Lifting the lid on torment of ex A-League players

Retired A-League footballer Dez Giraldi has spoken about the trauma of seeking support for anxiety during his playing days.

Giraldi took his problems to Adelaide United, but said there was a total lack of support from the Reds.  

“Being a father now I’d be asking questions of the club if it was one of my children involved because the support I got at Adelaide United was zero,” Giraldi said.

“I got prescribed anti-anxiety pills on three or four occasions. That was their fix. And on top of that nobody actually diagnosed me with anxiety.

“I do feel that the club’s got to have a bit of responsibility for the players. In my case I feel that, without pointing fingers, the club itself was lacking in its support, especially when I had spoken to the club about the way I felt.”

He is not alone.

Inaugural A-League Grand Final winner with Sydney FC, Jacob Timpano was plagued by injuries throughout his career. When fit, the defender’s performances had him touted as a future Socceroo.

But after spending years trying to get his body right the former North Queensland Fury player retired. What followed was a long hard struggle to come to terms with life after football.

Timpano said: “I spent a couple of years still hanging on training and waiting, it got to a point where I never worked a proper job in my life and I thought I’ve probably got to start doing something else.”

Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) has just released the findings of its extensive research into the health and wellbeing of retired and transitioned players.

More than 160 past players completed a survey which found that mental health and wellbeing were the main concerns of ex-players, while one in five suffered from chronic pain due to football.

Giraldi – who also lined up for Empoli and Sydney FC –  and Timpano were among a number of former A-League players who spoke of their experiences since hanging up the boots. Among them, Melbourne Victory’s Roddy Vargas, season one pin up boy Chad Gibson and ex-Western Sydney Wanderer Adam D’Apuzzo.

Giraldi said that the health and wellbeing of players is undermined by the shame surrounding mental health issues.

“I’m happy that I got through the other end but, unfortunately, there are a lot of people that don’t, and there are a lot of people that aren’t as fortunate as I am,” Giraldi said.

“I think the biggest problem is that we need to remove that stigma, resources need to be put into assistance – whether it be the mental side of it or the physical side of it – and even the studying and things like that there is so much that needs to be done.

“I’ve actually stood in front of a number of A-League clubs and spoken on the matter and one of the questions I asked originally is: Has anybody suffered or had any experiences with mental health?

“Nobody puts their hand up. Post the presentation I’m always contacted by a lot of people but in that presentation people don’t want to speak up about it whether they feel comfortable or not.”

National Manager of Player Development of the PFA, Ben Robertson, described the report’s findings as the first “huge” step in educating clubs, FFA, coaches, fans and sponsors about life post football.

“In comparison to every other major code in Australia we are well behind from a funding point of view,” Robertson said.

“To use the AFL as an example they have full time staff in this area, cricket has fulltime staff in this area, and their programs are funded significantly more.

“We need to engage the Socceroos a lot more and we need to recognise what they’ve done for the code and support them through the player’s alumni, to reconnect, to thank them for what they gave to the game.

“The ultimate goal is to come out with players that are better equipped emotionally and mentally to transition back into society - that is the end point.”

Timpano now runs a football program aimed at educating children about the game and nutrition.

“I started to get that passion for coaching,” he said of recent positive developments. “I also did my B licence and I am now involved with the elite programs with the South Coast Wolves in Wollongong.

“My brother and I came up with the idea of our Soccer Man program. I think that gave me something else to think about and focus on.

“I put a lot of energy and drive into that. Starting the business, meeting my wife made me think that there are a lot more things outside of football.”

He also has a clearer perspective on his achievements on the pitch.

“I started playing National League (NSL) for Wollongong when I was 16 and my body probably got pushed to the limits more than usual from guys at that age,” he said.

“If I was fortunate enough maybe to be in the system now, when players probably get looked after a lot better than when I was coming though, things could’ve been different.

“(But) I captained the Joeys  in under 17 World Cup in 2003 and I captained the Young Socceroos squad in 2005 in Holland at the Youth World Cup under Ange Postecoglou. Those two moments were huge in my career and obviously winning the first A-League grand final with Sydney FC.

“A lot of guys go their whole careers without winning anything or captaining their country so I still look back on my career with great pride and it was just unfortunate I couldn’t go on with it.”

Con Stamocostas is an Australian football writer. Check out his latest A-League Snobcast with co-host Rob Toddler here