“What are you doing now?” For many years after hanging up my boots, this is the one question I’ve had to deal with over and over and over again. It did not matter where I was – I could be at a garage, doing some shopping or simply having some social time with family and friends – the question was bound to come up. There would always be that one guy who, out of the blue, would ask, “Hey, Howard, what are you doing now?” I would be attending class at university or at school teaching, attending work-related events or meetings and I would be asked the question. Some of my colleagues at work would often come up to me and ask, “Hey, Howard, what are you doing now?”
It’s a question that I, and many other ex-football players, have to deal with when our football playing days come to an end. It can be a nasty, or a good, experience, depending on your circumstances when you must respond to this question. Very often the people asking the question mean no harm. They do not mean to expose or embarrass you. It is out of curiosity that they ask the question. At face value, it’s an innocent question, until you must respond to it and it’s a question you cannot run away from.
“What are you doing now?” is about transitioning or reintegrating into society. But in the language of football – are we able to transition from defence into attack and succeed? Simply put, are we able to cope with life after football? Much research has been conducted over the past few years on how footballers have coped with life after football. The results are not good at all and show that the economic sustainability of a footballer is somewhere between two to three years. Thereafter, the wheels start coming off. Almost weekly, we read about some of our football players and our football heroes falling on hard times because they are not ready for life after football. Research has indicated that many of our football players are not able to cope financially just two years after their careers come to an end. This is bad news.
Looking back over the past decade or so, there is no denying that football has had a good run of fortune, especially financially. It now seems a like a long time ago when the PSL announced that it had reached the R1 billion mark in revenues. This financial success has also been good for the players. Some of our top players are earning very good salaries. Whilst 2010 was the catalyst for this financial upswing, 2020 has picked the pockets of the players and football in general. During these COVID-19 times, the salaries of players have been affected. To add to the misery, many teams dumped players whose contracts came to an end at the end of June. As a player, depending on your team’s position on the league table or the terms of your contract or whether you are coming to the end of your career or not, I can guarantee that there are many sweaty palms around. I’ve been down this road many times during my playing career. Administrators, players, sponsors and supporters are down on their knees praying for some divine intervention that will favour their own positions or that of their teams. No player likes uncertainty. This is all because the career of a football player is very short and, before you know it, you are out and then you have to deal with the dreaded question: “What are you doing now?”
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of the modern South African football player is that they still see football as a sport. Something that they enjoy doing and earning huge sums of cash while doing so. On the other hand, football stopped being a sport while I was playing – football is now big business and has been so since the 1990s. It’s just that the football players have not been paying attention to what has been going on outside the field of play. Many players are easily distracted by the trappings of success. When I think of this, I’m reminded of these words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.” That’s what happened to football. While the players were sleeping, the game changed. Dare I say that the game has long been captured by big business and soccer agents! They are now in full control of the bus and the players are just passengers. Being at home for many months has not been easy for most players, and being told that your contract will not be renewed and that you will be without a team for the next few months must be devastating, both mentally and financially. But, as the saying goes, all good things come to an end. For many, football played an important role in taking us out of a life of poverty and presented a multitude of opportunities. It is our responsibility to use these opportunities. Football has played its part, now it’s your turn to play yours. Life after sport will suck, but only if you let it. While you were playing and entertaining large crowds, people out there were studying, creating job opportunities for themselves, climbing the corporate ladders and cementing their positions in their jobs. The world is different out there and you must be ready when the time comes. The several months spent at home because of the Coronavirus was just a taste of what you can expect when it’s time to hang up your boots.
Who would have predicted that a tiny virus could cause so much chaos and panic around the world and that it could bring the Beautiful Game of football to a virtual halt? No one saw it coming. But what this does bring to the fore is that the life of a footballer can come to a sudden end without any warning. As frightening as this may be, footballers need to learn that retirement is a reality and that they should avoid defining themselves purely as footballers.
But always remember this: To succeed, you must be prepared to endure some pain. Learn to take responsibility for your actions. Don’t take your sport for granted. You have the power, use it correctly. Play each game as if it were your last. Lastly, find yourself a mentor. Find someone to whom you can speak and who you trust will give you sound advice. The late Jeff Butler was my mentor. He was very rude, cruel and harsh, but I trusted his advice. When I messed up, he’d call me aside and say, “Don’t be an ass@#%$, sonny.” That pulled me straight. Find your Jeff Butler, you need one.
Dr Howard Freese
- Freese is a former Kaizer Chiefs captain, who has a PhD degree.