PFA Chief Executive John Didulica on the critical role played by player development and wellbeing programs in ensuring that pursuing a professional football career is not an all or nothing proposition.

Most footballers can tell you everything about their first professional match. The nerves, the opponent, the first touch. Dig deeper and you can probably, even years later, describe the surrounds and recount the smallest of details.

It is a moment frozen in time. That first match represents the culmination of a ten or fifteen-year journey from a time that probably started before you can remember and has consumed most of your life.

Along that journey and to help you reach that point, many of those closest to you have contributed or sacrificed. Parents, brothers, sisters, coaches, grandparents. Long trips on the weekend. Another pair of boots. Missing your sister’s birthday. Getting to training with the team already warming up because mum got held up at work. When you take the field in front of the cameras for the first time, those thoughts and emotions converge to make it unforgettable, forever fused in your memory.

The reality for many professional footballers, however, is that this moment may be the highlight of their career.

The PFA has concluded the first phase of research into getting a deeper understanding of how a professional football career looks. We have looked at when players enter the professional game, when they exit, how many clubs they have, the levels of the competition they play in and the number of match minutes they play each year. We are hoping that, armed with this information, we can help all those in the industry – from players to coaches to agents to administrators- make more informed decisions about managing the careers of athletes for the benefit of the game in Australia.

In this first instance, the PFA is seeking to understand how a professional career looks. Some of the early research has confirmed what intuition would suggest- that the career of footballers is short term and precarious.

The research confirms that 85% of players will make their professional debut prior to the age of 20. Of this group, 25% will have played their final match as a professional footballer before the age of 24 and 43% will only be employed by one football club. More than 50% of players will not play a professional match beyond the age of 27.

These numbers speak to the competitive nature of football. As an industry, we buy into this bargain. You cannot simply decide you want to be a professional footballer. Or enrol in a course that guarantees this for you as a career. We understand that becoming a professional footballer is something you are selected for and that you need to fight for; it is not a right.

The question, however, is what sits on the other side of this bargain? The football industry generates billions of dollars globally based on the performances of its players and support actors. Many within the top end of this ecosystem, including players, are well rewarded for their contribution. As an industry, however, we should not trade on the hopes and sacrifices of young players and the sacrifices and trust of their families without some reciprocal obligation.

As one of the 25% who will never play a professional match beyond the age of 24, players are sacrificing the most important years of their development to football without receiving a dividend in return. Whilst school friends will be building the platform of their adult life, through the acquisition of vocational skills or tertiary degrees, footballers are putting the building of this platform on hold.

Next, overlay this professional fragility with studies that show that mental health challenges will manifest before the age of 25 and that professional athletes disproportionately suffer from anxiety and depression.

This combination of factors is combustible. To the PFA, it places an unequivocal duty on the industry to ensure that the wellbeing of players who commit to a career as a footballer are priorities. That the environments created within the sport are conducive to meet the shared challenge we have to support young people and that families can feel confident about supporting their son or daughter in pursuing a professional football career.

Through its Player Development Program, the PFA is building services and support that seeks to not only mitigate the risks faced by players pursuing a professional football career, but seeks to enhance their careers through wellbeing management and professional advice- to assist them in achieving their high performance targets.

Programs at organisations such as FC Barcelona and the DFB (German Football Federation) are now regarding the personal development of the player as a key benchmark within their training programs. There is an acceptance that developing well-balanced people not only helps produce more accomplished footballers, but is one of the organisation’s fundamental obligations.

The nature of football is that, in some instances, that first game will be the career highlight. There are only so many teams and only so many contracts. The commitment by so many to get you that point, however, should not be an all-or-nothing gamble. Quite the contrary, the system should ensure that getting to that point becomes an investment in your future.