After the Final Whistle

For the child who has incessantly begged their parents for the latest, most fluorescent set of boots and the season ticket holder of almost half a decade, their dreams of playing professional football may be surprisingly similar. This is despite the discrepancy in age and life experience. If asked to share their aspirations, both would talk about the game with tangible fondness, but taking the concept of a dream literally, it relegates any other career path to inadequacy. Such thoughts will be far from the minds of talents dubbed ‘the next so-and-so’. But at some juncture in every player’s career, they will hear the final whistle for the ultimate time.

Depression, financial instability, high divorce rates, and competition-related health complications are just some of the battles players potentially face once they’ve departed the pitch. While many charities and organisations support retired players, facilities for ex-professionals are still lacking. It’s common in England for footballers to forgo higher education to meet the demands of professional sport, hampering future job prospects, and rejection at younger levels can have a profound mental effect. Yet there’s a wealth of transferable expertise to be picked up while competing, be it on the pitch or off. Understanding how those who have applied their experience to other walks of life should encourage not just young footballers, but everyone.

Already owning a fashion brand, Jesse Lingard made that exact point after recently purchasing an esports team. At 28-years-old, Lingard is entering the peak of his career. Many in his situation would focus solely on their football, yet he acknowledged his responsibilities to his new endeavour and the effort that both of his competitive commitments require. He also highlighted the shared importance of teamwork and referenced tactical similarities between Rainbow Six Siege, the game JLINGZ esports will compete in, and football. It remains to be seen how successful Lingard’s esports outfit will be, but the venture conveys his forward-thinking nature and confidence to explore his other interests while drawing on football.

In contrast, there are a plethora of footballers too attached to the game to leave following their retirement. Whether looking at coaching staff, sporting directors, or pundits, these roles within football are predominantly filled by ex-players. While there may be an apparent scepticism towards employing individuals without playing experience—an issue of its own—it’s foolish to dismiss the tactical and organisational insight competing affords. 

Every one of the 11 managers to win the Premier League has played professional football. Until recently, a respectable playing career was almost a necessity for topflight management. The success of Maurizio Sarri, who has only amateur playing days to speak of, showcases the value of hard work and focus. He and others like Brendan Rodgers and Julian Nagelsmann might not lean upon skills developed while playing, yet their ability to learn and utilise the experience of others has helped them succeed regardless.

Unlike in the world of employment, where workers start at the bottom and climb the metaphorical ladder over time, it’s not uncommon for elite footballers to be exposed to the biggest stages at an early age. It’s contrary to ‘normal’ society, and retirement for the unready can be just as stark. Top academies are rigorous preparation schools, but not every graduate becomes a star earning enough to support them—let alone a family—for life. Historically, players couldn’t rely on football to earn their bread, and that’s true of semi-pros and some professionals in the lower divisions. These players don’t have the social media following or clout conducive to securing brand deals that can extend their earning opportunities, yet necessity forces them to think about life outside the football ecosphere. Some might wish otherwise, but preparedness is far from a negative.

Every season there are transfers which prompt commenters to label the moving players as greedy, insinuating there’s something inherently wrong with prioritising financial stability over glory. It’s a detachment from a society where we are encouraged to maximise our economic potential. Given the modest backgrounds of most footballers, with many household Premier League names originating from poorer countries, it feels wrong launching personal attacks over decisions predicated on improving one’s quality of life.

When glimpsing footballers’ silhouettes through tinted windows of luxury cars, it can be challenging not to associate them with wealth far beyond the average person’s. Designer clothes and other luxuries framed on Instagram don’t help the matter. However, it’s almost always societal contributions and personal impact that define someone’s legacy rather than their bank balance or watch collection. As Ajax’s CEO and director of football respectively, Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars are using their expertise to grow a club for whom both played. While their senior management roles are sure to earn the pair handsome sums, they have both been linked with jobs at Premier League clubs, which would carry better financial incentives. But for the Ajax icons, their personal connection to the project pulls harder than money, and in a mental health context, happiness should be a major factor in any career decision.

It’s easy to view football and its stars as out-of-touch with the rest of us. Liverpool and Arsenal both charge over £800 for season tickets, pocket change to players and clubs but incredibly consequential money to fans. Yet given the unanimous rejection of the European Super League proposals by players and supporters alike, the characterisation is perhaps unfair. At some point, every player was a fan, and many remind us of that by giving back to the communities which have helped them. George Weah used his status and influence to fight corruption in Liberia, becoming president in January 2018. Later that year, he awarded Arsène Wenger his country’s highest honour, praising his Monaco manager’s guidance, and that perhaps shows Weah’s understanding of what football did for him as well as his home.

We are currently in a period of hardship for jobseekers and especially young people for their lack of experience. However, being more receptive to football, sport more widely, and other non-workplace activities rather than treating them in isolation can offer candidates the extra dimension recruiters are looking for. The journey of a professional footballer is, at first glance, unrelatable to most, yet the process of reinventing oneself and transforming skills shouldn’t be. Even aspiring to play professional football but coming up short, as so many do, can offer core work proficiencies. What’s common between successful players, managers, and people in conventional jobs is adaptability, focus, and determination. Neither the dreaming child nor the reminiscing adult should look at professionals with envy; it’s the capacity to derive inspiration that makes dreams come true and which makes a success of individuals.

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