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Kelly Smith: 'I would drink every day, on my own, until I passed out'

The Brian Viner Interview: She is one of the best players on the planet – which she can prove at the World Cup starting in Germany on Sunday – but her real challenge came off the pitch

Friday 24 June 2011 00:00 BST

Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Pele, Zinedine Zidane and Kelly Smith are all marvellous footballers who have brought distinction to the No 10 shirt, but Smith rolls her eyes at the comparison, not because she feels unworthy in such exalted company, for after all she has scored 43 times in 104 games for her country, in an international career extending back to 1995, but because it uses men's football to define the women's game, which is the bane of just about every interview she does.

We meet at a hotel just outside Leicester, where she and the rest of the England team are holed up before setting off for the World Cup in Germany, which begins on Sunday. We'll come to the tournament, and England's chances, but let me first raise another topic that might be expected to make her bridle even more than comparisons with the men: does she consider herself an alcoholic?

"I don't know, it's a hard one," she says equably enough, through the jet lag. Smith has just flown in from the United States, where she plies her trade as a striker of rare potency for the Boston Breakers. She smiles, which I take as a willingness to answer more questions. Having not admitted to her drinking problems for several years after she resolved them, with rehabilitation at the Sporting Chance addiction clinic set up by Tony Adams (once of Arsenal, England and the vodka-induced stupor, just like her), she is now prepared to discuss them with engaging, almost disconcerting, candour.

"My drinking days started in college, but I didn't realise I had a problem until my leg-break in 2004," she says. "I was drinking quite heavily to numb everything, but I didn't know back then that alcohol was a depressant, and I was already depressed about my injury. So I'd drink every day until I passed out, vodka usually, and usually on my own, and every time I got another injury it would spiral more out of control.

"When the league I was playing in in America folded, I came back to England and talked about it to Hope [Powell, the long-serving England manager]. That's when I went into rehab. I spent a month at the Priory, but I was more comfortable at Sporting Chance, because there were other athletes there, and I could speak about my injuries. Nobody knew for a long time afterwards, but I felt like I was lying in every interview, so now I'm not embarrassed to talk about it. If I can help other female athletes, that's good."

Paul McGrath's jaw-dropping autobiography makes it clear enough, I tell her, that some alcohol-dependent footballers play under the influence. Did she? "No, it was mainly through my injuries," she says. "But I hid it from everyone. I called my parents when I was in treatment. They were shocked, and also embarrassed that their daughter had a drinking problem." Later, when she was back in the States and boozing again, her father flew out to bring her home. It wasn't how he had expected her sporting life to develop when she was a 10-year-old tomboy and he started looking around for a girls team for her to play for, his hand forced because other clubs in the Watford boys' league she played in had started to complain, once they found out she was a girl. That she was so good offended their sense of propriety. It wasn't how it was meant to be, a girl giving their sons the runaround. "I was better," she adds matter-of-factly, "than most boys at my school."

Anyway, it's all OK now, her drinking days over and her reputation inviolable as one of the best players in the world, still so good at 32 that the coaches of better teams than England have acknowledged that she would have a firm place in their starting XIs. But how good are England? Patently not as good as the hosts Germany, or the US, or Brazil. But there are four semi-final places to play for and, after that, as Smith says, anything can happen.

While stressing that it's "silly" to look too far ahead, and that the team's only focus is their opening game against Mexico, she accepts that there are three clear favourites to reach the latter stages. "Yeah, that's fair. Germany won the last two World Cups, and they're in their home country. America too, and Brazil, are very good." The parallel with the men in their last World Cup is, with apologies, striking. England need to top their group, or they will almost certainly land the Germans in the first knockout match. And that could, probably would, be curtains.

"Yeah, we need to avoid that. If it happens we'll face it, of course, but I've just been reading today that Germany have won five out of the last seven European Championships. They're just so good, and they have a great system in the way they breed youngsters and bring them through."

Smith infamously, but not unreasonably, once told a national newspaper that the reason she wanted to play in America was that women's football in England was a "joke". She doesn't think it's a joke any more, but still suggests that the game in Germany should be studied as a model for how to do things properly. "We're heading in the right direction, though. I have spoken honestly in the past about my reasons for leaving, because the game just wasn't developing as I thought it should.

"I didn't see any support from our federation [by which I presume she means the FA]. Now that has flipped. We get great backing, and we have players on contracts keeping them in the country. We're doing well as a national team, which helps. Qualifying for every big tournament, getting to the final of the Euros [in 2009, but losing 6-2 to Germany]. And Hope has done extremely well, not only with her coaching but all kinds of stuff behind the scenes that we don't see, like pushing for central contracts, and trying to change the format of the league to make it more competitive, so players get to play tougher games. That's all really good. But I'd still like to see full professionals, paid decent salaries so they don't have to work part-time, and better facilities, better grounds..."

