Football and mental health: The big problem nobody is talking about


From afar, the life of a footballer appears like such a glamorous one! Travelling to city after city, living in plush hotels and having countless hangers on. Elite athletes must have it all.

But on World Mental Health Day [10 October 2021], Birmingham-based mental health expert Carole Nyakudya stresses that ‘having it all’ also means having the vulnerability of being human. It sometimes means dealing with those vulnerabilities alone.

“The football world is cut-throat, it comes with so many demands and we must comprehend that professional athletes are just normal people with athletic abilities. While they may have tons of money and live the dream every day they are not bigger than life and don’t have everything figured out,” Nyakudya tells FARPost during an Instagram Live.

The Edelbert Dinha story

Former Orlando Pirates captain Edelbert Dinha says now more than ever, there is a need for sport psychology in the game. Arriving in Poland in 1995 was a dream come true for Dinha who grew up in Chitungwiza, a dormitory town located 21km from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. It meant his life and that of his family back home was about to change for the better.

But little did he know that there was an unpleasant welcome awaiting him at Sokol Pniewy FC. “After three weeks in Poland, we went to another city to play an away game. When the bus was entering the stadium fans started throwing stones at my window,” the former Warriors midfielder tells FARPost.

Initially, he thought the opposition fans hated his team. “I started crying when I discovered that they were throwing stones at me because I was black,” he says.

Inconsolable, Dinha could not even warm up and had to walk back to the dressing room where he wept uncontrollably. “The coach came up to me and told me I would not play that game. At the end of the game, they had to sneak me into the bus and I was told to lie down on the seat so that fans would not see me.”

Dinha, who only spent six months in Poland before returning to his native Zimbabwe, believes at that point therapy would have helped.

Far away from the comfort of home, there was no one to talk to. It meant dealing with the issues on his own. “It affected my game and one moment I was on the bench and then out of the team, but it took me about one and a half months to gather myself together. I told myself I was there to play football and I had to get on with it,” he says.

After the Poland stint, Dinha turned out for Harare giants Caps United before Seven Stars then snapped him up in 1998. The club merged with Cape Town Spurs to form Ajax Cape Town, which he played for until he joined Orlando Pirates in 2002. The 48-year-old hung his boots in July 2008 after a stint with Mpumalanga Black Aces.

Nyakudya said it was important for athletes to discover healthy ways to adapt and cope with adversity and distress. She added that “building resilience can buffer one from developing mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder”.


The memory that triggers gloom

Exactly 21 years on, any mention of the 2000 Women’s AFCON Championship triggers gloom in former Banyana Banyana star Khabo Zitha.

At the peak of her football career, injuries halted what promised to be an incredible footballing journey. Having come through the ranks of Mamelodi Sundowns’ boys’ teams, she had the world at her feet until a mysterious knee injury struck.

“I have 13 operations because of football, I can’t exercise because I know if I try it gets painful when I get home,” Zitha tells FARPost.

Just days before the 2000 AFCON, the former Banyana Banyana number 11 picked up an injury that ruled her out of the prestigious tournament.

“It was 2000 when I was told I couldn’t play football. We were playing a friendly game preparing for the AFCON, it was a Sunday and the tournament was starting on Friday. I got injured while running,” she recalls, adding “that was the saddest moment of my football career”.

Zitha believes she hasn’t really gotten closure from the career-ending injury. “I realise sports therapy is important because as it is I’m yet to get closure. It’s something I feel I may still need to speak to a professional because when anyone mentions that 2000 tournament feelings of distress and regret flood my mind,” she says.

Leaning on your faith

Nyakudya says the “loss of interest and enthusiasm for things which used to provide pleasure” is sometimes a sign one may need professional help. SuperSport United defender Buhle Mkhwanazi recently shared how he fell out of love with football after the sale of Bidvest Wits. The Wits transaction, frowned upon by many, left the 31-year-old jobless for an entire season.

“The desire and passion of football was gone and it came within me to have the love and get the passion going again as I was on top, playing regular football. No footballer would want to go through what I went through,” said Mkhwanazi in an interview with the SA Journalists’ Association (Safja).

“It was not easy and I thank God that I managed to deal with it, my mental side of things and I got to learn how to live once you have been taken away a bit from what you love, from what you do every day.”

The former Bafana Bafana defender revealed how he spent a lot of time at the Mount Zion prayer mountain in Germiston seeking divine intervention. Mkhwanazi had to rely on his savings for his upkeep, but his accounts soon dried up.

“I tried to save as much and tried to pressurize myself in not living a life that is luxurious, tried a life full of savings. But you reach a point where your savings eventually run out and you wonder what is going to happen. There was no salary, no income and on top of that, my family, they were relying on me, on my salary and it became a challenge for them.”

Nyakudya says what Mkhwanazi faced is a glimpse of what a retired footballer is likely to go through as football is a short career. The Lorac International CEO stresses the importance of creating new streams of income, investing and also saving for the rainy day.

“When you’re a footballer, you’re employed by someone. Your destiny is in the hands of your employer. The employer can decide that it’s over. So it’s important to create at least four streams of income. Explore every way to earn money from your skills. Start with what you’re good at. With what you love to do and with anything that interests you, or that might be fun.”

The Goodman Mosele saga

Newly signed Buccaneer Goodman Mosele was unable to honour a national team call up for Bafana Bafana last week. While he has not come out to explain why, unconfirmed reports are that the 22-year-old suffered an anxiety attack. There are also unconfirmed reports that he had to perform a traditional ceremony.

Whatever the case, Nyakudya believes communication is vital. “If it is a case of anxiety then it’s important to communicate with his club and Safa. If it is a traditional ritual, it is equally important to communicate as well to avoid unnecessary speculation and penalties that may later affect him,” she says.

The former Baroka midfielder now faces a two-match ban after going AWOL. Safa CEO Tebogo Motlanthe is on record as saying they are “going to write a letter to the PSL and his club to inform them that we are going to invoke the clause that says if a player does not report for national team duty, as Safa we can ban him for two matches.”

Social media abuse

Nyakudya, recently named Female Entrepreneur of the Year in the UK, says some of the things that can trigger mental health disorders in football stars include lack of game time, long-term injury, losing a contract, a career almost coming to an end, relationship or family issues as well as a bad relationship with coaches and social media backlash.

Nyakudya, whose teenage son turns out for Premiership side Wolves in England, reminded football fans that behind the tough exterior they see in footballers, “there are vulnerable humans who deserve more than inane abuse on social media – and who are defined by so much more than mere results.”

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By Mthokozisi Dube