Emotions in Football Players

Emotions are not limited to crying or feeling upset. Emotions connect us with people and experiences on a daily basis. They activate our reactions and thoughts, guiding us through the good, bad and everything in between. Used mindfully, they are a human’s greatest asset. However, too much or too little emotion can cause difficulties – both on and off the field. 

In this three-part series, I evaluate emotions in football through its three human components: managers, players, and fans. The relationships between each component are compelling. The effects of these relationships are central to the emotions that football evokes.

This second part focuses on players and the different emotions that are encountered on and off the pitch. Each emotion has its impact, whether that be internally or externally. Additionally, the expected influence on wider society of footballers openly discussing their struggles. Identifying emotions is challenging, especially for men, yet football allows us to digest and understand emotion easier.

Part Two: ‘Don’t hate the player’

Whilst elite footballers live the dreams of many children, and adults, around the world, their emotional struggles are not subdued. The salary of footballers is a source of contention, but it simply does not alleviate life’s natural problems: failing relationships, losing a loved one, personal insecurities or self-doubt to name a few. Each having their own unique psychological effect on each unique individual.

Mental health should not be distinguished from physical health. If a player rolls their ankle, or ruptures their cruciate ligament, they pursue the best medical help available without stigma. However, despite strides in the past decade, a player suffering with their mental health, and openly seeking the help of a clinical or sports psychologist, is not as customary nor as openly discussed. 

It is one of football’s most pervasive issues. In trying to forge results on the pitch, carrying the hopes and dreams of millions, as well as managing their own lives, footballers must be understood as human beings too. They are a part of the ebbs and flows we all face. None more so than this first player, the subject of the most iconic photograph of any crying footballer. 

Paul Gascoigne’s night in Turin on July 4th, 1990 captured the hearts of a nation. A footballing hero of mine and a character I could write about at length. ‘Gazzamania’ began with his tears that night and forged a crisps endorsement for Gary Lineker, with his ‘have a word’ face selling packets of cheese and onion for many years to come. 

Paul Gascoigne displaying emotion at the rawest during that night in Turin

Gascoigne’s life has been troubled since he was a young child and has faced protracted, internal battles publicly. Yet, further to his mercurial qualities on the field, it was his raw emotion having been shown a yellow card, meaning he would miss the final should England get there. The bottom lip quivered, the tears filled in his eyes before he clenched his fist and tried his best, in vain, to get England to a World Cup final. His emotional state was such that he did not take a penalty, and at full-time, photographer Billy Stickland captured the iconic image of Gazza kissing the three lions on the front of his shirt whilst in tears.

Truthfully, his tears endeared him to football fans all over the world and was a watershed moment in recognising player emotion. I can only think of one example that predates Gazza crying on the field: Pele, having won the 1958 World Cup in Sweden aged seventeen. Since, however, players such as John Terry, Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham have shed tears on the pitch on the biggest stages.

These public displays of vulnerability are a big factor in reducing the stigma; the rawness of emotion is endearing, especially when channelled productively.

9 years later, in the exact same stadium as Gascoigne, Roy Keane was booked against Juventus in the semi-final of the Champions League, meaning he too would miss the final. Keane, predictably, did not show such vulnerability but instead led United’s charge to reach their first European final in 31 years. A performance still lauded by United fans, as Keane channelled his frustration to leading his side through his unrelenting resilience. Ferguson gushed after the game about Keane: “the most empathetic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field; pounding every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him”. Keane received the praise, years after, in his own inimitable and intolerant manner. 

“What am I supposed to do? Give up? Not cover every blade of grass; Not do my best for my teammates; Not do my best for my club?”. He added that he found it offensive when people quote Ferguson’s appraisal of him that night, as if he should be honoured by it. This is the attitude portrayed by Keane, many believing it to be a caricature, but he is one of the most single-minded, hard-working and uncompromising players to lace a pair of boots.

An attitude which also made him one of the Premier League’s most successful players, but also a volatility and anger that crossed the line on several occasions.  

The most high-profile, and most destructive, incident involved Alf-Inge Haaland in April 2001. Having ruptured his cruciate ligament after an attempted trip on Haaland in 1997 at Elland Road; Keane fell to the floor in agony whilst Haaland accused Keane of faking the injury whilst standing over him with contempt. Keane took it personally, with Haaland questioning his integrity and verbally attacking him whilst at his most vulnerable. Keane was out of action for almost a year, stewing in his own wrath; his 2002 autobiography offers a glimpse into Keane’s mindset: “I’d waited long enough. I fucking hit him hard, the ball was there (I think); take that, you c***”. Keane scythed Haaland with his studs on his right knee and stood over him in vengeance. 

A rare shot of Roy Keane and Alfe Inge Haaland challenging each other fairly

The intensity that made Keane such a great player had reached an unsavoury peak, but the truth is, most people struggle with unresolved emotions of anger and frustration. Some people innately manage anger effectively, often redirecting their focus onto things they appreciate or pausing before reaction. Yet, many of us rehash incidents and become increasingly more emotionally activated – just like Roy Keane. In feeling aggrieved, retribution is often sought which is equally damaging. 

