Many of us watched in horror only weeks ago, the scenes in the Euro 2020 game between Denmark and Finland, as midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed and required urgent medical attention to save his life, the footballers that were his teammates, and medical staff, on call to save him.
As I reflected on this, I and many others began to question whether one of the underlying reasons for this is just how much footballers have been pushed in recent years. Full internationals having to play 60 games a season, plus summer tournaments, is pushing players to their absolute limit. Chelsea, for example, played two games a week almost every week this season. Many of the players have barely had a break since the Project Restart began over a year ago.
This brings me to what I believe is one of the biggest, underlying issues in the modern game – the commodification of players, and indeed managers. When the Super League fiasco occurred there was a lot of talk from UEFA of the game being “for the fans” – yet their actions with ticket allocation and prices for the Champions League final, amongst other things, make these sound empty words. Not to mention their disgraceful refusal to allow the Allianz Arena to light up in Pride colours during Euro 2020 this summer.
The more money has come into the game, the more players and managers are treated as objects, almost as robots, rather than human beings. They are no longer human beings with complex emotions, personal circumstances, insecurities, and potentially traumas or mental health issues. To many, they are simply commodities to be exploited.
There’s no question this perspective has seeped into football fandom as well. We see it all the time on football Twitter, now more than ever.
One area I see this in particular with Chelsea, is with the development of academy players. There seems to be this expectancy now with young players, that they all have to be prodigies like Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland or Wayne Rooney, producing world class performances from a young age, to be deemed a top talent. There’s a total lack of patience in allowing young talent to develop. In reality, most young players take longer to reach their prime, and need games and experience to develop. But this commodification of players means they simply get no patience or understanding in this from sections of the fanbase.
It was also telling in the summer of 2020, with the big money signings, especially Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, no thought was given to the human factors at play. In Havertz’s case in particular, it wasn’t just a lack of pre-season and being in a new league, but the moving away from their home nation at a very young age during a pandemic, with no way for family to come over to help him settle, not much freedom to go out, and then having COVID19 and dealing with all the physical symptoms, without any access to his family for support. These were all called lazy excuses for poor performance, as if the players were robots who should deliver immediately.
The human factors play an important role in a players performance, but often are labelled as ‘excuses’ because a lot of fans expect them to just perform at a world class level from game one. Players even get written off very quickly because they don’t perform at a world class level instantly, when often there’s human factors at play.
One concern about Erling Haaland making a potential move to Chelsea will be the sheer weight of expectation on his shoulders. We’re sure he has the temperament to handle it, but fans will expect absolute perfection, he won’t be allowed time to settle, or a poor run of form, or even a bad game, without abuse from sections of “fans”, and even parts of the media.
Then there’s the massive issue of the abusive messages many footballers – and managers – get after defeats. Again, players and managers are treated as robots, expected to deliver all the time and immune from emotional hurt, some people who call themselves fans, feeling they have the right to abuse them simply because they get paid a lot of money. Sexist, racist, homophobic messages which are simply not acceptable in any shape or form, dished out almost like a joke, causing incredible harm.
UEFA and FIFA both play a huge part in this, demanding more and more of their players, expecting them to play 50-60 plus games per season, expanding competitions, creating new competitions. If nothing is done, its no exaggeration to say an incident like the one we saw with Christian Eriksen could happen again, possibly with even more tragic consequences. More actions needs to be taken to protect players from abuse too, because the damage to players mental health is incalculable.
The game has to change. The governing bodies, and fans, have to take into account players are human beings. They experience emotional and circumstances just like the rest of us. Some struggle with confidence. They often take time to settle in new countries. They cannot perform at an elite level constantly without physical, mental and emotional rest, and protection.
Footballers aren’t robots. Footballers aren’t commodities. They are human beings, and everyone – governing bodies, media and fans – need to keep reminding ourselves of this.
Written by The Score (@TheScore01)
Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)