Fast cars, Mediterranean yachts, private island getaways – just a few staples of a professional footballer’s glamorous lifestyle. Or so the perception goes. The same perception dancing through my imagination as a starry-eyed teenager at the Manchester City academy. The same perception shattered by every contract I have signed since.
Last month, the FIFPro Global Employment Report into working conditions in professional football revealed 45% of players around the world earn less than $1,000 per month. To those who typecast all footballers in the mould of the Premier League’s highest-earners, the statistic might come as a shock. Not to me. I am a professional footballer, and for most of my nomadic playing career I have been part of the 45%.
After City, a youth team apprenticeship at Rochdale earning £60 a week prepared me for a more low-budget footballing future. As did a cash-strapped student lifestyle on a soccer scholarship at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee that followed. So the modest wages I earned upon finally turning professional initially felt like luxury. At senior level, I have represented Tulsa Roughnecks in the American USL and Karlslunds IFHFK in the Swedish Second Division. I have spent spells in between at English non-league sides Hyde United and, currently, Macclesfield Town. Never have I enjoyed the kind of financial rewards most people associate with professional football.
Having worked so hard for so long to get to where I am, life in my dream job has proved much tougher than imagined. Results of the survey – carried out by FIFPro and the University of Manchester, canvassing almost 14,000 male footballers playing in 54 countries across Europe, the Americas and Africa – prove I am far from alone in that harsh realisation.
The report splits footballers into three tiers. The top bracket is comprised of the highly-paid global elite playing in Europe’s big five leagues – the type with superior talent, bronzer skin and more Instagram followers than me. A second tier of footballers enjoy decent, if not spectacular, working conditions. Players in the survey’s third tier tolerate low wages and precarious employment in order to continue their careers. British politicians might refer to these as Jam footballers – just about managing. Statistics show players in the lowest earning brackets far outnumber those at the top: 20% of footballers earn less than $300 per month, 45% earn less than $1,000, and only the top 15% earn more than $8,000 per month.
To make it to this level requires serious sacrifice. From a young age, football demands to be a player’s primary focus. I committed large portions of my childhood and have uprooted my life twice to chase a professional contract, at the expense of stability and at least one meaningful relationship. Just rising through the junior ranks is a monumental task. Perhaps wisely, many quit. Those who endure and excel, and finally earn their big break, are usually rewarded with short-term agreements and modest wages. The average length of a professional contract is less than two years, says the survey. In a crowded, hyper-competitive market, securing a second deal is arguably more difficult still.
All of which begs the question, why bother? Logically, we probably shouldn’t. But dream-chasing has never been a logical pursuit. Aspirations to earn footballing fame and fortune are hard to give up on, and stories like Jamie Vardy’s convince us all we’re next. At some point, though, most players realise a career in football – far from its glamorous public perception – is more of a labour of love.
Unfortunately for my financial security, at age 24, I still absolutely love it. I train hard in the hope that a bigger pay day will come along next season. Meanwhile, the present is pretty good. “Best job you’ll ever have,” one old coach gruffly reminded us before each training session. He’s right. I’m lucky. I get to kick footballs around every day, have lived in three countries on two continents, met countless new team-mates, performed before adoring fans and even picked up a bachelor’s degree. All while staying out of debt and being paid for the privilege. Though life is rarely luxurious, it’s manageable. And from my experience, clubs will usually do whatever they can to help. Take my time with Tulsa Roughnecks as an example.
My contract was worth exactly $1,000 per month for the duration of the seven-month season. Standard money for a first-year pro in the North American third tier. Like any financially reckless young athlete, I marched my first cheque straight to the mall and splurged it all on a brand new iPhone 6. I may have been in FIFPro’s bottom 45%, but during the season I didn’t really feel any monetary pressure at all.
