Go down to your local park on a Sunday and watch the kids playing football. Then stop watching and start listening. You’ll hear children enjoying themselves, but you’ll also hear parents – pushy, shouty, aggressive parents. ‘They don’t know what they’re doing!’ chants Michael Donlevy
For some reason we expect professional footballers to be role models, even though many of them are highly paid, under-educated, arrogant young men who are encouraged from a young age to be aggressive and never show any sign of weakness. Look at the recent examples: John Terry, banned for racial abuse; Luis Suarez, banned for racial abuse and now for biting another player; Joey Barton, banned for violent conduct; and Eden Hazard, banned for taking the unusual step of kicking a ball boy. It doesn’t have to be that way.
‘Sir Alex Ferguson once said if you took the aggression out of Wayne Rooney he wouldn’t be the same player, but I don’t buy into that,’ says sports psychologist Ken Way. ‘The pressure will always be there, but you can learn to modify your behaviour.’
And that goes for dads, who really should know better, too. ‘I was at a big match with my nine-year-old and two dads, whose kids are friends, nearly came to blows when one son didn’t pass to the other and missed the goal,’ says dad-of-two Rob. ‘Three of us had to come between them. The boys looked a bit bemused – and upset. They’re not really old enough to understand that sort of bust-up over a game, especially when it’s their dads involved.’
‘Fathers are role models and they inevitably develop their son’s “blueprint” for how to respond to life,’ says educational psychologist Teresa Bliss. ‘Whatever they do, their sons are watching, listening and internalising how to respond and interpret the world.’
There’s male pride at stake here. When we were young we dreamed of being David Beckham. Now we’re older and, let’s face it, increasingly unlikely to be multimillionaire professional footballers, the idea of being Ted Beckham, his dad, becomes more appealing. That manifests as a desire to push our kids. But is it doing more harm than good?
‘If on the pitch a father tells his son to break another child’s leg, why shouldn’t the boy do the same at another time when things aren’t going his way?’ says Bliss. ‘Dads need to reflect on the messages they’re giving their boys. What sort of young men do they want to raise? No parent would say they want to raise a thug or one that will end up in court for GBH.’
And you have to ask: why would you want your child to become a footballer? The cash earned by the very top players is appealing, but they are in the minority. The Bradford City players who reached the Capital One Cup final last month earn a League Two average of £750 per week – not a bad wage, but a short-term one, considering most pros don’t have much of an education or a trade to fall back on when their playing days come to an end.
Take Lee Hendrie, 35, who made more than 300 appearances for Aston Villa and won an England cap in 1999. Once earning £35,000 per week, he contemplated suicide in 2010 when, on top of an expensive divorce, his property portfolio collapsed. ‘I kept nothing,’ he recently told FourFourTwo. ‘They took the houses, and I can’t get a mortgage or bank account because of the bankruptcy. I got remarried last year but we didn’t have a honeymoon because we had to use all our money on rent.’
Now playing non-league football, he also offers financial advice to footballers. ‘A lot of young players – and older players – need to know their money’s being looked after because, as I found out, a lot of advisors are only in it for themselves.’
Way agrees. ‘I know a couple of footballers who have battled with depression, and I think agents can do more to support them,’ he says. ‘Everyone blames the clubs, but there’s a real grey area in terms of supporting these young men.’
Is this really what you want for your child? A career that’s likely to end in failure before it’s even started. A career that, even if successful, can lead to disappointment, depression and bankruptcy.
‘For young boys the emphasis should be on the fun of taking part and learning one of life’s lesson that sometimes you don’t win,’ says Bliss. ‘Fathers need to help their children take a loss on the chin and be determined to win next time. That attitude develops resilience, makes your kids emotionally stronger and is useful in other areas of life, unlike the “break his leg” approach. Sport for young children is about developing a healthy lifestyle, fitness, skills and strength – not just about winning and demolishing your opponent.’
Now take the case of Spanish athlete Iván Fernández Anaya, who, in December, competed in a cross-country race in Navarre. He was in second, some way behind race leader Abel Mutai – bronze medalist in the 3,000m steeplechase at the London Olympics. On the finishing straight, the Kenyan mistakenly pulled up 10 metres before the finish, thinking he’d already crossed the line.
Anaya caught up, but instead of exploiting Mutai’s mistake he stayed behind and, using gestures, guided the Kenyan to the line in first place. ‘Even if they had told me that winning would have earned me a place in the Spanish team for the European championships, I wouldn’t have done it,’ says Anaya. ‘I think I’ve earned more of a name than if I’d won. And that’s important, because today, with the way things are – in soccer, in society, in politics, where it seems anything goes – a gesture of honesty goes down well. Unfortunately, very little has been said of the gesture. And it’s a shame. In my opinion, it would be nice to explain to children, so they don’t think that sport is only what they see on TV: violent kicks, [disingenuous] statements, fingers in the eyes of the enemy…’
That is a role model.