Footballers and Mental Health: The Often-Overlooked Side of the Beautiful Game

    “I miss football, but I do not miss the football industry.” 

    This is how Bogdan Codorean describes his complex relationship with football. He was once a promising talent who played for the U-19 side of CFR Cluj, one of the Romanian top-flight football clubs. With slim rates of success, being a professional footballer can take a toll on someone’s mental health. 

    Fast forward to 2022, his love-hate relationship with the beautiful game has been perplexing. He hung up his shooting boots for good after talks about loan spells in the country’s third division, the lack of infrastructure and the gap that exists between youth and senior level, as well as knee injuries that hindered his footballing abilities.

    As a physical striker, pace and techniques were never Codorean’s forte. However, his fantastic work rate and heading abilities put the striker’s goal tally number to 50 during his short-lived tenure with the young Ceferiștii. Through arduous work, he was lucky enough to earn himself a spot at the University of Birmingham, one of the top-flight academic institutions in England, and moved to Sutton Coldfield Town Football Club. He returned to Romania to play for CFR’s rival, Universitatea Cluj, and retired at just the age of 22 in 2017.  

    Realizing that football, as an industry, is toxic and not as great as he thought it’d be, he transitioned into other sports, like running and spartan races, to keep the sporting passion alive. 

    “I suffered a bit, but I moved on,” says Codorean, now serving as an IT technical recruiter for a start-up company based in Berlin. He works from his comfortable home in Romania, and “A part of me is also quite relieved because I released myself from that toxic environment. I was lucky enough to have good formal education to pursue another career option”, as he confesses. 

    One-in-a-million job 

    In the extremely unpredictable climate of the football industry, Codorean’s awareness has saved his life. In fact, there have been plenty of unfortunate cases where young academy players got released from their respective clubs but couldn’t cope with life without football.  

    A shocking statistic brought into question by British sports journalist Michael Calvin in 2017 shows a worrying ratio number between kids who play at youth setups and those who make it to the Premier League level. In his book, No Hunger in Paradise, the award-winning author states that only 180 children out of 1,5 million will go on a professional footballing career.  

    Jeremy Wisten signed to Manchester City EDS (Elite Development Squad) at the age of 13 to emulate his idol and club legend, Vincent Kompany, until a serious knee injury in the winter of 2018 stopped him from playing the game that he loved. He was let go by the club by the following December, and two years after that, he took his own life.  

    Even with the right professional guidance, the tremendous pressure of living under heavy public scrutiny and massive price tags can be proven costly.  

    Bojan Krkić was once dubbed as “the next Lionel Messi.” The former La Masia graduate shares uncanny resemblances with the footballing star: flair, dribbling, hunger for goals, and even haircuts. It is a big pair of shoes to fill. After all, Messi ended up scoring 672 goals during his 16 professional seasons with Blaugrana while Bojan, now playing for Japanese outfit Vissel Kobe, enjoyed quite a nomadic career.  

    After his meteoric start at FC Barcelona, where he became the youngest player to make a debut, Bojan’s career plummeted heavily. Former Spain manager Luis Aragonés had initially called up the young prospect for their 2008 UEFA Euro campaign, but Bojan withdrew himself from the duty due to severe anxiety and constant media pressure. He was never called up again since then: the only time he has ever played for La Furia Roja was in the second half against Armenia in the European qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.  

    The list goes on and on: Inter Milan’s Adriano was one of the world’s most lethal strikers with powerful long-range shooting until his father passed away in 2004 and no one could pull him out of depression; Manchester City’s Michael Johnson was a starter during the 2007/2008 league campaign until his career free-fell due to severe mental health issues and alcoholism; Hannover 96’s Robert Enke, once a leading contender for Germany’s goalkeeping post for the 2010 World Cup, threw himself at a regional express train after battling depression for over six years in the aftermath of his two-year-old daughter’s sudden passing.  

    What makes athletes vulnerable to mental health issues? 

    In this era, football is more than just a sport. It is a game of passion that connects people all around the world, and a money-making machine too. However, as the sport’s scope grows larger, the financial, physical, and mental demands that football players are facing from the supporters, the clubs, and the managers just keep on increasing every day. 

    Emőke Karikás was a high-performance athlete during her youth for decades before switching to sports psychology. As an actively contributing member of the Association for Sports Psychology in Romania since 2016, Karikás has worked with a few athletic clubs in the country. Her daily tasks include mental preparation for competitions, introducing the mental elements in the training plan, developing team spirit, and applying positive inner speech. 

    “Athletes are always under pressure,” she says. She emphasizes the importance of mental health among young athletes, especially for civilian life after sports: “They are evaluated at every workout, and if they have a weaker workout, they risk losing their place.” 

    “As a sports psychologist, my advice is, in addition to physical training, to focus on mental training, self-knowledge,” she advises. “When we have difficulties, each of us, not just athletes, should turn to specialists.”

    Unfortunately, mental health still has a long way to go to be put in everyday conversation among athletic clubs in the country. It is a disheartening fact for the future of the country’s sporting community to say at least, as applying variables of sports psychology can boost an athlete’s performance by 45 to 48% according to a 2016 study

    The statistics are even more concerning on an international level, with at least 38% of active professional players experiencing symptoms of depression according to FIFPro. The worldwide representative organization for professional footballers also conducted research on common mental disorders among professional footballers in 2015 and it showed that mental health symptoms are more likely to be found among players with severe injury history by 2 to 7 times than among non-injured footballers. 

    From social withdrawal to thinking difficulties, the symptoms may vary from one athlete to another and there is no “one size fits all” solution. Adverse abuse of alcohol can also be found among retired footballers more than those who are currently playing. Additionally, career dissatisfactions, anxiety, sleep disturbance, pressure, post-career physical complaints, and crazy working hours have also contributed to this alarming trend. 

    Karikás’ advice? Turn to specialists and remain non-judgmental. A full state of health is the absence of illness by any means, whether it is physical or mental, hence both are equally important. Codorean agrees with the statement, “Be mindful and realize that your chance is slim, and you should acknowledge that and make yourself even more grateful.”