Gambling - The Footballer's Silent Addiction

Gambling is becoming an increasing problem in football and with several players struggling with addiction, Daniel Storey wonders if more can be done to help those in need...

Last Updated: 10/10/12 at 11:57 Post Comment

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Any form of gambling is, in itself, an illogical concept in that punters operate on the principle and knowledge that the house always wins. Las Vegas super-casinos, horse racing and greyhound tracks, local bookmakers and fruit machines, all exist purely because the odds are calculated on each exact event, and then skewed slightly against the customer. I am not pretending to reveal anything ground-breaking, this is common knowledge.

But, despite appreciating the above fact, I like a flutter on football, alongside millions of others across the country. I am prepared to take on the bookmaker, and have three distinct reasons for doing so. Firstly, for someone living well above the breadline but not exactly swimming in cash, there is the dream of the 'big win'. We have all seen the tweet or heard the news story about a six-figure accumulator pay-out, and it creates the green-eyed monster inside our minds. "Someone will win, so why can't that be me" is the reasoning, and forms what I term the Lottery Principle.

In addition, an extra layer of gambling is its basis in the reassurance of confidence. I consider myself to have a level of football knowledge comfortably in the upper quartile, and winning a football bet that I have spent a few minutes researching assures my ego that I know what I'm doing, that I am able to understand the rhyme and reason of an often unpredictable sport. I think this can be handily labelled as the Arrogant Prick Principle.

The final layer is that gambling provides an additional level of entertainment, because having money on an outcome removes a degree of neutrality, and the created excitement is directly proportional to the potential financial gain. Sky Bet are right, it does matter more when there is money on it. Even if we lose more than we win, as long as this is managed to a reasonable budget and kept under control, there is surely no problem with paying a fee for entertainment? People pay to watch films, drink beer and have sex. There are few tangible benefits in any of these three, but the first two at least are deemed acceptable. In modern society we desire to be continuously stimulated, we desire it yesterday and we demand more tomorrow. This is the Entertainment Principle.

Here, professional footballers are ripe for exploitation. At an age at which maturity and sense are typically at a premium, individuals are given infinitely more money than the brains they currently (or may ever) possess. They act through bravado, and are swallowed by peer pressure reaching boiling point within the dressing room. They are also, more often than not, given afternoons to spend at their own leisure. The combination of free time and substantial disposable income is a breeding ground for gambling, so add to this the presence of multiple horse racing meets on every weekday of the year and it is clear where the origins of addiction lie.

Footballers are rich enough to negate the necessity for the Lottery Principle, and although many fit the exact description, the Arrogant Prick Principle also isn't required to be invoked. Instead, a bored male is suddenly presented with an obvious and fairly instantaneous opportunity to succeed in satisfying the universally desired Entertainment Principle. It's pretty much 2 + 2 = 4 stuff.

Gambling economics states that the less money you have, the more entertaining the practice becomes, and the logic here is clear. If you only have £100 and you stake £50, you are desperate for the result to land favourably. If you earn £50,000 a week and you stake £50, you are gambling with relative pennies. In order to guarantee excitement, the stake risked must be of a meaningful total. Therefore, for a Premier League footballer to alleviate his boredom, stakes are raised to a dangerous level.

An epidemic has been established, and high-profile cases are frequent. Last week Michael Chopra was arrested for his alleged part in a race-fixing scandal to attempt to redress a £2million gambling debt, Matthew Etherington has admitted blowing £1.5million on card games, and Dietmar Hamann revealed earlier this year that he once lost £288,000 on a single bet. Kevin Kyle, Dominic Matteo, Steve Masterton, Kieron Dyer, Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Keith Gillespie, Steve Claridge. This is a long, depressing and inexhaustive list.

Last year The Secret Footballer commented on a former team mate who kept three mobile phones in order to receive calls from multiple bookmakers and tipsters. The player would place bets long into the night in an attempt to feed the addiction. If you were doing the same, could you focus fully on your job? As Etherington admitted: "How can you prepare for a game when you are playing cards with lots of money changing hands." This potential effect on team performance is almost wholly ignored.

There is also the added aspect of inter-squad issues arising from card games played on away trips. Is it really possible to have a positive atmosphere between players if a central midfielder is owed £70,000 by the right winger from a card game two hours earlier? And will two strikers interact ideally if one has taken £50,000 off the other on the turn of a card?

As with any high-profile addiction, the worry is not the cases that are revealed, but those that are swept under the rug through shame, guilt and embarrassment. Hamann, Etherington and others are consistently and continuously working to fight their demons, using the admirable Sporting Chance clinic to do so, but such an organisation is often used as a reactive cure as oppose to proactive prevention. Do we need to do more to help?

After releasing his book Life on the Line, former Motherwell star Kevin Twaddle (who lost £1million through his addiction) now visits football clubs to talk to youth players about the dangers of gambling, but states that he knows of many high-profile footballers already on the path to destruction, and he believes clubs turn a blind eye.

This attitude is summed up by Arsene Wenger: "I have had no gambling problems because we have never played cards. If they did, I would ignore them completely because every individual is responsible for what he does with his money. If somebody gambles he does not tell me necessarily, but I do not feel we have had that type of problem." This is the coach that managed Paul Merson and David Bentley, both of whom have revealed significant gambling addictions leading to spirals of decline.

Sympathy is an emotion rarely enjoyed by footballers. Their handsome reward for an enviable career generates enough jealousy that another revelation of 'star spunks livelihood up wall' fails to pull at our heart strings. The reaction to a footballer announcing a gambling addiction would be closer to 'f*cking idiot' than 'God, poor guy', particularly if his performances have suffered as a result. However, it is crucial for us to realise that an addiction is an illness, a disease of the mind which controls actions despite inevitable adverse consequences. That is the same whether it be vodka, heroin, porn websites or horse racing, and we have no right to create a predefined order of importance.

In many ways, gambling is the silent addiction. A dependence on alcohol or drugs becomes almost instantly evident on the faces and behaviour of those affected, but a fixation with gambling can often take months to distinguish, before individuals eventually become withdrawn and anxious. With that in mind, does constant assessment and assistance for young professionals not become more important? Shouldn't our clubs have initiatives to advise our players and aim to ensure that an online bookies is not the afternoon delight of the young footballer?

There are many who are too far down the line, and we must hope that organisations such as Sporting Chance can assist those in need. Stakeholders within football must now work towards prevention for the next line of potentially vulnerable targets. As with other related taboos within the game, a full admission of the problem must be the first step.

Daniel Storey - you can chat to him on Twitter

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