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We need to think more about footballers' mental health

The manner in which Granit Xhaka has been abused of late is unacceptable.

Granit Xhaka of Arsenal FC (file pic).
Granit Xhaka of Arsenal FC (file pic).
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

YOU OR I have no real conception of what it’s like to be a Premier League footballer.

The benefits to this job are obvious. Footballers frequently use phrases like ‘dream come true’ to describe it.

Players are handsomely paid, while they get to travel around the world doing something they have loved and excelled at since childhood, while competing in front of countless adoring fans.

When it goes well, it’s hard to think of many better jobs in the world.

Yet when it goes badly, it can be a nightmare. These days, it is arguably worse than ever, with the prominence of social media meaning abusive comments are harder to ignore. 

With that in mind, imagine what it has been like being in Granit Xhaka’s shoes these past few months. Everywhere he looks, he is being criticised.

Gary Neville recently called him “the least-experienced experienced player I’ve ever seen”. Martin Keown described how ”he is like a fire engine that turns up and discovers the house has already burned down – he’s that late”. Graeme Souness has labelled him a “fool”.

Now, even Xhaka’s own fans have turned on him. After the club captain was substituted against Crystal Palace on Sunday, he appeared to tell fans to “fuck off” as he left the pitch at the Emirates, after being mercilessly booed by the home support.

Of course, fans and pundits are entitled to express their opinion. They are not obliged to offer unwavering support for players. And Xhaka was unwise to react in the way he did.

But what the Arsenal star has had to put up with in recent months has crossed the line from legitimate criticism to repugnant abuse.  

In Xhaka’s statement offering an apology over the incident, he added: “My feeling of not being understood by fans, and repeated abusive comments at matches and in social media over the last weeks and months have hurt me deeply.

People have said things like ‘We will break your legs’, ‘Kill your wife’ and ‘Wish that your daughter gets cancer’.

“That has stirred me up and I reached boiling point when I felt the rejection in the stadium on Sunday.”

Make no mistake Xhaka is immensely talented by most standards. He may not be good enough to be Arsenal captain. You could argue he is an ordinary enough Premier League footballer. But to simply get to where he has — playing regularly with a side like Arsenal and making nearly 100 appearances for his country at 27 is something 99.9% of footballers never come close to realising. 

He is a high-achiever and someone in his position requires significant mental fortitude simply to reach that level. To do so and still have to put up with relentless abuse cannot be easy.

It’s understandable why Xhaka ultimately snapped last weekend and it’s important that he receives the proper support to deal with the situation — reports during the week suggested the club had offered him couselling in reaction to his predicament, while Unai Emery confirmed today that he would played no part in Saturday’s match with Wolves.

We have seen similar incidents in the past and it may well become more commonplace in the future.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-arsenal-v-wigan-athletic-emirates-stadium Arsenal's Emmanuel Eboue (right) leaves the pirch after being substituted. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Back in 2008, another Arsenal player, Emmanuel Eboue, was going through a poor run of form. In one particular game, he played so badly, after coming on as a substitute, that he was then subbed off. Eboue put his head in his hands as he exited the field to loud boos, with Emmanuel Adebayor trying to comfort him as he departed.

“I felt he had completely lost confidence, he couldn’t keep the ball any more, and then he became a danger. It is very sad but I think the most important thing is that the team wins the game,” his sympathetic manager Arsene Wenger said afterwards.

Eboue still went on to play with the Gunners for two more seasons and later enjoyed success with Galatasaray, winning three titles in four years there before retiring in 2017, but there remains a lingering sense that the booing incident did irrevocable damage to his career and reputation.

Earlier this year, Eboue opened up about his struggles with mental health. The player was struggling financially after an acrimonious divorce case, while he had been left without a club after his short-term contract with Sunderland was terminated over the failure to pay a former agent.

As a result of the agent incident, Fifa suspended him from all football-related activity for a year.

“Sometimes, I would lock myself in my room for three or four days, just thinking and asking ‘what’s left?’,” Eboue told RMC Sport’s Le Vestiaire (The Locker Room).

“Even today, I still take antidepressants to help me, because it is still a long road for me. But here I am hoping others would learn from this.

“Being away from a competitive football pitch for a year was heartbreaking.

“I had to train by myself, and I was really ashamed because people looked at me differently.

“Some would say ‘look it’s Eboue, a Uefa Champions League finalist with Arsenal in 2006′, to them it was surprising or shocking.

“Personally, I prefer to train in the morning, but there were people who were training at that time. They’d come to take a picture and post it all over [social media]. So I left to train at night.

“I couldn’t train during the day and was too embarrassed to stay at home.

My children always asked me when I was going to return to the field, so whenever I stepped out in the morning, I pretended to go to work.

“Unbeknown to my children I was staying outside and returning home when they were already in bed. I didn’t want them to ask me why they didn’t see me play on television.”

The defender, who earned 79 caps for Ivory Coast during a distinguished career, is now on the road to recovery, but his problems give an insight into the challenges that professional footballers sometimes have to face.

Eboue’s tale is a cautionary one and a reminder that all Premier League footballers are human. The fact that they earn millions and have an enviable job should not give people license to treat them callously.

The fans who abuse Xhaka and anyone else would do well to remember that the next time they prepare to press send and spew harmful invective in the direction of a high-profile star.

Premier League fixtures (all games kick off at 3pm unless stated otherwise):

Saturday

Bournemouth v Man United (12.30)
Arsenal v Wolves
Aston Villa v Liverpool
Brighton v Norwich
Man City v Southampton
Sheffield United v Burnley
West Ham v Newcastle
Watford v Chelsea (17.30)

Sunday

Crystal Palace v Leicester (14.30)
Everton v Tottenham (16.30)

It’s Rugby World Cup final week! On the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly, Murray Kinsella joins Gavan Casey and Sean Farrell to preview Saturday’s showdown between England and South Africa.


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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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