Gambling is such a serious problem in top-flight British football that some of the country’s best players underperform on the pitch because they are worried about coping with big financial losses, according to new research.
Speaking anonymously to academics, players at some of the UK’s biggest football clubs said they played high-stakes poker games on the team coach or at hotels to relieve their boredom before matches. If they lost, it often made them play badly, they admitted.
The research, due to be presented to the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Birmingham on Thursday, also found that footballers are increasingly turning to online betting sites in order to conceal their gambling habit from their partners.
Graeme Law, of the University of Chester, interviewed 34 current and former professional footballers for the study, including international and Premier League players as well as those in lower leagues. Some told him that big gambling losses could affect their performance, which led to “resentment in the team” about their habit.
What they said
“I have lost a lot and I had a stinker, because it’s all I thought about during the game.” – current Premier League player.
“On the way to the game he lost about two grand, and he was only 18. He had a shocker in the game.” – Premier League player speaking about a team mate.
“I have seen a lot of players lose a lot of money and when they get to the game they have a bad experience or a bad game…when I became a manager I tried to ban cards…but you can’t really stop it.” – former Championship player.
“Players gamble as a way of relieving the boredom on journeys to away games and after training on pre-season tours,” said Mr Law, who carried out the research as part of his PhD. “Contrary to popular opinion, their actions are heavily regulated and constrained, so they get easily bored.”
The rise of internet gambling through smartphones made keeping their addiction to gambling easier for players, he found. One Premier League and international player told him: “I liked to bet on the bus, but it got worse when I could bet online. I was able to do it all the time with no one knowing. I lost a lot. My wife found out after a year or so and she got me help and it’s under control now. It’s the culture to gamble in football and it can get dangerous when it grips you.”
Gambling has been recognised as a problem among footballers for years, with several high profile players speaking out publicly about the financial and emotional trauma it can cause. In 2014, a survey of almost 350 footballers and cricketers found that around 6 per cent should be classed as “problem gamblers” – more than three times higher than the rate seen in the general male population.
The research, conducted on behalf of the Professional Players’ Federation, involved confidential interviews with 170 professional footballers from the Premier League downwards and 176 professional cricketers. Many chose to gamble through online sports betting, horse and dog racing and at casinos.
Players who have struggled with gambling
The former Newcastle United, Cardiff City and Sunderland striker told a court in 2013 that he started gambling when he was 17 and would often wager up to £30,000 in cash with other players on the team bus on the way to matches. He also claimed to have been threatened by loan sharks later in his career as he ran up huge debts – and joined Sunderland mainly because the sizeable signing-on fee they were offering would pay off some of what he owed.
The former West Ham and Stoke midfielder spoke out about his gambling addiction last year, revealing that at the height of his troubles he blew his monthly wages of £120,000 in two weeks and ended up £1.5m in debt. In some cases he put gambling ahead of buying petrol for his car, he said.
The former Liverpool midfielder revealed in his autobiography that he once lost more than £288,000 on a single bet on a cricket match, after taking up gambling as a distraction from problems in his personal life. “Every wicket felt like a stab in the heart. By the end of the night I felt like I’d been scalped,” he wrote. “The next day, when I looked at the mess that was me in the mirror, I said ‘Didi, things have got to change’.”
While still playing for Chelsea in 2003, the Icelandic forward said he lost £400,000 in five months after becoming bored and lonely while he was unable to play through injury. “It started mainly out of boredom and killing time, until it came to the point where I was in debt,” he said. “I have seen for myself just how dangerous this gambling thing can be. I will definitely not put another foot in the casino.”