by Tony Attwood
Had Per Mertesacker been English I doubt very much whether he would have done the interview that he recently gave concerning the pressure he felt during career. Indeed he said he was glad that his playing days were coming to an end. Exactly the sort of thing that people who have never felt pressure simply cannot understand.
The article was published in Der Spiegel news magazine and reveals a man who was not always enamoured by his job – which is extraordinary when you consider the honours that the man has won. But it does explain fully why he is retiring now, at an age earlier than that of most players who have the choice. Staying in football but away from the limelight.
What Per said in his interview was that he was so nervous before every game that he feels like vomiting as each game started and struggled with diarrhea and other nervous afflictions.
I suspect only those who have had to perform in public (and here the level doesn’t matter) have any idea what these symptoms are like, nor the strange ways it can take people. In considering this I would of course not in a million years nor in any way compare myself to someone as magnificent at his chosen craft as Per, but in my own small way I know both sides. I started out at a young age as a classical musician, but pulled out of it completely because although competent as a performer I could not take the nerves of performing in public.
But what I could do was play in a rock band in front of much bigger audiences, and play in the more intimate settings of folk clubs. Totally odd and irrational. I can’t perform on stage in the theatre, but I can stand up and give a talk to a room of 500. During my early career in the theatre before I settled down to being a writer I met many actors and musicians who really suffered as Per has described. He’s not unusual – and the level of your ability has nothing to do with it.
Very understandably he kept these nerve problems secret, and actually felt ashamed of them. “I’d rather sit on the bench, or even better, in the stands,” he said. “The pressure ate me up. There was this constant horror scenario of making a mistake that could lead to a goal.”
Of course Mertesacker said he was conscious of the fact that as a footballer, he has had a privileged life, and that he appreciated all that football had given him but he has also said that in his next job, he plans to “attack the system,” and I suspect he means by that, work with the psychologists that the big clubs now have to ensure players who do have such difficulties are given the fullest support. And maybe attack parents and agents who see talent and remorselessly push it forward for their own selfish ends.
And certainly Mert can speak out on this for he has seen the lowest side of football when he was at Hannover when Robert Enke decided to take his own life after battling with mental illness. He had won eight full international caps with Germany and at his death in 2009 was considered to be a leading contender to be keeper for Germany in the 2010 world cup.
But of course already the criticisms have started. Lothar Matthäus said, “After these statements how does he expect to continue to be active in professional football? How is he going to teach a young player about professionalism when he says the pressure is too much? This can’t work.”
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Of course Matthäus knows infinitely more about football than I could ever know, but I have no doubt that what he is saying he is wrong. Let’s put it another way and ask, how can players learn to cope with pressure if those who have suffered from it can’t express what they have felt to help those who have the same problems? Or put it yet another way, how many suicides does Matthäus need to see before he realises the importance of a highly successful player coming out and saying how he experienced the problem?
Christoph Metzelder didn’t help either by saying, “I didn’t experience the 2006 World Cup as being anything like that. At a certain point, we were riding a wave.”
And this is the issue with anything related to mental well-being. It is nothing to do with the world, it is all to do with how the individual perceives the world.
I thought we had got pass the time of idiot managers, coaches and players telling people to “man up” and “stand up for yourself” and all that stuff. People can be brilliant footballers but have difficulty in coping with various elements in the game. This is true for people in all spheres of performance in front of an audience. Some can do it without any nerves, some suffer very seriously. That is how it goes. Some (very very minor performers) like me are even more quirky and can operate with full-on bravado in some settings and not others. Indeed I’ve known a few actors from my time in the theatre who could work readily on the stage but not for a TV camera – and vice versa.
In my view we should applaud Mert 1000%. Applaud his dignity and his honesty, and the fact that he wants to help any young players who suffer as he has to understand exactly what these issues are all about.
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