When sports people don’t like sport

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If you ask boys what they want to be when they grow up, the favourite response is usually “professional sportsman”. In a survey for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 42 per cent of American teenage boys gave it. In a British poll for the Manufacturing Foundation, one in eight 11-year-old boys specified “professional footballer”. The sportsman is considered the ideal man.

It was therefore surprising when another survey this month revealed that most Italian footballers are stressed by their jobs. Nearly two-thirds of the 124 professional players interviewed by the Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper and the Eta Meta research institute admitted to it. Most blamed pressure to perform and fear of injury. A third said they had taken out frustrations on loved ones.

Are Italian footballers typical? Is a sportsman’s life really that nasty? That is where having a huge sports library comes in useful. The tiny office in my house is crammed with hundreds of sports books assembled over 75 years by my grandfather, my father and me. I pulled out some of the better memoirs, and it turns out that Italian footballers are right. Boys need to rethink before they become professional athletes.

 Reading the memoirs, differences between sports fade away. Sportsmen tend to agree on the best part of their job: the camaraderie. “Laughter without malice or social ambition,” writes Ed Smith, the English cricketer, “washed down with cheap Australian wine in an ugly curtainless cabin. It is the secret comforter that keeps us going.”

Eamon Dunphy, in his soccer memoir, Only a Game?, and George Plimpton, in his account of the Detroit Lions American football team, Paper Lion, eulogise pre-season training. As Dunphy explains: “No competition, no matches to spoil things. Only the lads.” Ideally, the sporting life would be limited to swapping stories with team-mates in dormitories, or telling women in nightclubs what your job is.

But matches spoil things. Peter Roebuck, in his cricket diary, It Never Rains, describes both teams cheering a rainstorm that threatens to wash out the first day of the season. The worst thing about playing sport – even worse than the daily grind of it – is that it confronts you with your shortcomings.

The media devote disproportionate time to the very best sportsmen. Most professionals aren’t that. Their careers tend to start in hope and end in disappointment as they discover that among the best, they are merely average. “We fool ourselves,” writes Pedro Horillo, a Spanish cyclist. “Yesterday I was third behind Petacchi and Zabel, yet I hadn’t the slightest chance of winning. But I again hear that deceptive instinct telling me: maybe you’ll win next time.” Most professional sportsmen never win a professional prize.

Failure distresses most of us who play sport, but it is worst for professionals, whose identity often consists of being good at sport. As Richard Krajicek, the former Dutch tennis player, describes defeat: “It‘s not that I played badly, no, I am bad.”

And sportsmen – unlike the rest of us – are bad in public. “Football’s all humiliation,” says Plimpton, quoting a player who told him that “playing opposite Doug Atkins was like having your pants taken down in front of 60,000 people”. What motivates most professionals is this fear of humiliation, and the concomitant fear of being sacked.

Love of club, by contrast, is seldom a motivation. Most athletes regard their teams merely as employers. Horillo wrote a wonderful article, when his contract expired, in which he asked readers to buy him. Gilles de Bilde, a former Belgian footballer, is even blunter in his memoir. “The only way the foreign players amused themselves was talking about money,” he writes of his spell with Sheffield Wednesday. “It was the only reason we were still playing in England. In that period the Dutch players and I made a calendar. Each of us made a drawing of how he saw his future. I drew a nice villa in Spain with a waiter serving me while a plane dropped pounds over me.”

These men had grown up loving football. But the sport you played as a kid isn’t like the professional game. As a child in the playground you have fun. Professional athletes follow game-plans. They often do so hurting. In fact, when Krajicek was asked to sum up his career in a word, he said: “Pain.” To win Wimbledon once, he had pain for a decade.

Most memoirs conclude that the sporting career was nonetheless worth it, usually because of a few moments of glory that normal humans never experience. Milt Plum, Detroit’s quarterback, telling Plimpton about a last-second victory in Baltimore that emptied a frenzied stadium “in a couple of seconds”, concluded: “You pull off something like that, and there doesn’t need to be anything else, ever.”

Which is fortunate, because there often isn’t. After the athlete retires, he can generally look forward to further pain, collapse of status, unemployment, divorce, occasionally suicide, and no more glorious moments. Italian footballers should know that this is as good as it gets.

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