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“Futbol is life” – A letter to my younger self

5th Sep 2022

Last month’s Stories from the Sidelines project is focusing on men’s mental health & friendship in football. As part of this, our Foundation Manager, Cameron, has reflected on his own mental health journey and his ever-changing relationship with the beautiful game.

Dear Cam/Camo/Cambo or whatever nickname you were given, 

Since your earliest memories, your life has been dominated by a spherical object, a football.

Growing up in Swindon, you were a football obsessed child. You played for your local grassroots team, Swindon Soccer Skills, before joining Swindon Town Football Club’s Centre of Excellence at the age of 8. Off the pitch you supported the glory days of Manchester United and spent countless hours bashing buttons on FIFA. Fútbol was life.  

In recent years and adulthood, the same spherical object still has its firm hold on you and your professional career. You still play non-league football and have played football abroad. You still, unfortunately, support Manchester United through some of their darkest days and you fill the spare time tinkering on Fantasy Premier League or cooking up tactics on Football Manager. Fútbol is life.  

Whether you like it or not, your childhood will revolve around a football. You’ll be in the primary school playground every break time or lunch time, trying to score the winning the goal and the subsequent euphoria that came with that.  

You’ll start with your first grassroots club and transfer that playground feeling onto a grass football pitch. You’ll get an early taste of success, winning matches, scoring a hatful of goals and then you’ll sign for your local professional football club, Swindon Town at the age of 8.  

You’ll think to yourself you’ve made it, you’re on a one-way road to professional football stardom. You’ll strut around in your first training kit and feel like a pro. Embrace this feeling, you’re a naïve 8-year-old who is starting out on every young boy’s dream.  

However, be aware of others. That playground can fill with jealousy and toxicity. Some of your peers will try and tear you down, kick you, laugh at you and tell you that your rubbish. This will affect you; you’ll feel unpopular, you’ll feel different. But remember, football makes you happy.  

You’ll progress through the age groups at Swindon, often playing an age group up. It helps being tall for your age. You’ll gain incredible experiences and play at some of the best teams and at some of the best training grounds in the country, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal to name a few. You’ll get to play at the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland, finishing 4th and playing against clubs from Denmark and Mexico. All these experiences will last with you for a lifetime. Cherish them, enjoy them for what they were and remember the smile you had on your face.  

However, your family, friends and peers may think you’re living the dream, on that pathway to becoming a professional footballer. Everything looks rosy on the outside. It’s far from that. There will be numerous car journeys where you’re bawling your eyes out because of a bad performance and the criticism that comes with it from the people you love and idolise. You’ll have coaches that try to belittle you and drain any ounce of confidence from your body. You’ll have teammates who laugh when you miss an open goal or misplace a pass. You’ll doubt whether you’re any good at this sport. It will shock you when your teammates of 8 years and childhood friends become poisonous, all chasing those one or two youth contracts handed out at the age of 16.  

The pressure cooker of academy football will take its toll, you’ll think about quitting and giving the dream up, these thoughts were all too frequent. However, you’ll never articulate this. You don’t want to come across as weak, you want to cling onto that dream. You didn’t confide in family, friends or coaches, you kept it to yourself. Later in life, you wish you had done this. Someone will always be there to listen.  

To most, the day when you get released from an academy is the worst day of their young lives. For you, it brings relief. It brought an end to 12 months of stress, anxiety and a lack of enjoyment. You fell out of love with the beautiful game. Who would have ever thought? You’ll reflect as you get older and realise that academy football isn’t the be all and end all and that as a child you should enjoy it for what it is. You’ll be thankful that you had an exit strategy which you’d recommend for any current academy player.  

As it always does, football sucks you back in. You instantly start playing for your local grassroots team for the first time in 8 years. Goals are flowing, the enjoyment comes back, followed success in the form of silverware. This continues into your college life, where you start thinking about life outside of football. The love comes back, confidence in yourself is at an all-time high.  

You will learn that despite some of the negatives associated with football and your childhood, the positives far outweigh these. The mental resilience, motivation and drive to succeed will make you strive to be a success in adult life, both on and off the pitch. The enjoyment you will get from continuing to play and being involved in football is incredibly powerful. It’s your mental release and stimulation. You’ll have your bad days, but football will always be there to help you through them. That’s why you can’t comprehend and find it upsetting that people stop playing at a young age. 

You’ve seen the mental benefits, and therefore you want to work with the youth of today. You want to have a positive impact on their childhood and develop that similar love for the game in young people. You hope they continue that engagement into adulthood.  

For you, football is the most powerful life tool, a safe space for you to thrive and be happy. Football presents the easiest opportunity to stay active, socialise with your friends and celebrate achievements, whatever they may be. In turn, football will continue to have a positive effect on your mindset and future life and career. You wish that every child will feel the same on their unique football journey. 

This very simple game will take a toll on your emotions. One minute, the so called ‘beautiful game’ can be oh so beautiful, but the next you’ll be questioning why this game has ever been called beautiful. You’ve been on a roller coaster of a journey of euphoric highs and gloomy lows. Would I change any of it? Absolutely not.  

As Dani Rojas, the happy, enigmatic character in Ted Lasso, says – ‘Futbol is life’. He couldn’t be more right.