As far back as anyone can remember, gambling and football have always been entwined. As the sport has grown and become more prosperous, bookmakers have stepped in to offer punters a way to bet on almost every aspect of the beautiful game.
With the prevalence and ease of access to gambling tools, more and more people are significantly younger. In 2023, the Scientific Reports journal published a study that showed about twice the level of problem gambling among elite athletes in Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association compared to their demographic in the general population.
The report came on the heels of a 2016 EU-wide study that showed a substantially increased problem gambling among top-level sportspeople.
So, what is that all about? To get more insight, we first look at some examples of players who have struggled with the problem and then get into the context surrounding the conversation.
Let’s dive in.
Some Players Who’ve Struggled with Gambling
To put the problem into context, it is worth looking at who it affects. These stars play at elite and professional levels of the beautiful game, yet with so much to gain or lose, they still fall into financially destructive habits.
Some of these names may be familiar to you:
- Ivan Toney
One of the most recent and high-profile examples of a player who landed in hot water, Ivan Toney’s case, involves potentially illegal behavior on top of gambling. At the time of writing, he is a banned English national team and Brentford striker. He allegedly placed bets on football matches between July 2019 and January 2020, during the height of the pandemic, when he was playing for Peterborough United. He denied the charges and requested a personal hearing.
- Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney is a Manchester United club legend and former Captain of the England national team. Rooney confessed to losing over £1 million on gambling during his career. He was also alleged to have bet on his team’s matches in 2006.
- Daniel Sturridge
The former Liverpool and England striker was banned from football for four months and fined £150,000 in 2017 for breaching the FA’s rules on betting. He was found guilty of giving his brother insider information on his possible transfer to Sevilla in 2018.
- Gerard Pique
The Barcelona and Spain defender is known for his passion for playing poker and has participated in several tournaments. He also admitted to losing £15,000 on a bet with his teammate Cesc Fabregas on whether Fabregas would score a penalty in 2011.
- Mario Balotelli
The former Manchester City and Italy striker was fined £100,000 by his club for breaking curfew in 2012 to go to a casino. He also faced accusations of betting on Serie A matches while playing for AC Milan in 2014.
- Joey Barton
The former Manchester City and England midfielder was banned from football for 18 months and fined £30,000 in 2017 for breaching the FA’s rules on betting. He admitted to placing more than 1,200 bets on football matches between 2006 and 2016.
These are just a few of the many who have been publicly reported to gamble. During the pandemic, many more people frequented online casinos, and elite football players were no different. It was a lot of downtime, not much to do, and an entire season that seemed primed to implode.
This short peek into the list of players with a gambling problem, often betting on their own sport, raises an important question.
Are Players More Likely to Gamble?
Players at the elite level have spent their entire lives in the system, being told what to do, when to do it, where to go, and so on.
So, when there is downtime or boredom creeps in, which it always inevitably does, those who are most gambling prone might find themselves picking up an addiction, as seen in this study titled “Psychological Distress and Problem Gambling in Elite Athletes during COVID-19 Restrictions—A Web Survey in Top Leagues of Three Sports during the Pandemic.”
To be clear, it is not always gambling. Players with the time and money have fallen victim to many addictive vices, including drug and substance abuse. It starts with the fact that many professional footballers are in the age bracket most susceptible to gambling addictions.
Out of 10 callers to the National Gambling Helpline, six are aged 35 or under, with almost two-thirds identifying as men. Professional Players’ Federation (PPF) research revealed that footballers and cricketers were more likely to develop problems than other young men.
Why Is That Though?
According to a quote from Dr Tim Rogers, a sports psychiatrist working in elite football, Olympic, and Paralympic settings, the starting point is understanding the ‘psychological mechanisms’ driving addictive behaviors.
Speaking to The Athletic, he said that the phrase he’s heard when footballers and other athletes describe addictions is ‘escape.’ It is often from negative emotions and constitutes an unhealthy coping strategy for the many life-changing events in a player’s career.
This could be an injury, selection, contract disputes, bad or good transfers, or careers ending early.
In addition, players are often given to falsely believe that because they are professionals or elite-level players in their sport, they have some edge or insight the rest of the world doesn’t. That may very well be so, but in the grand scheme of things, they are not invulnerable to the unhealthy side of the bets.
The Fight Continues
To conclude, unlike other vices that footballers fall for that may leave detectable or visible physical evidence, it is hard to look at someone and know if they are gambling or not and whether they are struggling with the problem.
Despite the rules set by sporting bodies across Europe, it is unlikely that the laws will help all the players struggling with a problem that often throws them into debt and can ruin a career.