Late last year, I went out for a meal with former Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Erik Thorstvedt, who played alongside Paul Gascoigne for several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“You know, I have this nagging fear that any day I could get the phone call telling me something awful has happened to Gazza. It never goes away,” he said.
He is not the only one.
Almost everyone with a connection to Gascoigne feels exactly the same way. He may have become famous through his brilliance on the pitch, but Gascoigne is now just as well-known for his troubles off it. He could beat defenses at will, but in addiction and mental health issues he has met an immovable wall.
On May 5, Gascoigne pleaded guilty to a charge of drunken assault at Stevenage Magistrates Court and was fined ￡1,000 (US$1,530).
It was also revealed this week that Kenny Sansom, another former England international, is a homeless alcoholic who has been sleeping on a park bench after years of drinking and gambling left him penniless, and has tried to kill himself.
“I just don’t want to live,” he told the Sun. “I don’t know if I can handle it anymore.”
The Professional Footballers Association (PFA), which covers England and Wales, has said it will help him get treatment, but he has yet to accept its offer of rehab.
For many, Gascoigne and Sansom are just two high-profile victims of a game that has become bloated with excess.
Top-level soccer may well be knee-deep in cash, celebrity and self-regard, but there is no causal link between the sport and mental illness and addiction. There are as many players with mental health issues in the lower leagues as there are in the higher ones, it is just that those lower down the pecking order seldom make the headlines.
“There’s no evidence that there is a higher prevalence of addiction and other mental health issues in football than anywhere else in society,” PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle said. “The public’s perception understandably sometimes gets skewed by the sensational way these matters are reported, but the reality is that a bloke on ￡300 per week who gambles away his entire earnings has just as much of a problem as a footballer on ￡20,000 per week gambling his entire earnings.”
Not that Carlisle does not think soccer has its own issues and responsibilities around mental illness, it is just that he believes they should be carefully defined and quantified.
“Football is a very competitive, macho environment and players are competing every bit as much with their teammates as the opposition. Everyone wants to be in the first team, which can make it hard for someone to admit he has a problem. The game encourages an image of physical and mental strength that can make any sign of vulnerability look like a show of weakness,” he said.
“What we need is some proper research. Football clubs have all sorts of data on players’ performance, but no one has yet compiled anything worthwhile on the game’s trigger points that can kickstart a player into addictive behavior or a depressive episode,” Carlisle said.
“We can guess that a fear of being injured or dropped may tip a player into a negative thinking spiral. We can guess that players may feel a need to keep up with their peers by partying and gambling hard. We can guess that some kids find it very hard to be rejected. We can guess that some players struggle to cope with retirement, but it is only guesswork and until we have that hard research, we are only ever going to be able to react to events rather than try to deal with problems before they occur,” he added.