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World Cup and Alcoholism

The final game between Germany and Argentina is this Sunday, but is the greatest global sporting event a perfect storm for alcoholism? Our Argentinean correspondent reports . . . .

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By Romina Mazzaferri

07/11/14

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Usually, in Brazil, it is forbidden to sell alcohol inside stadiums. But a request from FIFA—the Fédération Internationale de Football Association—changed that law for the duration of the World Cup being hosted in Brazil this year, and so alcoholic beverages have been allowed during all World Cup games.

This was generally greeted as good news, especially by European soccer supporters who are accustomed to drinking during games. Some even see alcohol and soccer as a cultural tradition (see Amongst The Thugs by Bill Buford).

But what about the players on the field? Obviously they aren’t drinking while playing, but many fare badly with booze off the field.

Yes, there is sudden worldwide fame, glory, and sponsorship deals measuring in the millions. But on the other side there is a whole new level of pressures. According to an article published in The Guardian last year, hundreds of players face mental health issues. Could those issues lead players into addiction?

Paul Gascoigne, the English footballer who was part of the team in the 1990 World Cup, is one of many cautionary tales in the sport. After retiring the game, he had legal problems due to his drunkenness and in 1998 he entered his first rehab, later repeating treatment many times.

Argentinean World Cup player Diego Maradona had his first positive doping result during the 1994 World Cup, and was sent to several rehabilitation programs for alcohol and drugs. As his world fame increased, so did the controversy surrounding his personal life. Following his retirement from the game, his health deteriorated into familiar addict territory—with heart problems, obesity and hepatitis. In his prime he was considered one of the best players of all time; in retirement he became a shell of his former self.

English player Andy Carroll is considered both a “crack” and a “bad boy.” His strength and powerful shots led him to become the highest paid player in the UK in 2006. But within two years he was facing arrests for assault followed by a string of episodes of violence and problems with teammates. By 2011, he was said to have settled down.

Also from England, Paul Merson was part of the 1998 World Cup held in France. His drinking and gambling led to the end of a marriage and a spell in prison for drunk driving in 2011, though he too has since found recovery.

Tony Adams took a decade to accept his addiction to alcohol. The English player, listed as one of the “100 legends” of the Football league, created the Sporting Chance Clinic in 2000 to provide treatment, counseling and support for athletes suffering from different kinds of addictions.

The career of the Irish player Paul McGrath was almost finished due to alcohol. In his autobiography Back from the Brink, he tells about his hard childhood as an orphan in Dublin and his struggles with alcoholism and a life lived on the edge of chaos until, finally, his hope and determination for the future won out and his story became a way for him to help others.

But there were other players for whom a second chance was not possible. Manuel Dos Santos, most commonly known as Garrincha (“little bird” in Brazilian), was a FIFA World Cup winner with his team in 1958 and 1962. But after financial, marital and alcohol problems, Garrincha went into an alcoholic coma and died of cirrhosis when he was 49. His last years were lonely. Nonetheless, millions of fans attended his funeral and today there is a bust of him in one of the FIFA 2014 World Cup venues: Maracanã stadium.

Argentinean coach Matías Almeyda faced alcohol issues, too. “I was depressed during my career. Sometimes I would just sit, awake for hours, looking at no one and nothing. I spent time in bed with no wish of waking up,” he told a local radio program. “I had alcohol issues. I was selfish. I had to start therapy. Talking to a psychologist helped me to open [up and express] my feelings to others, especially my family. My wife supported me a lot.” Almeyda recognized his need for a change.

“Mind rules over the body; I am convinced of that. Help is possible,” concluded Almeyda.

This was echoed by Andy Carroll’s statement: "I am a fighter. I am determined to do well here.”

Meanwhile, Germany and Argentina will face off this weekend, surrounded by drinking, cheering fans. We can only hope that the glory and adulation of the moment doesn’t lead to devastation for the players.

Romina Mazzaferri is a writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She works in communications for a NGO and writes for a number of magazines and websites in Argentina and internationally.

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