a game of many pints

Football is coming clean: it's a sport with an alcohol problem. But can soccer and the sauce be separated, asks Oliver Bennett
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Sick as a parrot, gutted and under the moon - football's legion imbibers were in sober mood last week. Earlier in the week, Tony Adams, Arsenal and former England captain during Euro 96, admitted to the press that he was an alcoholic. This announcement followed his team-mate Paul Merson's admission that he was addicted to alcohol and cocaine. Then, the Football Association added that it was to redouble its three-year-old policy of random breath-testing. Football's coming clean, and the lads are becoming big players in the modern cult of confession and recovery beloved of our psychology- fixated society.

This atonement came after plenty of unreconstructed boozing, the lowlight of which was Paul Gascoigne and his England cronies indulging in high jinks on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong. After this, the Flaming Lamborghini cocktail became a household name; part of a peculiarly British pissed pageant played out in the media by the likes of Gazza and his friend Five Bellies.

In football there have long been legendary boozers. Jimmy Greaves, Brian Clough and Jim Baxter of Nottingham Forest all had their moments, though George Best is the most famous, and he has undertaken pub-based lecture tours making light of his alcoholic follies. It has also been popular for ex-players to manage pubs, though it is now more fashionable to have something a little flashier such Lee Chapman's Barfly and Terry Neil's Sports Bar, both in London. But they indicate the same time- honoured move from goal post to mine host.

Does this all add up to a fatal symbiosis between soccer and the sauce? "There's a close relationship between alcohol and football in Britain," says Ivan Waddington, director of the Centre for Research into Sport and Society, at Leicester University. "Look at the sponsorship: the `Carling' Premiership, for example, there are many links between football officialdom and the breweries, and it all signals that drinking heavily is acceptable, even desirable."

Within the game, Waddington feels that the hard man archetype of working- class culture has also fed football's capacity for drink. "The style of play of English football has a macho element of getting `stuck in'," he says. "Off the field I'm sure this spills over into heavy drinking."

This approach is peculiar to this country. "The idea that it is `hard' behaviour to be drunk is not found in many places," says Dr Mark Salter, a consultant psychiatrist who runs the alcohol clinic at St Bart's hospital. "The Scots and English do seem to have a propensity for that attitude." Italian players, says Steve Double of the FA, might have a glass of wine with food before a match. "No British manager would tolerate that," he says ``but it is the after-game binge that is the problem.''

The increasing similarity between footballers and pop stars can also be blamed. "Many footballers are young, undereducated lads who become very wealthy, and there must be a lot of temptation," says Waddington. He suggests that clubs take a more paternal role. "Certain clubs names crop up again and again, whether it's drink, drugs or violence," he says. ``It suggests that one should look at management styles." The older players - the ones, perhaps, who feel near the end of their careers - are the most likely to admit to serious problems.

Mark Bennett, of Alcohol Concern, also wants to see more research done by the football authorities. "It's laughed off, but there's a wide knowledge that there's a heavy drinking culture in football.''

There is, however, a long historical association to live down. Dr Richard Cox, a sports historian at Umist, says: "Many sports grew up in the 16th and 17th centuries attached to a tavern, and were associated then, as now, with rowdy behaviour. Breweries have always sponsored games." And footballers fit the profile of the heavy drinker perfectly. "Football attracts men who are young, impulsive, and relatively free from social constraints," says Salter. He adds that football is a modern expression of tribal affiliation, and that the celebration of team spirit has been fuelled by booze for millennia. Fame, money and sycophants all provide a basis for feeding a bad habit. "I don't think that football has a particular drink problem, but it is the sort of job that gives players the time and money to indulge in addiction," says Ian Ridley, this paper's football correspondent. "There is a Jack-the-Lad, loads-of-money, attitude now, and footballers are less in touch. They live lonely lives in mock-Tudor houses miles from anywhere and have loads of hangers-on." And their daily lives are documented: in the past a player's drink problem might not have become a story. But Ridley does mention that there are several players and clubs coping with addiction problems.

The game's authorities are concerned, hence the FA's random breath-testing procedure. "It tests for the morning after the night before to make sure professional footballers are not turning up under the influence," says Steve Double. "But it's not a stick to beat them with, more an early warning device." No one has yet tested positive. And the players do not necessarily recognise that football has an abnormal drink problem. "Generally, when you get lads together you get drink," says Pat Nevin of Tranmere Rovers, who is also the president of the footballers' union. "Yes, drink is often involved, but it's a quantum leap to say that it is a problem in football." Nevin, who is not a big drinker himself, will add that there is a certain pressure to drink. "I have certainly suffered from that. But if you're strong enough you should be able to deal with it. It's the same in many professions, and it would be wrong to say that football causes drink."

Yet athletes training to be at peak performance could be susceptible to addictive behaviour, says Adrian Lee, treatment director at the Promis counselling centre in west London. "You might find more alcoholism in sports, but the drink is the symptom. Addictive people do anything that's mood altering, and they might be addicted to training as a mood altering drug."

As Lee's colleague Robert Lefevre says, footballers tend to favour alcohol and cocaine. "We've had a number of names of similar stature to Tony Adams and these are the high-flying, happy `let's have a party' drugs which are available at the kind of hang-outs where footballers congregate." Gymnasts, on the other hand, are more likely to become anorexic. Lee is an ex-sportsman and recovering alcoholic. Once a top-flight rugby player and long-jumper, he became a heavy drinker. "It was about belonging, finding a group of people to accept me. Alcohol opened doors to me that were not open before and for a long time I thought, this is the life. As a sportsman I could have represented my country. But at the age of 32 I lost control. It gets noticed when Tony Adams does this, but there are plenty of others who are not noticed, some of whom become brilliant actors to cover up."

This may be difficult, particularly in a competitive environment such as football where, despite its swilling mandate, real physical degeneration would attract censure. But players with problems need back-up, thinks Lee, adding that a supportive team would help him to cope with his new- found abstinence. Both Lefevre and Lee salute Tony Adams for his courage.

Football has the highest profile, but other sports, such as rugby, may be even more soaked in booze culture. "Rugby and beer have a very long tradition," says a spokeswoman for the Rugby Football Union. "But we aren't conscious of any problems on the Tony Adams scale. And attitudes have changed a lot: the senior players are very conscious of it. They are athletes and they take almost a week off alcohol before a match." Ex- rugby players, like football stars, often move on to running bars; one of the highest profile is Victor Obogu's Shoeless Joe's bar in London. There are also social sports that have a boozy following among the blazer set. ``It occurs in any sport in which the social element has an important role," says Dr Cox. "In the middle-class sports - hockey, golf, rowing - you get social membership and club-house drinking."

In the past, drink was not considered quite such a bad influence on sports. In the 1908 Olympic marathon runners drank alcohol as refreshment. Charles Hefferson from South Africa, celebrated with a glass of champagne before he even finished the race, and Italian Dorando Pietri was gargling red wine and strychnine: a cocktail he thought would help. He had to be helped to the finishing line.

But this is 1996, and alcohol abuse is taken more seriously, partly because sportsmen are expected to be professionals, national ambassadors, shiny youth role models and celebrities as well as actually good at their game. As Eric Cantona might have said: "When the world demands that a young man be a paragon of virtue, it is to the glass that he may turn."