While recently watching a very powerful and moving documentary made by Clark Carlisle, Chairman of the PFA and ex top flight professional Footballer, ‘Football’s Secret Suicide’, it struck me just how different the world of football is from the world I am part of, Table Tennis.Young footballers are being hot-housed at youth academies with no back up plan for life, if and when they become one of the 99% that don’t make it. Increasingly you hear of stories of depressed, bankrupt, alcoholic, gambling Premier League Football stars and ex-stars who can’t cope with the drop off in terms of money, fame and status after a short lived £100,000 a week career.
Footballers from an earlier and romanticised era would retire and it was common to do one of two things, open a pub or become a taxi driver. That now is completely implausible.
I believe that money has corrupted certain sports to their very soul and essence of what they should be. Sport should be a vehicle for social progress. Not a cash-fuelled greed extravaganza by everyone involved that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Corruption at FIFA and the human rights abuses at Qatar 2022 taste particularly sour at the moment.
The list of individual sporting talents that have been ruined by money and fame is increasingly long. George Best, Paul Gascoigne, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson have all had their self-view distorted by wealth and fame created by sporting success, and have fallen victim to alcoholism, doping and serious mental health issues. The media then gloat while watching these heroes fall from their pedestals.
Tennis has a long list of notoriously over zealous fathers. Jennifer Capriati’s dad, Stefano Capriati, pushed the “pushy parent” model to a whole new level. Notorious for dragging his daughter onto the professional circuit at age 13, Capriati gained a reputation as a bully. FormerUSA Todaywriter Ian O’Connor once wrote that Stefano Capriati used his daughter as”a ponytailed ATM.”
There are a number of parents in the Table Tennis community in the UK that are tricky but I doubt any come anywhere close to this bullying, pressuring and ultimately destructive mould. The reason for this difference being that if your son or daughter made it as the best Table Tennis player this country had ever produced, they would take home at most £100-200,000 a year.
If you are the parent of a 15 year old with potential to make it as an international Football, Tennis or Golf star, then perhaps it would be difficult to not start thinking about the houses, cars and holidays that your child’s career could buy.
This is what I love about the sport of Table Tennis. It isn’t producing the brattish and spoilt behaviour of Premier League Football millionaires but is being used across the country to engage young people at crucial times in their lives to help further and better themselves through providing a focus in life and in education. I have seen hundreds of young Table Tennis players mature into well-rounded individuals and achieve way above expectation in terms of their own education and employment. The joy of Table Tennis is that once you can play, you are equipped with the skills to play literally for the rest of their life.
As a teenager myself I was surrounded by peers at London Progress Table Tennis Club that have gone on either to run community-based grassroots and excellence Table Tennis clubs themselves, or become Doctors, Teachers and Lawyers. Many of these young people were not destined for this but got there, I believe, largely due to their involvement in a sport that gave them confidence and self-belief.
One telling representation of the culture of Table Tennis compared to Football is that Table Tennis players follow an etiquette of apologising if they get a net or edge, something which is a fluke and can’t be practiced. This is in stark contrast to the shameless simulation and encouraging of footballers at all levels to deceive the referee into awarding a penalty through diving.
There is a purity in Table Tennis that has been lost in other sports. Ping Pong has soul precisely because it hasn’t been spoilt by big money. What it really needs is investment in its grassroots. Funding from the bottom up, not just based on targeted Olympic Medal hopes but to get as many people as possible playing regularly.
Football is solvent because it generates profits for a few at the top. Table Tennis doesn’t produce anything like the same kind of money for its elite. One result of this is that it is very difficult to find decent facilities in this country to play Table Tennis.It is market forces rather than societal health and community cohesion that are driving investment in sports.
Looking at the funding it does have, Table Tennis has a more equal distribution of wealth than other sports and is healthier for it. Could this be a reflection of what a fairer society would look like if we shared out our ample resources?