On top of my wage, the Roughnecks provided a comfortable three-bedroom apartment for me to share with Ben and Steve, two upbeat American team-mates. We lived in a busy neighbourhood with the rest of the squad, had passes to a nearby gym and two swimming pools on site. When I calculated my monthly outgoings, they constituted not much more than food, Netflix and Spotify Premium. (In another contract, I’ve had food included).
Our schedule was a doddle. Working hours for Tulsa Roughnecks were 9am until 1pm. After we’d showered, lunched, hit the gym, played elaborate treading-water catch games in the pool, napped and resurfaced, we were still left with mountains of free time.
I used the first half of the season to finish my degree remotely. Then, being graduated and crap at golf, I needed a new activity. I’m a keen paddleboarder but Oklahoma, unlike Sweden, is as dry as an ex-pro’s shinpad. So in the cool of the evening, I ran private coaching sessions, which killed some time and raised some cash. I taught Will and Andreas – two enthusiastic junior soccer players and avid Roughnecks fans – how to head, pass and strike the ball properly on a nearby baseball field.
Team-mates worked elsewhere, too. One made calls for his mum’s security company. Another took a few afternoon shifts in a Tulsa clothing store. Higher-earners dedicated themselves to golf, tanning and Tinder. We all had funds enough to sample Oklahoma’s best barbeque meat joints after training. Though most of us were careful with our money, life in Tulsa – one of America’s cheaper cities – was happy and more than manageable.
It’s the close season that proves the hardest. In my experience, a “one-year contract” actually means a one-season contract. So in America and Sweden, that’s seven or eight paid months. Not since Rochdale have I agreed terms for longer than a year, which can be as tough on the mind as it is on the wallet.
I try to squirrel away some money each season, but four months out of contract is an age. Travel costs, as well as an insistence on having a holiday, mean I have usually roared through my savings before other teams stop training.
Flights to Florida and Manchester consumed my final Tulsa pay cheques – the former for pleasure, the latter on a government-enforced exit from America. Season over, I slung my life’s possessions onto a Greyhound bus. Through the country’s heartland, I rode shoulder to shoulder with my fellow American vagabonds heading northward to Wisconsin. There, I briefly stayed with Sara, my ex-girlfriend, until my work permit expired, forcing me out of the country. In just a few short close season weeks, all those unspent earnings, like my relationship, had vanished.
Likewise, this year flights home from Sweden and on holiday back to America cleaned me out again. Pay-as-you-play deals, like at Macclesfield and Hyde, help bring in some cash. But in the absence of a guaranteed pay cheque, the close season can be brutal. Especially up north, when a waterlogged pitch equates to a zero-pounds week. Just to survive winter, I have moved back in with my parents and taken part-time work updating the social media channels of a small, local business after Macclesfield trainings. Fair warning, family: Christmas could be lean this year.
Thankfully I have not experienced some of the report’s most troubling findings, though. The survey uncovered poor quality contracts being used across large parts of the industry and that “the most basic conditions of employment are not being fulfilled”. For instance, 41% of players reported experiencing late wages at some point in their career. Getting by on modest money is difficult enough. Not knowing when – or even whether – those wages will arrive could genuinely prove career-threatening. Touch wood, my clubs have behaved impeccably in that regard, so I have no personal complaints.
“Football has enjoyed continuous economic growth,” concludes FIFPro in the report. “Yet, the financial growth is clustered around a select few markets and clubs. Therefore, employment conditions have substantially improved only for few players – mostly at the top of the game.”
This is perhaps the report’s key message, one that impacts too many footballers in our careers. So I hope every player – from all backgrounds, competing in all tiers of the sport – is backing FIFPro as strongly as I am when it calls for “professional football to address its financial redistribution structures to ensure a greater share of countries, clubs and players benefit from its growth.”
Media coverage of the report might help break unhelpful, commonplace perceptions assuming footballers all lead glamorous lifestyles. But for real change to come from this report, each one of FIFPro’s recommendations needs the advocacy and vocal support of more high-profile and influential footballers than myself.