The struggle for sanity: football, depression, OCD

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How many footballers, like Van Gogh in Don McLean’s sloppy, stirring ballad Vincent, struggle for their sanity? And does football make their struggle harder?

Football is, as Portsmouth keeper David James noted, an obsessive business. “How normal is kicking a ball 1,000 times a day? Elitism, by its very definition, is nor normal.” The professional mythology that “you are only as good as your last game” can, James says, mess with your head. Coming off the pitch knowing that – thanks to ProZone and the like – every run, pass, shot, miskick, tackle you made or shirked has been recorded somewhere and can be used in evidence against you can only encourage obsessive behaviour.

So we should not be surprised when Victoria Beckham reveals that David has a textbook case of obsessive compulsive disorder: “We’ve got three fridges – food in one, salad in another, and drinks in the third. In the drinks one, everyone is symmetrical. If there’s three cans of Diet Coke, he’d throw one away rather than have three – it has to be an even number.”

In his fine book Gazza Agonistes, Ian Hamilton noted that Gazza suffered many of the symptoms of Tourettes syndrome: “an excess of nervous energy, a great production of strange motions and notions: tics, jerks, mannerisms, grimaces, noises, curses involuntary imitations and compulsions of all sorts”. Gazza was also so fixated aboout keeping towels level on the rack that he’d run back to the house to straighten a ‘messy’ towel.

There are so many things a professional footballer cannot control – injuries, form, the pitch, the opposition, a teammate’s runs, luck – it’s easy to see how they might obsessively control things – fridges and towels – that are in their power. Jari Litmanen has a different way of coping: he’s made himself Europe’s king of football trivia and pub quizzes.

Obsessive compulsive rituals are part and parcel of football. They’re called superstitions. I know of one world class central defender in the 1980s – from the outside, the epitome of a steady model professional – whose pre-match ritual involved leaving the house at the same time, in the same car, playing the same tape in the car stereo, and picking the same teammate up on the same corner.

This is classic OCD behaviour, though not as elaborate as the preparations by 1970s Newcastle striker John Tudor, in which a bottle of Mackeson, baked beans, rice pudding, chewing gum, whisky, Elastoplast, water and Malcolm Macdonald’s false teeth were all implicated.

Scientists don’t quite know what causes OCD. It probably has something to do with the way the neurotransmitter serotonin works in our brains. Some surveys suggest it is more frequent among people who leave school at 16, as most footballers do. Probably 1-3% of us suffer from OCD. So, on average, between four and 12 Premiership players might. If you use the same math – remembering that 7-12% of British men suffer from depression – 28-48 Premiership players may be plagued by the condition Winston Churchill referred to as his “black dog”.

Owning up to OCD is bad enough, admitting you suffer from depression – as Sebastian Deisler did at Bayern Munich – is even harder. Deisler and Bayern were brave to open up. They might, says Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger, have been influenced by the abuse that greeted Hannover’s Czech playmaker Jan Simak, pilloried as a diva before being diagnosed with “something between complete mental exhaustion and a milder form of depression”.

In his piece, James intriguingly refers to flair players – like Deisler and Simak – as “bipolar”. These cases prompted many old pros to swear it never happened in their day. They probably wouldn’t say that to Neil Lennon. The Northern Irish international said that when his depression was blackest: “I didn’t want to wake up, let alone go out on the park.”

The history of addiction in football suggests that such despair has often been masked with booze, gambling, sex and drugs. Fame and £120,000 a week salaries are no barrier to depression. Indeed, psychologist Oliver James believes that the psychological forces that drive over-achievers – often a reaction to childhood trauma, especially bereavement or separation from a parent – can undo them. Yet many clubs encourage this very trauma: in Cristiano Ronaldo’s surprisingly frank memoir Moments he recalls his misery when, at the tender age of 11, he left his family in Madeira to join Sporting Lisbon’s soccer school.

We are happy to accept that poets, rock stars and scientists can be mentally troubled. It seems to the worst kind of cultural snobbishness not to give footballers the same largesse. In football, as in poetry and science, genius/madness may be two halves of the same thing. Would Maradona, Best, or Cruyff have been as great if they’d all been utterly rational?

Not every footballer can disguise themselves as “one of the lads” and they shouldn’t be obliged to try. The media’s current psychotic intolerance for failure or human error doesn’t help either. We’re just as guilty. As the game’s economic polarisation continues, we increasingly assume that any player who isn’t doing the business is lazy, mercenary or rubbish. The strain of meeting such unrealistic expectations can only push more Deislers and Simaks over the edge.

Paul Simpson is the editor of Champions, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League