Playing football in the Premier League is considered the pinnacle of a career so many children dream of. A footballer in England's top flight does not just get paid to do what so many take up as a hobby, but receive pay cheques anyone other than FTSE 100 executives can only dream of.
The average Premier League footballer takes home £2.3 million a year, or £43,717 a week. That figure dwarfs the wage bills of England's European competitors. Germany's Bundesliga comes second with an average wage of £1.46 million a year (£28,011 a week) with Italy's Serie A players taking home £1.3m a year (£25,263 a week) and Spain's La Liga stars on £1.2m a year (£23,327 a week).
As of 2014, Britain's annual wage stands at £26,500–yes, that's the same as it was in 2012–meaning that by the time the average UK worker sat down to work on January 5th 2014, a typical Premier League footballer had already earned more than they would that year.
It is an enviable lifestyle, made all the more accessible by media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, where the flashier footballers can inform their fans of how they choose to spend a seemingly endless fortune. Incredible holidays, custom-made cars, watches, women. It all comes to you when you're playing in the Premier League.
So why is it that 40 per cent of footballers will be declared bankrupt within five years of retiring? And why are more and more seeking financial and legal help? Once the game has spat them out, ex-professionals are finding themselves in serious financial strife and with no one to turn to for help.
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"Once you retire from football the Professional Football Association cut you loose. That is the sad thing," former Premier League player Leon McKenzie told GiveMeSport Magazine last year.
"The Football Association needs to put more money into the right areas and take care of players that have played in professional sport for a number of years. There needs to be a bit more to the FA than just being a business."
A host of problems
McKenzie spoke as a man with plenty of experience in all the hardships that can come with a premature end to a career in football. In many ways he stands as an example of everything that can go wrong for a former professional.
Injury problems, a divorce, bad investment advice and severe depression; McKenzie found himself penniless and at the bottom of the employment ladder. He has now started to rebuild his life as a professional boxer in what is an admirable turnaround, but not everyone will have the drive or opportunity to drag themselves out of the gutter.
That is why there is huge concern for over 100 footballers, including recently retired Premier League stars, who are facing severe financial difficulties, bankruptcy and even homelessness as a result of a demand from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for tax reliefs totalling £300 million.
A report in The Guardian claims that a number of well known stars are set to lose everything after legal proceedings were launched against what HMRC deem to be a tax avoidance scheme. The program was set up and run by Ingenious Media in the early 2000s, allegedly aimed at taking advantage of reliefs by investing in the British film industry. Well known stars like Gary Lineker and Steven Gerrard are reported to be part of the group facing bills, but they are two of very few wealthy enough to cover the taxman's demands.
One affected footballer spoke anonymously in the same report, saying he had no chance of paying the demanded figure as well as claiming that he did not fully understand what he was getting into when he first invested.
“I am in trouble; there is no way I can pay the sums being demanded,” he said. “It is a really difficult period for me. I wouldn’t say it cost me my marriage but the pressure contributed to it. Your career comes to a very abrupt end and now, if I don’t go bankrupt, I will be close to it.
“There are so many of us in trouble; with my ex-colleagues, we want to be talking about the good times, but this is the topic of conversation everywhere. I am not looking for sympathy, I blame myself for trusting advisers – and I do think something should be done about them – and probably for being greedy as well, making a few grand from the taxman.”
The unknown star does not need to be identified to drive home the point; his tale of woe is so similar to dozens of former pros just like himself. There is a big problem within football and companies like XPro are one of the few trying to solve it.
Xpro: the charity for ex-footballers
Xpro is a welfare organisation set up to support former professional footballers, picking up the slack left behind by the PFA. They support ex-professionals in everything from medical afflictions caused by cortisone injections to finding more employment. The chief executive, Geoff Scott, confirmed they are now representing 40 players with regards to this new legal challenge.
He told The Guardian: “Many entered into them because they saw their team-mates doing it. They considered their job was on the pitch, and their advisers were looking after them off it.
"We are representing 40 players, many are divorced, houses are being repossessed, some guys have gone bankrupt already, and we know of 20 facing bankruptcy or an individual [insolvency] voluntary arrangement principally because of tax demands.”
This new demand is a huge blow to Xpro's work, but it is not the first, and most certainly won't be the last, high profile bankruptcy case in Premier League football. Last year, David James was forced to publicly declare bankruptcy, later auctioning off his memorabilia from a successful career at the highest level.
His career earnings were estimated at £20 million by The Mail, but a divorce in 2005 coupled with lavish spending throughout his career left him with little other choice. Stan Collymore attempted to explain the level of extravagance in his autobiography.
He wrote: “If he [James] had a new car and he pranged it, he would just go and buy a new car – so there were five cars parked in the drive. If he bought a new pair of shoes and he scuffed them, he wouldn’t clean them. He would just chuck them in the spare room and buy a new pair. Too much disposable income, I suppose. Too easy just to bin stuff. Too easy to spend money like you're going to be earning that kind of money for the rest of your life.”
It is with no surprise that you will be hard pressed to find much sympathy in the terraces, where fans are forking out a significant portion of their own wage to fund these lifestyles, especially when the afflicted former stars have not been successful enough to enjoy unconditional respect from fans.
But it is not exclusively unjustified spending that is landing these former pros in trouble. Footballers are constantly being chased by financial advisors like those at Ingenious Media, who know high profile sport stars will be more easily convinced than people with comparable wealth in other industries.
They enter into schemes that may seem legal with little understanding of the potential consequences. Hundreds of celebrities and sport stars were attracted by schemes like that of Ingenious Media. It seems a fundamental desire to avoid paying tax will always be prevalent amongst society's highest earners.
When these vultures start circling, there are few places footballers can turn to for advice. Clubs and relevant associations tend to keep their noses out of their player's financial affairs, usually to everyone but the investment company's detriment. They have already been sucked into a system that forces them to abandon education for a small chance of success. Those who make it are the lucky ones. Those who invest their earnings wisely enough to last a lifetime are even luckier.
Lack of support
In many ways it is similar to the modelling industry. A footballer is just a consumable commodity in human form, exploited for their talent, richly rewarded at times but ultimately dumped for a younger and/or more talented version at the first opportunity. And that is not just the clubs, but agents and even the player associations designed to protect them.
Speaking on Xpro's research in 2013, PFA chairman Gordon Taylor said: "I have to be careful what I say about agents, but they are there during the good times and they're a bit like butterflies in the bad times.
"All the players come on to the PFA for advice when things have gone badly wrong. It is about saving, it's about being sensible, it's about being careful, it's about not expecting to have the same lifestyle. It's not everybody that can adapt. That exit strategy is quite important."
That is anything but a commitment to help those in need. Instead, the PFA seem to be using those who have spent their fortunes as examples to those still playing, almost considering the ones who already fallen into the trap as unsalvageable.
Their lack of support has inspired the creation of charities such as Xpro, which seems to be growing exponentially along with the problem. But while their work continues to help former professionals jump start their lives, until official organisations that profit so grossly off of these talents take responsibility for them when they are no longer the cash cow they once were, the issue will only grow bigger.