FIFPro, the world footballers’ association, collaborated with six member unions worldwide, including the Professional Footballer’s Association of Ireland (PFAI), for the project.
Players from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Scotland and Ireland were interviewed, with 26% admitting to mental health issues.
Dr Vincent Gouttebarge, FIFPro’s chief medical officer, who carried out the research said: “There’s a perception that the life of a professional footballer is terrific because you earn big money and have lots of possibilities. But it’s not always that positive and it definitely has some dark sides.”
PFAI general secretary Stephen McGuinness, admitted the instability and uncertainty of Irish domestic football can increase the likelihood of players struggling with mental health issues.
“Many of our members are on 40-week contracts. Halfway through a season, you don’t know whether you’re going to be kept on. If you pick up an injury towards the end of the campaign, what happens then? A lot of our guys can’t get car loans or they struggle to get mortgages because there’s no long-term contract there. That adds to the anxiety.”
The FIFPro study didn’t just focus on current players. A staggering 39% of the former professionals surveyed admitted to depression or anxiety issues. One in three reported adverse alcohol use while one in four disclosed poor dietary habits.
Although there are numerous examples of ex-pros struggling to deal with the end of their careers, Gouttebarge believes a more detailed analysis can now be undertaken with this data. “Now, we have a scientific background to this period. The figures have endorsed the belief that the time after a football career is crucial.”
Gouttebarge is particularly well qualified to oversee such a report. A former professional footballer, he started out with Auxerre in France before finishing his career in Holland. He retired in his early 30s due to injury. He is intrigued by mental health finally becoming part of the football conversation after being ignored for so long.
“The figures surprised me. I stopped playing five years ago but during my career, I never had any communication with any team-mate about mental illness. From a statistical perspective though, mental health problems were reported by as much as 25% of young people in several countries, so it compares a little bit with other figures.”
It also complements the progress made in shaking the taboos associated with mental health issues. Even footballers are beginning to talk. Over the past two years, six players have contacted the PFAI and sought help owing to their difficulties with depression. Last December, then-Shamrock Rovers midfielder James Chambers went public about his mental health problems. The PFAI’s McGuinness, though, says more help is required.
McGuinness believes the FIFPro study provides a much-needed forensic examination that may encourage Uefa and Fifa to step in and provide both strategic and monetary support.
“The six guys that have come to us for help have required professional help. In some cases, they were suicidal. We can’t continue to fund this on our own. This is a bigger issue that we need some assistance with. FIFPro is trying to build up a body of data to back up the feelings that the domestic unions have. This is an issue that’s right in our face. We need to address it. We need to ensure players are looked after and protected.”