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Offside, 13 April

Wayne Rooney may be a bad gambler but let's not turn him into a therapy case.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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We’ve heard all the stories of his alleged penchant for granny prostitutes, the foulmouthed tirades at referees, the nightclub scrapes, and the episodic temper tantrums on the pitch. Now, with only eight weeks to go before the World Cup, England’s footballing messiah is mired in an alleged gambling debt scandal.

Wayne Rooney has reportedly run up a staggering £700,000 worth of gambling debts. Worse still it is claimed that he owes the money to a business associate of his England strike partner Michael Owen and the two players are rumoured to have fallen out over the debts. Rooney’s management company Proactive Sports were forced to issue a statement this week insisting that the two players were still the ‘best of pals’.

So, should England fans be worried? I’m not particularly bothered and, judging by his awesome performance against Arsenal at the weekend, neither was Rooney. But that hasn’t stopped a procession of journalists, quacks and reformed therapy cases queuing up to deliver doom-laden sermons about the perils of excessive gambling.

Footballers have always been known to enjoy a flutter. Players have plenty of spare time on their hands so it’s hardly surprising that they play cards or have the odd punt on the horses to alleviate the boredom. However, as footballers’ salaries have soared, so too have their gambling debts. Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie frittered away £70,000 on the horses when he was at Newcastle United. Three years ago Michael Owen was himself the subject of newspaper allegations that he had run up gambling losses of £30-40,000. Last month it was reported that a group of Chelsea players had blown £500,000 at the Cheltenham festival and that club captain John Terry spends £5,000 a week at the bookies.

But, while gambling in football is nothing new, what is novel is the pathologisation of soccer gambling. In the sixties and seventies we celebrated the birds and booze lifestyles of playboy footballers like Georgie Best and Peter Osgood. In recent years we have become more preoccupied with footballers personal failures and addictions. The hellraising footballer has been superseded by a new archetype – the footballing f**k up.

Tony Adams, Paul Merson, Stan Collymore, and Paul Gascoigne represent a new breed of damaged footballers: men who couldn’t cope with the trappings of wealth and fame, who drank or gambled to excess, who invariably checked into the Priory, and who sought redemption by parading their emotional scars in public. Whenever a young footballer goes off the rails, these ‘survivors’ are always wheeled out to sermonise about the dangers of addiction.

First to the pulpit this week was Paul Merson who in 1994 admitted to gambling losses of over £100,000. ‘Whichever language you talk, £700,000 is an awful lot of money,’ said the former Arsenal midfielder. Merson himself speaks fluent psychobabble, a dialect in which the word ‘gambling’ connotes a disease rather than a leisure pursuit. ‘Gambling is a compulsive addiction’, said Merson. ‘For me, it is probably the worst one you can have, because it is always in your system, unlike drink and drugs’.

Merson believes that gambling will replace drinking as the biggest vice in football. ‘You cannot have a booze culture in the Premiership any more. The standards in the game have moved on so much that you could never get away with it’.

The much-travelled journeyman striker Steve Claridge, another self-confessed heavy gambler, also issued a warning to Rooney about the dangers of excessive betting. ‘He has to learn his lesson. I hope this has hurt him because if it has, then he will stop’, said Claridge. ‘I don’t care who he is or what he does. In 20 years’ time, if he is still betting like that, he won’t have a penny to his name’.

Peter Kay, who runs the Sporting Chance clinic for football f**k ups, has warned that gambling in football has now reached ‘epidemic’ proportions. ‘Gambling is the largest addiction within football’, claimed Kay. ‘It is an accepted, tolerated form of relaxation for players which is not only condoned by clubs and managers, but supported’.

But, although Rooney’s reported gambling debts are pretty astronomical, so too is his salary – a fact acknowledged by Merson and Claridge. ‘It’s a lot of money, but Wayne earns a lot’, admitted Merson. ‘People are saying he is an addict but that isn’t the case’, said Claridge. ‘To a normal man, the scale of that gambling debt is huge but £700,000 could just be a bit of fun to Wayne Rooney’.

So there you have it: an extremely wealthy young man spends a lot of money at the bookies. What’s the big deal? That’s what rich people do. If Wayne Rooney was forced into burglary, toilet trading or drug muling to finance his gambling habit then we might have cause for concern. But, as Roon has not been reduced to penury, why should we care about the state of his bank balance?

How Wayne Rooney chooses to spend his money is his own business (though his shopaholic missus Colleen might declare an interest). As long as his performances on the field aren’t affected – and to date they have not been – then I don’t care whether he invests his earnings prudently in a diverse portfolio of retirement savings products or spunks his entire wage packet on whores and horseracing.

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Topics Politics

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