Football: The Path to Recovery?
Here, Richy Cunningham, Peer Mentor Coordinator for Substance Misuse at Turning Point Gateshead, takes a look at the relationship between addition and football and, in particular, the game’s power to help ease recovery.
There have been a number of players in recent footballing history who have suffered from an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Indeed, some of the best known cases have meant that addiction itself has often sidelined the focus on football over the last 40 years.
Moreover, some of the greatest footballers who have played the game have struggled with an addiction. When you think about it you could put together an incredible XI using only those who have suffered from a drink or drug addiction.
The causes of such addictions amongst footballers have been widely debated. Is the lifestyle to blame? Or is it simply that the life is more heavily scrutinized, and therefore their addiction more apparent to the general public?
Diego Maradona, voted joint best player of the 20th Century by FIFA, publicly suffered from an addiction to cocaine from the mid 1980s until 2004. He allegedly began using the drug whilst playing for Barcelona in 1983, and, by the time he moved to Napoli, he had developed a regular addiction Things really took a bad turn during the height of Maradon’s addiction, back in 1994, the same year that he entered club management. He managed Argentinean club Mandiyu de Corrientes from January ’94 until June ’94 with a win rate of 8.33%. He then went on to manage Racing Club in May ’95, for a little longer, until November of the same year. His win rate was less than one in four. It took a number of serious health scares and being admitted into hospital for heart surgery to result in Maradona finally giving up drugs and he has been clean since 2007.
Although football did not prevent his addiction it can be argued that it’s actually played an important role in his recovery. A study by the Mental Health Foundation shows that football fulfils the psychological need to escape from the strains of everyday life. Football provides a platform to communicate with others; it maintains relationships and provides us with a reason to meet up with people regularly. Maradona being hired as the manager of Argentina, from 2008-10, may have been the just the escapism that he craved during his recovery.
Closer to home, there is the story of Tony Adams’ addictions. Adams was Arsenal’s third greatest player according to a poll on the club’s website. Yet his career was at one point hijacked by his addiction to alcohol. Adams battled with alcoholism through the mid 80s and early 90s. His addiction resulted in him being sentenced for drink driving in 1990 and he was imprisoned for two months. After being released, his alcoholism continued and he was involved in a number of troubling incidents, including an accident with a flare gun in a Pizza Hut toilet, and playing through a match during the 1993-94 season despite being drunk.
Testament to his character, Adams did eventually seek treatment and admitted to the public that he was an alcoholic. He has since become one of the most high profile recovering alcoholics in the UK and his battle with alcohol is detailed in his autobiography (an excellent read if you get the chance).
It is argued that short-term wealth, fame and public pressure are all factors that contribute to top footballers suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. The University of Manchester Professor of Psychology Carey Cooper, in a piece for the BBC, analyses the relationship between fame and addiction for footballers. ‘They are young lads, they get very, very big bucks at a very young age and their private lives are exposed to the media,’ Prof. Cooper claims. ‘And frequently they are not cossetted, helped or supported’.
However, the chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Clarke Carlisle, is keen to focus on issues in wider society stating: ‘these are issues that affect society. This isn’t specifically a problem within football. The difference being the lives of the footballer is scrutinised.’ Carlisle makes a very obvious but important point in realising that these problems do not only exist in the high profile world of Premier League football.
It’s therefore difficult to pinpoint, and we perhaps shouldn’t try and focus on any single cause. Football, however, has also helped those current and ex-players who have suffered from an addiction to get their lives back on track and it can be seen to be doing the same for people on the road to recovery outside of the footballing elite.
On the 13 September this year, Gateshead International Stadium hosted the third annual Recovery Shield football tournament. Almost all the players involved were recovering addicts of some description, in most cases recovering drug addicts, as well as from the organisations and people who support them. I have organised the Recovery Shield as part of my work at Turning Point, a leading health and social care organisation.
I have seen how football helps the men and women involved get away from drugs and alcohol for a few hours as the game takes over. The tournament highlights to me the positive influence football can have on the lives of those on the road to recovery; the game is a big part of their journey. In the case of these particular players, football has played a significant part in helping to battle addiction and restore normality to their lives.
Of course, football by itself doesn’t solve addiction, but the tournament is used as an avenue for people who want to sort out their lives. The tournament is taken seriously and it means training every week to gain a competitive edge, which also provides a routine away from addiction for the players involved.
The tournament has been a great success over the past two years. The standard is high, and its success has meant it has progressed from being a local to a national tournament with over 300 players. The fact that the tournament has taken off in such a big way is testament to the power of football and the determination of the recovered and recovering alcohol and drug addicts taking part.