Demons on the loose

Andrew Baker assesses the dangers to sportsmen of greater rewards and extra time
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The Independent Online
PAUL MERSON is setting a fine example to his fellow players with the honesty of his confession and the courage of his struggle. The trio of addictions that plagued him combined in one troubled personality the temptations which separately plague the game of football. Why should so many players succumb to alcohol, drugs and gambling?

"There is no physiological reason why sports stars should develop alcohol problems," according to Eric Appleby, the director of Alcohol Concern. "It's a cultural thing: these are young men with time on their hands and money to spend and no idea what to do with it all."

Gambling is also a part of the football culture: not the million- pound bets of foreign businessmen, but putting a few quid on the 2.30 at Sandown or enjoying a game of cards on the team bus. For many players this is as far as it goes, but Merson is not the first to have found that the thrill of the gamble increases with the size of the wager.

Estimates of the size of the drug problem in British football vary widely: the tabloids have claimed that as many as 70 professional players are hooked on cocaine and/or ecstasy. This may be scaremongering, but given the widespread problem of cocaine abuse in American football the FA have wisely called in the Sports Council to help monitor the situation.

Undoubtedly stress plays a part in these problems: Jimmy Greaves has recalled that the greater expectations placed on players as the game grew in the Sixties contributed to his own troubles with alcohol, and those pressures can only be greater today. Appleby recalls a recent conversation with a player: "He told me, 'Ordinary people find it difficult when the boss shouts at them at work, but when 40,000 people are doing the shouting it gets to you even more.' "

Football is not the only sport with such problems: Appleby observes that the culture of club rugby is based around the bar. "But in recent years there has been a dramatic change at the top of the game," he says. "Where previously internationals would put away a bottle of aftershave at the post-match banquet, nowadays most of the players at the top of the game drink very little: fitness is too important."

Soon rugby players will be highly paid professionals, and the pressure on them to perform will increase with the size of their wage packets. Will they be able to resist the demons?

Booze and bets: The game's ills down the years

"I see booze as one of the major evils of the game. And its influence has become more widespread now there is big money to be earned. In my day it was half a lager. Today they're drinking spirits."

Bobby Robson, 1982

"I might go to Alcoholics Anonymous, but I think it would be difficult for me to be anonymous."

George Best, 1980

"While with Spurs I drank heavily to relieve the pressure of big-time football. My career covered an era when the game suddenly went sick and defeat became a dirty word. We used to get really stoked up for the games, with our adrenalin pumped so high that a lot of us needed an after-match drink to bring us back to earth."

Jimmy Greaves, 1979

"From the time I first kicked a ball as a pro 19 years ago, I began to learn what the game was all about. It's about the drunken parties that go on for days. The orgies, the birds and the fabulous money. Football is just a distraction - but you're so fit you can carry on with all the high living in secret, and still play the game."

Peter Storey, 1980

"If Stan Bowles could pass a betting shop like he can pass a ball, he'd have no worries at all."

Ernie Tagg, Bowles's manager at

Crewe Alexandra, 1974

"I've squandered fortunes in my life on birds, booze and gambling. But, as my old pal Stan Bowles liked to say, it's better than wasting it."

Frank Worthington, 1993

"I remember once on a tour of Italy the coach passed the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I pointed it out, only to be told: 'Shut up and deal'."

Bobby Charlton, 1985

"Cocaine is the footballer's drug. It's expensive and glamorous with that champagne image, and its use is widespread among top clubs."

Former Southampton and QPR player

Mark Dennis, 1994

"When I went to the South American championships in 1977, from a squad of 30 players, 20 were on drugs. Some were addicts and some were occasional users."

Carlos Bilardo, former Argentina

manager, 1993

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