Bankruptcy and the beautiful game

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Andrew Shaw, debt advice coordinator at StepChange, tells us about the historical background of debt and football…

The World Cup is upon us again. By the time you read this, the office sweepstake will be underway, the wall charts will be half-filled in, and England will be well on the way to lifting the Jules Rimet trophy (probably).

For a sport that is so awash with cash, it’s perhaps a surprise to realise that football and indebtedness have so often gone hand-in-hand.

But while the biggest players on the world stage rake in millions, and the most successful clubs can be worth vast sums to their owners, the world of football is not immune from financial pressures.

Modern professional footballers, used to weekly wage packets worth tens of thousands, often struggle to financially adjust when they finally retire from the game.

One study on behalf of the Professional Footballers’ Association estimated that 40% of professional footballers face bankruptcy within five years of retiring – recent examples include former England goalkeeper David James and Cameroonian star Eric Djemba-Djemba.

But footballers facing financial difficulty after their playing careers have ended is nothing new.

The first ‘international’ football matches were played between England and Scotland in a series of five games played between 1870 and 1872.

In reality, they weren’t internationals at all – the ‘Scotland’ players were picked on the basis that they had Scottish-sounding names, rather than where they were born.

One of the English players in those early games was John Cockerell, who played for Brixton FC in South London.

Cockerell was an accomplished all-round athlete – he had once defeated cricketing legend W.G. Grace in a quarter-mile race – and played twice for England, once up front and once in goal.

But once his sporting career was over, Cockerell embarked upon a less successful stint in business.

The Cockerell family had made their fortune in coal – his uncle’s coal business even supplied coal to Queen Victoria.

John became a clerk in his uncle’s company, but quickly aspired to greater things, establishing his own coal business in 1882.

The venture was not a success, folding within a year, with Cockerell himself adjudged bankrupt. He eventually returned to the family firm.

One of the other players in those early matches contributed to the history of bankruptcy in a different way.

Montague Muir Mackenzie, who played for Scotland in the last match in 1872, became a barrister a year later and embarked upon a successful legal career.

Along with his colleague Francis Aubrey Clarke, he was responsible for writing the Bankruptcy Act 1914, the forerunner to modern insolvency legislation.

In modern football it is easy to imagine many of today’s players falling on hard times when they finally hang up their boots. The combination of high wages and extravagant lifestyles means that the transition to ‘normal life’ after a lucrative playing career must be extremely challenging.

On the other hand, it’s less easy to imagine Harry Kane penning the bankruptcy laws of tomorrow – but you never know.

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