The Premier League has seen its fair share of surprising results this season: Aston Villa’s 7-2 drubbing of Liverpool, Spurs winning 6-1 at Old Trafford, and my beloved Arsenal’s consistently inconsistent season.
The possible causes of these freak results and performances have generated a fair amount of discussion. Most of the theories boil down to three factors: the disruption of the usual schedules, the short summer off-season, and the absence of fans at matches. There is no doubt a lot of truth to these ideas, particularly the psychological impact of not having fans encourage (or berate) the players during the game. However, one other facet has been massively overlooked which is the mental stress on the players, coaches, and staff.
Well paid but at a price?
Football players are obviously in an extremely lucky position. Paid well beyond all measure, and unlike most people, they have been able to get out and train or play the game they love every day. Their wages alone mean that people are rarely inclined to feel sorry for beleaguered ballers. However, a lot of these players are living away from family or in a foreign country, often without wives or partners, and have few places to turn in moments of loneliness or hardship.
Liverpool stands out as an obvious case study where mental stress has affected performance. Last year’s champions have been the object of considerable scorn and mockery as a result of their underwhelming defence of the title. Injuries to star players like Virgil Van Dijk and Jordan Henderson have clearly affected the team, but surely that cannot be the only factor in losing six home games in a row?
No time for grief
In February, the sad news became public that Jurgen Klopp’s mother Elisabeth had passed away. There was an outpouring of sympathy for Klopp, particularly as he was barred by Covid-19 travel restrictions from returning home for the funeral. However, the emotional difficulty for Klopp of having to function as a high-level manager while coping with overwhelming grief was often ignored in media reactions to the poor form of his team.
Some sections of the fanbase and press have already been mooting his potential sacking and replacement with club legend Steven Gerrard. The absurdity and insensitivity of this, not only from a footballing perspective but also with regards to the ignorance of the very real trauma and grief of losing a family member is hard to overstate.
Jurgen Klopp (credit: Terry Kearney on Flicky, creative commons licensed https://www.flickr.com/photos/oneterry/46506466272)
A key area where mental health is being affected and possibly overlooked, is the consequence of players being stuck inside and the despicable abuse they face online, particularly racist abuse. While the players do have the good fortune of being able to leave and train or play, they still have to spend much of their time locked up indoors and isolated from their usual hobbies and routines. Like the rest of us, this has likely contributed to an increase in screen time and made it more challenging to avoid the social media discourse about performances.
This is particularly true given the greater visibility and increased frequency of matches as they have all been televised and fit into a truncated schedule, giving a constant exposure, and nowhere to hide.
The modern football player has to deal with the consequences of abuse regardless of circumstances or results. In victory, you could be castigated by angry opposition supporters, and in defeat, so-called ‘fans’ of your own team may turn to vile vitriol. Players have very little escape from these messages and are publicly shamed by the media and wider public at the smallest breach of Covid-19 regulations.
One could assume such an insular lifestyle has an effect on the mental wellbeing of some of these young people, perhaps more so than other similarly aged people. On top of this, many players may be dealing with family problems and illnesses that they have no control over. It is probably fair to suggest that players should be better understood for losing motivation with regards to on-pitch performance in such circumstances, however, this is rarely afforded to them by fans and the media.
Racist abuse getting worse
We have reached the point where some players are acutely aware of the fact that every time they step onto a pitch, they are putting themselves at risk of racist abuse. Social media platforms’ inaction and inertia have made the abuse more and more commonplace, with Wilfried Zaha, Eddie Nketiah, and Axel Tuanzebe recently exposed to acts of cowardice to name but a few. The emotional duress that constant abuse must cause offers a more than the reasonable reason for “underperforming”. The fact that the players continue to play despite the possibility of such horrific consequences is demonstrative of their mental toughness and defiance. My fear is that we take this participation for granted without paying enough attention to the actual consequences of this vile abuse for the victims.
Footballers are human too
These examples link to an apparent truth in not only football but across all professional sports- that players and coaches are thought of as unemotional, robotic assets as opposed to human beings. In what is a rapidly accelerating football news cycle (especially with the aforementioned televising of all Premier League games), the sensationalism of match reporting has often glossed over personal difficulties in favour of quick and crude judgment. It is perhaps unsurprising that some of the more sympathetic content has come from longer, slower forms of media. For example, the Stadio podcast and Wrighty’s House have beenexcellent at both recognising and emphasising the added mental toll on the players in this bizarre season.
Football is a sport long associated with hot takes and differences in opinion. I think I speak for many English fans when I say that I am missing the experience of discussing their best eleven for the Euros in person as opposed to in purely virtual terms. However, fandom could benefit from taking a moment to appreciate what players, coaches, and teams have provided for us during this pandemic. In a year awash with insecurity, the steady presence of the beautiful game has granted us with a small figment of normality which has been a welcome distraction from the boring chaos of Covid-19. We would do well to open our eyes to the fact that those involved have been dealing with many of the same trials and mental tribulations as ourselves in lockdowns, rather than maintaining a blind expectation of perfection.