In the States, women's football is in a more advanced state of evolution. Her Boston Breakers team attracts crowds of around 3,500 per game, and of course girls play "soccer" over there as routinely as girls here play netball and rounders. Nonetheless, there have been problems setting up a fully professional women's league. One league folded, and even the current, eight-team Women's Professional Soccer league has stuttered, with two teams in Los Angeles withdrawing because the costs of constantly flying to and from the east coast, where all the others were based, became crippling.

Naturally, WPS draws to an extent on the increasing success of Major League Soccer. "Some of our fans go to watch New England Revolution, the MLS team in Boston, and we'd like to get some of their fans. But really we get different crowds, with lots of young girls, and we're much more family-orientated. The MLS is more like here, more for your hard-core football fan. But it's good to see it doing well. They're getting more and more soccer-specific stadiums, which is good, because before they'd play in NFL stadiums, getting maybe 6,000 fans in a 60,000-seater arena."

Her fame in Boston is not such that she gets mobbed or even gently jostled when she's out shopping, but she has been recognised a few times, and had her name screamed from across the street by excited girls. And of course she is fluent in the language of American soccer: cleats for boots, jerseys for shirts, pinnies for training bibs. After all, despite four years playing for Arsenal between 2005 and 2009, she is really more a product of the American game, having taken up a football scholarship at Seton Hall College in New Jersey when she was just 17. She was already a full England international by then, but a reserved girl, shy, and leaving home was tough.

"I found it very, very daunting. I arrived with one big suitcase, and it didn't work out at first, because while they were trying to figure all my grades in England, what they would mean in the college system, I wasn't allowed to play. I was on the phone all the time to my mum and dad, saying 'this is not for me', but they kept saying 'give it another week'."

It was sage advice. By the time she finished at Seton Hall, having broken all kinds of goalscoring records, the college retired her shirt in that time-honoured American way of showing respect to a great player. Again, with apologies, had she been a young man so full of promise, she could have come back to Europe and been guaranteed untold wealth. So, the question is unavoidable: does she resent the disparity between the men's and women's games?

"Yes and no. I've played club football for Arsenal and I play for my national team, which is the highest level you can reach. I get my apartment supplied in Boston, and my car, so I'm very comfortable. Yes, they're earning £90,000 a week, more than I earn in a year, but I have no jealousy. That's where we're at."

Lots of men, I venture provocatively, have their theories about the level at which a top female player would operate in the men's game. I know it's not a fair line of questioning, I know nobody speculates in the same way about Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, but let's broach it anyway: what would be her level, or the level of her England team? A slight froideur descends. "I have no idea. I couldn't play in a top Premiership side, I'm not strong enough. And I haven't watched too many lower-division games. The England team? I don't know."

Does she find these questions annoying? "Yeah, a little bit..."

We move on, but only as far as the sexist comments that often get posted on message boards at the end of articles about women's football. I tell her about one strand of comments, which were mostly intelligent and insightful, but followed by the dispiritingly inevitable "do they swap shirts at the end of the game?"

A wan smile. "Yeah, they used to really bother me, those snidey comments. But now they just make me laugh. They're just ignorant, those people, and I'm not going to change them, whatever I say."

All the same, I bet she'd like to get some of those blokes into a penalty area, and nutmeg them a couple of times? "That," she says, with feeling, "would be nice."

A game of two halves: Kelly Smith v Wayne Rooney

Club career Smith has scored 98 goals in 110 games for New Jersey Wildcats, Arsenal Ladies and Boston Breakers. Rooney has netted 117 goals in 284 games for Everton and Manchester United

England Rooney has 26 goals in 70 appearances. Smith has scored 43 times in 104 games

Earnings The average salary for a professional female footballer in the US is £20,000. Wayne Rooney's annual net worth is about £18m, of which £12m is in wages (he earns £250,000 a week at United). He also has sponsorship deals with Nike, Nokia, Ford and Asda.

Women's World Cup

Group A Germany, Canada, Nigeria, France

Group B Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, England

Group C US, South Korea, Colombia, Sweden

Group D Brazil, Australia, Norway, Guinea

England's fixtures

v Mexico, Monday, 5pm BST, Wolfsburg

v N Zealand, 1 July, 5.15pm, Dresden

v Japan, 5 July, 5.15pm, Augsburg

If England finish top in Group B they face runner-up of group A, and vice versa

* England were unbeaten in their qualifying campaign, dropping just two points and conceding only two goals in eight matches.

* Of the five editions of the Women's World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1991 in China, England have qualified only twice, reaching the quarter-finals in 1995 and 2007.

* In Sweden in 1995, the team were strong in the group stages but were beaten 3-0 by the eventual runners-up Germany in the quarter-finals.

* In China in 2007, England started brightly but again exited at the first knockout hurdle, losing 3-0 to the US.

* England are unbeaten in their last 10 matches and sit ninth in the official Fifa rankings.

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