Off The Ball

They might have been footballers


These days, being a professional footballer is all-consuming. Between playing, training, travelling, media commitments and the rest, it is not surprising that the road to the top of the world game proves too daunting for some. But plenty of those who jumped off the football road at some point have gone on to great heights in another walk of life. takes a look at some well-known figures who just might have been professional footballers, had their lives taken a different turn.

It is no surprise that some of those with a talent for football have conspicuous ability in other sports as well, and where better to start than with the other great world sport invented in England: cricket. The name Denis Compton will forever be dear to the hearts of English cricket fans, who remember him as one of the finest batsmen of the immediate post-war era. But elderly Arsenal fans might also remember a dashing winger whose career was dogged by knee injuries, which prevented Compton from matching the heights of his cricketing exploits on the football pitch.

Steve Waugh's cricketing achievements for Australia are the stuff of legend: over 10,000 runs in test matches, and 16 consecutive test victories as international captain. Yet at high school, this youth was thrilling a former Socceroo captain with his football prowess. "I have not seen a better goal this year than the one scored by Stephen Waugh last Wednesday," wrote the esteemed Johnny Warren of the young footballer, who had represented New South Wales at youth level already. "It was a goal of which Franz Beckenbauer would have been proud!"

Thinkers and entertainers
Champion welterweight Ricky Hatton is another to have felt the attraction of football as a youngster; his father and grandfather had both played for Rochdale, and the young Ricky trialled with the club before deciding that his hands offered a better future than his feet. But feet can be used in individual combat sports as well, as world-class Brazilian mixed martial artist Vitor Belfort could tell you. He turned down a career in football to make his name in the ring.* *If football is the thinking person's sport, you might expect that some deep thinkers dabbled in football in their youth. Chess grandmaster Simen Agdestein played for Lyn Oslo as a youngster, and even appeared for Norway's national team several times in the late eighties, before a cruciate ligament injury in 1991 forced him to concentrate on his chess. Other grandmasters who used to be handy with the round ball include Serbia's Ljubomir Ljubojevic, who was on the books of Crvena Zvezda as a teenager, and Vlastimil Jansa, a youth football international for Czechoslovakia.

All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football,

Want a real entertainer on your team? Well, you could do worse than the indefatigable Rod Stewart, who trialled with Brentford in his early days, or the late Luciano Pavarotti, who curiously turned his back on a career as a goalkeeper with his home-town club Modena in order to become a world-famous opera singer.

The Irish boy band Westlife boasted a former Leeds United youth team goalkeeper in Nicky Byrne, who was even a member of an FA Youth Cup-winning squad in 1997. His erstwhile bandmate Brian McFadden also had ambitions of becoming a professional footballer, and yet in a guest appearance for Sydney FC this year he was heckled by the fans, who compared his footballing skills unfavourably with those of Robbie Williams, another entertainer who dreamed of footballing success with Port Vale before turning to the stage.

Yet perhaps the most poignant of all the footballer-entertainer stories is that of Julio Iglesias, Spain's world-renowned crooner. A promising goalkeeper with Real Madrid's youth team in the early 1960s, the young Iglesias was involved in a freak car accident that left him seriously injured and shattered his dreams of a football career. To help with his recuperation, a nurse brought him a guitar in hospital to help him regain dexterity in his hands - and the rest is history.

The blessed game?Real Madrid must be something of a magnet for entertainers. Alvaro Benito is a name that football fans outside Spain might remember as a promising youngster in the Real sides of the mid-nineties, under Jorge Valdano and Fabio Capello; Spanish fans might know him better as a member of the popular band Pig Noise. Again, it was a fateful guitar that swayed him, during his recovery from an injury sustained during a youth international in 1996.

Every team has to be kept well-fed, and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay could no doubt work wonders with the half-time oranges. The master of expletive-ridden cuisine even played for Glasgow Rangers as a 17-year-old, but a serious knee injury, followed by cruciate ligament damage sustained while playing squash, put an end to Ramsay's footballing ambitions.

How about someone to chronicle your team's on-field exploits? Perhaps you could call on the services of French literary genius Albert Camus, whose early years were spent as a promising goalkeeper in his home town of Algiers (strangely, a great many celebrities with football pasts appear to have been goalkeepers). Even when a bout of tuberculosis pointed him in the direction of literary pursuits, Camus never forgot the lessons he had learned from the beautiful game. "All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football," he once said.

Another youthful goalkeeper who could attest to the game's character-building qualities is the late Karel Wojtyla, otherwise known as Pope John Paul II. In his home town of Wadowice, the young man was known for his passion for football, and continued playing the game well into his seminary years. With such a devotee, who could doubt that football is the blessed as well as the beautiful game?

Have your sayDo you know of any other celebrities who were footballers in their youth?

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