PFA Chief Executive John Didulica on football’s collective responsibility to support those who have given the sport so much in coping with the difficulties of transition.

By JOHN DIDULICA | PFA Chief Executive

It was always my dream to play in the National Soccer League. Just one game. Then I could go back and start a real life

As it turned out, I managed to scratch out 27 mostly forgettable matches over 4 seasons. It came at the cost of 14 knee operations, one for every two matches, and retirement by the age of 23. I have never played another game of football.

Early retirement didn’t faze me. I wanted to be a lawyer- and playing in front of a few thousand people on a wind-swept quarry in suburban Melbourne was the child in me achieving something special.

On the bunk bed below me, I had front row seats to my brother Joey’s ascension to becoming a genuine professional footballer. From the Melbourne Knights to championships with Ajax, Austria Vienna and AZ Alkmaar. European Championships and World Cups. Tops from Zidane, Beckham, Ronaldinho sit in a chest in my parent’s study, evidence of a rare career he – we – could never have dreamed of.

He, too, retired due to injury. An awful head and neck injury that not only hurt his career, but put his long-term health in doubt. His rehabilitation was two-fold. Reclaiming his health, but also reclaiming his place in the world that he left behind as a 20-year-old. It was hard for his family to watch him struggle and climb a mountain that was steeper than those he had faced as a footballer.

The 4 Corners episode last night reinforced the challenges that many former players wake up to every morning and those close to them see every day.

I returned to the PFA last July after having spent seven years in the bubble of club-land. What has struck me most is the depth of the challenges faced by our former players. And this malaise does not discriminate; success on the pitch being no portent for an ability to successfully adapt to life away from it.

There is a collective responsibility on those who profit commercially from sport and derive a social dividend from sport to develop a structure to, firstly, prepare athletes for transition and, secondly, support those whose careers are over. Of the tens of billions of dollars that flood into sport each year through infrastructure investment and betting markets, not a trickle makes its way back into the supporting former athletes for their efforts in giving rise to these industries.

Yes, nobody forces an athlete to pursue sport as a profession at the expense of pursuing another vocation. Yes, being a professional footballer can, on its day, be the best damn thing in the world. But we have developed a mindset where we ask young boys and girls to prioritise sport over the nebulous vocations that hindsight says they should have pursued. To sacrifice all as a teenager in the hope that they can “make it”. We marvel at those whose sacrifices inspire. Sadly however, for many athletes, the fall is as predictable as it is steep.

With the execution of the Whole of Game CBA, the PFA is resolute in the acute need to drive support for players in transition. The current players should be proud of their decision within the Whole of Game CBA to carve out a share of revenues attributable to player payments to support their fellow professionals during and after their careers.