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

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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org