Sport is a profession of fluctuating fortunes. While the elite are lucratively remunerated and live a high life, the majority of professional sports people have to contend with the harsher realities of a cut-throat business.
Before Christmas, Sean St Ledger – the former Republic of Ireland footballer – spoke candidly about his enduring struggle to find an employer after he was rendered surplus to requirements by Leicester City in May.
“It feels like I’ve finished with football, it’s been the weirdest feeling ever,” he said in an interview with RTÉ’s Game On show.
Well 2014 hasn't been a great one in all aspects of my life.Suppose things can only get better so they say! Hope everyone has a good night✌️
— Sean St Ledger (@seanstledger12) December 31, 2014
“I always say ‘there are no friends in football’. I think that’s so true, that they’d probably stab you in the back. I’ve found this period really lonely.”
St Ledger’s plight isn’t unique. There are a host of footballers who have been disregarded, forgotten about and lost their sense of direction.
Granted, such are the inordinately sized pay cheques that land in a footballer’s bank account on a weekly basis, they’re unlikely to receive much sympathy.
But, there’s more to it than money.
At 29-years-old, the defender should be in the prime of what promised to be a burgeoning career. Instead, he’s exhausting the long, monotonous hours in the gym, keeping fit in hope more than expectation that the phone will ring and his period in the wilderness will be no more.
Just a couple of years ago, St Ledger was a permanent fixture at the heart of the Irish defence. He scored Ireland’s only goal at the ill-fated European Championships two years ago but much like Giovanni Trapattoni’s tenure, things went downhill, and fast, for the defender thereafter.
He hasn’t made a league appearance in 15 months. It’s a sobering reminder of the fickle nature of football, and indeed sport.
But, as much as his current situation is down to bad luck – a series of debilitating injuries curbed his progress at King Power Stadium – it was interesting to hear St Ledger say ‘there are no friends in football.’
As much as we hear players claiming they have a close relationship with a team mate, compatriot or even opponent, at the end of the day, their only interest is themselves. Sports people are invariably egoistic – they need to be in such a competitive environment.
The alleged squabble between Swiss compatriots, Davis Cup team mates and ‘best mates’ Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka at the ATP Tour Finals came as a surprise to many. “They’re so close off the court so I find it hard to believe,” was one pundit’s assertion on Sky Sports.
Indeed, they may have a friendly relationship but is that not natural for two players from the same country, who spend 50 weeks of the year on tour with each other? To Federer, Wawrinka is the closest answer to a mate on tour.
But, therein lies the anomaly. They are considered ‘mates’ because Federer’s, and indeed Wawrinka’s, relationship with other players on the tour is perfunctory rather than amicable. Players have a friendly relationship with each other but it’s nothing more than a cursory glance in the dressing room. After all, they’re directly in opposition with each other.
It’s hard to envisage the pair’s friendship extending past business and essentially that’s all that matters.
At the end of the day, they are rivals, adversaries, enemies and opponents. There may be mutual respect, they may not give each other the cold shoulder in the dressing room like others invariably treat opponents, but does that really mean they have a ‘close friendship’ off the court?
People claim because they play with each other for the national team means they are ‘close’. Kevin Pietersen’s explosive autobiography dispels that international team mates always get on.
Wawrinka’s career has been, and always will, preside in the shadow of Federer’s. Wawrinka has reason to resent his superior. His first career Grand Slam – last year’s Australian Open – went largely unnoticed. The reason? Because Federer had beat him to the post – 17 times, to be precise.
Being heckled by a ‘close friend’s’ wife in between games doesn’t suggest a strong bond exists. The fact Mirka, Roger’s wife, called Wawrinka a ‘crybaby’ indicates he isn’t a regular guest at the Federer residence.
The Andy Murray-Kim Sears and Thomas Berdych swearing incident is another prime example.
True, tensions can run high but that epitomises superficial friendships in sport – once they cross the white line, it doesn’t matter who is at the other end, in the other dugout or on the other team.
The pair may have a lot in common but this conflict has scratched beneath the surface and found the ties aren’t as strong as what we’ve been led to believe.
There can be relationships between individuals not in direct competition each other but when the stakes are so high in such a competitive environment, there can be no room for comradeship, no matter what is said.
There are no true friends in sport when those involved in the relationship are in direct competition with each other. The Federer-Wawrinka conflict only underlines that. Sean St Ledger is all too aware of it.