The Fan: Sending psychotherapists onto the pitch

How often have we heard a manager say that the trouble with his star striker is that “his head is not in the right place”? Fergie frequently observed that today’s players are fragile.

It’s so good to see Luis Suárez back in fighting form, sorry, in full football form, scoring lots of goals for Liverpool, happy and smiling.

Just to remind you, it was at the end of last season, on 21 April, in the Liverpool-Chelsea game, that Suárez had a bite on the arm of the Chelsea player Ivanovic, which resulted in his being banned for ten matches.

A lot of work has been done on Suárez behind the scenes, such as counselling, but one of the results is that next season, in a trial run agreed with Fifa, we will start seeing psychotherapists in white coats rushing on to the field of play.

In the past, when a player went down, a man with a towel and a wet sponge rushed on, slopped water all over him and hissed into his ear, “Gerrup, you lazy bastard.” This worked perfectly well, even with a broken leg. Today, with a physical injury, the physios rush on as a team, wired for sound, carrying loads of ointments and instruments, often accompanied by stretchers and oxygen. They attend to the injured player, writhing in agony, which can often take five minutes, and eventually he moves his poorly knee.

But as we well know, modern, highly strung, highly trained footballers suffer just as much from mental injuries.

How often have we heard a manager say that the trouble with his star striker is that “his head is not in the right place”? Fergie frequently observed that today’s players are fragile. They suffer from a lack of confidence, a lack of belief. At the top level, the difference between them is not always physical, as they are so well trained, but mental. Who wants it most, who is up for it, whose mind is in the zone? Uncontrollable fears and anger can suddenly envelop them and ooof, that’s it, they’re no use, get them off the pitch.

But wouldn’t it be better if they could send on a psychotherapist, once they see the signs, recognise the twitches, to attend emotionally to the troubled player?

They learned a lot from treating Suárez and now think they can distil it, speed up the process, so that the team therapist will be able to run on as soon as he or she – because loads of the rapists are women – detects a problem. They know all their players, had them on the couch, analysed their childhood dreams, documented the various types of emotional malfunction.

Suárez Syndrome, for example, is the inner self uncoiling. It’s usually associated with deprivation and starvation, because most footballers come from impoverished homes. They experience a sudden desire to eat an opponent. Tests have shown they can be calmed with a cuddle, plus words in their ear from a white coat: “Just tell yourself, ‘No thanks, I’ve eaten.’”

Other players get frustrated with their team-mates, unable to accept that they are not as good as they are, lose interest, go all lumpen. This is called the Berbatov Complex. The player has to be talked through it. “We need you, Dima, only you can do it. Now get your fugging finger out.”

Some players need to be allowed to express their anger, by use of the Craig Bellamy Primal Scream Therapy. When a player starts mouthing his frustrations, his jaw twitching, his face contorted, you quickly lay him on the ground. You then get him to scream blue murder. This can be alarming for the referee but it does work and takes only three minutes, max.

Players are very superstitious and can worry that they didn’t wear their lucky underpants to the ground, hence the Ronaldo Routine. Therapists need to reassure them, perhaps bring on their favourite hair gel or comfort blanket. Not the whole one, of course. Just a corner will do, for them to touch.

The Bergkamp Breakdown refers to the great Dennis Bergkamp. His fear of flying manifested itself while young during actual matches. He would look up at the clouds, see them looming and imagine a dreadful flight home. It got so bad that he refused ever again to fly. The history of Arsenal would have been different, had a therapist been allowed to come on and talk it through in the early stages.

So, good luck, Fifa. The magic talk could soon be as accepted on the football pitch as the magic sponge.

Luis Suarez: back on fighting form? Image: Getty

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.