Keane is not the only player to act in anger, or even instinct. Eric Cantona and his kung-fu kick on an abusive fan at Selhurst Park springs to mind. Similarly, goalkeeper Graham Stack, whilst on loan at Beveren from Arsenal, instinctively punched a pitch invader in a derby vs Royal Antwerp: indicative that the emotions pervasive in society also manifest in footballers. Whilst these incidents were on the pitch, events off the pitch can be equally as emotionally impactful.  

For a moment, imagine that you are one of your country’s most influential players, playing in the Premier League and a new manager has just walked through the door – who you’re eager to impress. You have been selected for the first game of the season, and then you receive the news that your Father has been kidnapped approximately 3000 miles away.

This happened to John Obi Mikel, not once, but on two separate occasions. After several phone-calls and a meeting with manager Andre Villas-Boas, Mikel decided that he had ‘do his job’ and played the game against Stoke. Naturally, the fear of his Father’s fate dominated his mind throughout a frustrating goalless draw. It was then resolved once Mikel had paid a fraction of the demanded ransom.

It happened again, but this time on international duty for Nigeria at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Needing a draw for the final group game against Argentina, he chose to not mention his Father’s kidnap to his teammates or manager, Gernot Rohr, given the expectation of his country. His loyalty to his country forced him to internalise his anguish, turmoil and fear. He described how he felt he was going to fall to the ground and cry, compounded by Nigeria losing 2-1. 

The concept of concealing one’s own emotions for the perceived benefit of others is common, whether it’s for family, children or work colleagues.

Mikel suffered because he felt unable to speak about his terrible ordeal, experiencing it for the second time: how many times have you gone to work whilst there are problems at home, or having to suppress emotions to get through the day? Perhaps more than you would want to remember. We are almost conditioned to not show our hand, to not show any vulnerability for the fear of consequence. John Stones refutes that notion.

John Stones return to form has been one of the highlights of the season

Stones, following a period of poor form and a run out of Guardiola’s plans, felt he had to fight back. He credits perseverance and hard work for his upturn in form, whilst openly crediting discussions with a sports psychologist “to have someone to vent to” and admitting how footballers constantly doubt themselves and overthink. The mistakes made previously in his career clearly weigh heavy on his shoulders, but he is taking positive steps to improve himself – both psychologically and technically. 

Only last week against Poland, Stones made a mistake that resulted in a goal. As a defender, as stated by his partner for the evening Harry Maguire, mistakes will happen and by the nature of the position, will likely end in a goal. Stones has previously been prone to such mistakes, yet this season has been in impeccable form – with last Wednesday’s being a mere blip. However, the differing responses from his teammates and manager and the media were staggering. 

Having acrobatically assisted Maguire’s winner, the England players surrounded Stones to support him; Southgate commended Stones’ composure following the error, knowing only too well the tough scrutiny at international level. Meanwhile, many national newspapers ran with headlines about Maguire ‘getting Stones out of jail’, dissecting the stages of Stones’ mistake and describing him as ‘calamity-Stones’. The lack of awareness and ability to read a situation is staggering, especially considering Stones’ bravery in the transparent use of City’s club psychologist. 

Given the scarcity of help-seeking amongst men, the narrative around Stones’ mistakes is unpleasant. Stones being so open about his use of a psychologist is crucial in breaking the stigma surrounding male help-seeking. Whilst undoubtedly many footballers utilise professional help for a range of issues, whether they are personal or sporting, it is rare to find such transparency. Southgate, owing to his awareness of emotion discussed in part one of this series, encourages his England players to be open with each other emotionally and take their levels of communication much deeper. However, issues such as self-worth and how others perceive the act of help-seeking deter men, especially footballers, from speaking publicly. 

Psychologist Martin Seager postulates how reconstructing masculine behaviour educationally for males to share emotions and change societal attitudes and responses towards men can be beneficial in reducing prevalent issues such as male suicide and help-seeking. Many professional therapies also conflict with typical masculine traits, such as emphasising emotional expression, introspection and acknowledging one’s vulnerability.

There has been a gradual shift in attitudes in the football and wider world towards men’s mental health, but it remains a work in progress.

A personal belief is being conscious of the language we use to discuss the mindset of sports people. Rather than labelling a footballer as ‘mentally tough’ or ‘mentally weak’, be more specific: mention their great determination, or awareness, or resilience. In specifying and ameliorating negative uses of words such as ‘weak; incompetent; or inability’, it creates a far more understanding space for everyone to be open with their own mental processes. 

To make it as an elite footballer, one simply cannot be devoid of resilience or skill. Only 0.012% of players have a chance of making it to Europe’s best leagues. We all indulge ourselves with the physical and technical prowess of footballers, but let’s encourage their discussion of their psychological processes and concerns.

For now, we have footballers such as John Stones to thank for contributing to the conversation: which we at FC Not Alone incontrovertibly support. 

*All articles written on fcnotalone.com express the views of our writers. Whilst these are mostly aligned with our beliefs, they remain the independent opinions of our contributors.*