target anymore. There is nothing worse than getting up in the morning and having no target, not knowing what to do."
Are the financial problems that some players experience post-football unique to the UK or is it a universal issue?
"No, it is all over the world. It happens in the United States, in France – it is everywhere, sometimes because of bad advice. Let’s not forget in the modern way of life it is harder to keep your money as investments are never guaranteed.
"It is much more difficult for the players and sometimes they are not well advised. During their career they do not care too much about their money because it is always coming in."
Do you think football does enough to look after players once they leave the sport?
"I have always been very [keen] to do that. I thought about, at one time, creating a unit inside the club to take care of the players’ investments. But the subject is too sensitive because you cannot guarantee that the investment is going to be successful and some people want the freedom to do what they want. It is such a private subject and such a private problem that I think it’s better that the club keeps out of that responsibility."
These issues mainly seem to have affected players from the 1970s and 80s. Does that mean the support structure is better these days?
"Yes. Today the players make much more money and, even if they lose a bit, they still have enough to have a comfortable way of life. That was not the case in the 70s and the 80s.
"Today most of them are in a much better position and are also better informed with better advice than before. It’s easier today because they make much more money."
Of course there are also more employment options in the media and in terms of coaching nowadays too…
"That’s what I told you before. There’s only one way to be happy when you stop at 35 and that’s to stay in touch with your passion. That could mean in a direct coaching role, as a scout or a technical director, or indirectly for the media using the knowledge you have gained during your career.
"Most of the people who are successful now in modern life do that. The multiplication of the media has been so big and the demand for information is so huge that many of them have found a solution."
Are you able to spot early on those players who you know will make a career in coaching and management?
"Yes. I had many teams where I felt the players inside the team were all capable of having a coaching role. Not all of them loved doing it at first and the job we do here in the Premier League requires us to dedicate our life to it.
"It’s not necessarily for everyone because most of them have already sacrificed a big part of their life to the game and do not want to travel again and stay in hotels. Many of them don’t want to accept that happiness is linked with the direct result of a football team."
Do you make a conscious effort to encourage those ambitions while they are still playing?
"Yes, I always encourage them because they can influence people’s lives in a positive way and I always encourage people to do that if they have that ability. You have always had players back to train and taketheir coaching badges – people like Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell, David Seaman - so it seems to be important to you to support them… I always offer the support to do it, because they are capable people. I always imagine whether the guy can do it and then try to help them.
Nowadays there are also things like the Indian Super League. Players such as Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Nicolas Anelka and Mikel Silvestre have all been able to prolong their careers…
"You have two steps. Being completely at the top finishes when you are 34 at the latest. After that, you have different leagues like the MLS and the Indian league. I encourage players to play as long as possible if they really love it.
"Pires is 40 but he still plays and when he comes to training here, he’s still very good. They give a good image of the game. They can make football popular on different continents and in different countries, where it’s taking off. I think it’s fantastic."
"They are ambassadors of the game by playing on the pitch. The only thing I always say is that once you’re on the pitch, you give your best. Your age doesn’t matter – people can understand that you’re not as quick at 40 as you were at 30. Play with passion, with your heart and technical quality – that will be enough."
You mentioned the MLS and the Indian Super League too. Do you see more English players going there in the future once they finish here?
"I believe that if you look at the history of football, it has always become quicker and it looks like it grows everywhere. It’s like a virus that multiplies, so I don’t imagine that it won’t take off. It took a while in the United States but it’s now very popular.
"It faces cricket in India but there’s always room for a second sport. There’s only really badminton and cricket in India at the moment but there’s room for another sport. I know that the people there watch the Premier League and I’m convinced that with such a huge population, it will take off."
Some people will say that money is the only motivation for these older players to carry on in these leagues…
"The modern world is like that. I have nothing against money, as long as the guy who works for it gives his best to justify what he makes. If you want people of quality in any job, you need to pay them and you need to pay them well. I think it’s justified if they give quality and if they are quality."
But these players love the game too, and the adulation of the fans must be like a drug that is difficult to give up?
"It is a drug, like I told you before. We’ve spoken about Ljungberg, Silvestre, Anelka and Pires – these people love football and some of them train here every day at the age of 40 because they love the game.
"There is no fame, there is nobody applauding, but of course they miss that as well. You lose the passion and the fame together at the same time and sometimes you want to reconnect with that."
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