More money, more problems

Ben Makuch examines how fame, glamour, and money affect young professional athletes

Tiny Citroën Saxo whipping through the narrow streets of Nottingham, U.K. Traffic? After-thought.

“St. Anne’s, mate. Hard. Dats why dey call Nottingham Shottingham.”

Let me tell you, they describe crime in a whole different way in England. Just like sports. Sometimes though, like in America or impervious-to-corruption Canada, they cross paths.

“Remember dat match mate? Wit Dunkirk? Them lads from da firm. Proper fighters, skinheads. Throwin’ bananas at me mate. Not right innit? But I reckon neitha is da league…”

Imagine if for a time you played for a top-notch soccer club (which will go unnamed), and you grew up in a poor neighbourhood (a council estate in the U.K.), with a drug dealer for a brother, and then given your prolific talent as a footballer you were suddenly blitzkrieged with a £10,000 weekly salary.

Enter personal crisis, and it all goes tumbling down.

“I was young, mate, to be givin’ dat sorta money. All sortsa lads on ya for it, lads from St. Anne’s…”

For Anton it was too much. He was my former teammate on a semi-professional soccer team from Gedling, Nottinghamshire, which I was contracted to for a few months. But I’m not trying to impress you, clearly I’m washed up now and evidently writing about sports – something that may have spared me from my own self-destruction. Either way I wasn’t good enough. And if you don’t know what a Citroën Saxo is, it’s England’s version of a bright red Honda Civic with way too many add-ons, presumably to suffocate the insecurities of a small-time drug dealer. Because let’s face it: Anton was a drug dealer. Crack to be specific.

But not always. Like other young professional athletes, on both sides of the Atlantic, he couldn’t handle the modern professional athletic experience. At 18 he was given the “cheddar” and the attention someone his age had no preparation for, thrown out to play in front of thousands, subjected to the abuse of fans (while his testosterone was just settling into his veins), and then expected to “act a man.”

Unable to deal with the quickly compiling pressures of money and expectations, he retreated to his old friends from St. Anne’s who provided a false sense of stability and a perfect platform to steal from him. It’s a story à la Michael Vick: money, glory, fame, and jail (albeit for gun possession, not dog-fighting). And although Nottingham may be colloquialized as Shottingham, guns aren’t exactly kosher over there, nor in all of England, where not even cops pack them. If you do, you’re “propa hard,” a “rudely,” a “badman,” or – in standard english – a future convict.

“My mate Jermaine just got on da books wit Celtic. Tellin me about all da gash, mate. Notha world.”

“Why doesn’t the gaffer [coach] get you a trial with a higher club?” I asked curiously.

“Ah mate, damaged goods, innit? Them scouts will offa tha world,” he paused, “but lotta dem don’t tell ya how it will be. No world left to offa…” he said with a knowing grin.

And boy was he damaged goods. How can a team be sure that rotting in a jail for two years won’t skim the ability off any player? Yet they helped make the problem – so easily predicted, but never prevented – and then they just abandoned him. Anton had no choice when he got out but to begin from the bottom, trying desperately to work his way from the lower leagues all the way to where he rightfully belonged. Failure wasn’t an option nor was anything else. His schooling had always been arranged by his club, but he more often than not skipped most of his classes, and he had little qualification for the workforce other than being “well good at kicking a ball.” Some top clubs, like Manchester United, say they stress scholastic excellence from their youth academy players, which is laughable. It would be like the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) saying they produce scholar-athletes. I’m not saying the OHL never produces Noam Chomskys, but they certainly take more pride in producing Jason Spezzas. Anton’s point was well taken; recruiters will never tell you the dark side of the journey – what is statistically the likely outcome: failure. Worse for Anton, when he was in the minority who did make it, the fame, the glamour, and the money all conditioned a sense of invincibility with no infrastructure to support him.

We continued down the street, weaving like madmen in between what seemed like pylons, but were really just cars, while blaring Akala – a rapper so uniquely English I couldn’t make out one fucking English word. Which is fair enough – I’m sure Anton would’ve looked at me cock-eyed if I blared the Rankin Family Greatest Hits. If I was going to crash and die, I thought, it better not be in this shitty Citroën. I could already read the headlines: “Wannabe Canadian Footballer Dies in Micro Machine Accident.” Finally we started to slow down in an unfamiliar dodgier part of town.

“Yea so uh, what are we doing here Anton?”

“Business, mate.”

My nerves started to throb. I’m from the suburbs – I like to know exactly where I am when the street names start changing from niceties like “Cream-Honey Lane,” “Pineyhill Street,” or “Autumn Daisy Avenue.” Especially, considering we were on a street called “Mash.”

Pulling up on a corner near a simple pedestrian (or so I thought), Anton turned the car. Walking over to my side, this unknown man leaned in like he wanted something.

“What’s going on here, Anton?” I enquired.

Anton rummaged in the backseat through a cooler and produced a crumpled ball of tinfoil.

“Mate, pass that to him,” he rolled down my window. “Tenner,” said Anton simply. I passed the tinfoil to the man and didn’t ask a single question. The money came in return. Was this what I thought it was?
We moved on driving with a furious pace and I felt invincible: semi-professional soccer player, getting paid (like seventy bucks a game, but who’s complaining?), and hanging out with nefarious characters.

Nobody can stop me now, right?