What if football makes you sick to the point that because of diarrhoea the last meal before the match has to be taken four hours before kick-off? Per Mertesacker has spoken at length and very open about his experiences as a professional footballer.
Most people have their views on football: players train twice a day, travel, play, repeat and get an awful lot of money for it. Those of us who have played football – regardless of the level – know that it is not like that all the time. Instead football is hard work and requires dedication and abstinence. Moreover, professional footballers sacrifice their youth for the sake of earning money while playing. The discrepancy between the romanticised view of football and the reality is staggering. And we are made aware of the gap between these two visions rarely through biographies or interviews.
Per Mertesacker has spoken at length and in detail about his career as a footballer in Germany and England. In May he will call it a day after almost twenty years in professional football. The interview was printed in this week’s issue of the German magazine Der Spiegel. Immediately before kick-off he lets us know he has a feeling of sickness that he has to oppress. So much so that tears come to his eyes. This is the first in a row of instances that demonstrate what a bone crusher professional football can be. The sickness comes in the morning and stays right until kick-off. Therefore he has to make sure that he has eaten no later than four ours before kick-off. Even is wive did not know about this. It is telling that Mertesacker speaks about is friend and colleague Robert Enke who killed himself in autumn 2009. Mertesacker says he did not know that Enke suffered from depression, so well did he hide it from his team mates. This was a point where he wanted to quit, simply because the following weeks it was back to normal. This is indeed a point where football still fails despite the money that comes in. The need for psychological help was declined when he was younger but later in his career it has helped him and he is now convinced that this should become a regular feature even for younger players.
He feels tired, he said, the doctors say he is kaputt, broken. Before he ends his playing career he will speak out to leave something behind for coming generations, his legacy so to speak. He intends to brush away the false hopes and pretensions about the job for it means constant pressure, and a monotonous schedule: play, train, travel, play, train. Being a footballer in the 21. century in one of the top leagues means to be reduced to the performance, i.e. to become a little cogwheel in the clockwork, not a human being. At the same time, he is aware of the benefits this brings: the amount of money he earns clearly leaves him privileged for the time after his playing days. There are cars, mansions and holidays in places where most people would have to save up years for.
In 2003 Mertesacker signed his first professional contract: 2 years, monthly salary €1000. Once he had established himself it was
‘one highlight after the other … at some point it becomes clear that this is not funny, but tough work.’
He did not think too much, he just pushed himself through A-Levels, training and matches. And it paid off. He became a German international and won the World Cup 2014. It came at a cost though. He played through injury telling himself that suffering makes him harder. For him being injured was not the end of the world but a blessing as it offered a rare chance to break out of the cycle, to calm down an refresh, not just physically more importantly mentally.
Speaking about pressure Mertesacker remembers the World Cup 2006 and the relentless pressure he felt, surely he was not alone in this. When Italy won the semi-final he just thought to himself:
It’s over. It’s over. It is finally over.’
thus expressing his relief. Fear was a constant companion. Fear to commit too early and concede a goal. If he ever was scared or afraid on the pitch, Mertesacker made sure no one saw it. He has made the choice to play football for a living and would do it again, he is aware of this yet he sees that there is a lot to be desired for. He will retire in May because he is tired and he wants to feel free.
Winning the World Cup 2014 with Germany and 50000 cheering for Arsenal:
‘For the memories it was all worth it!’