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Gambling addiction is football's last taboo

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It's time to acknowledge that players are suffering from an addiction and to provide help.

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"There would be afternoons when I would go into a bookies with a couple of grand and I would lose it and be gutted. I was full of shame and guilt and would hate myself. But within five minutes, that had gone and I would think, 'Right, where am I going to get the money for the next bet?' I knew it was going to spiral out of control but I was still doing it."

Matthew Etherington, who retired last December, is just one of the many footballers with a gambling addiction. In his own admission, the former West Ham winger admits that he gambled away upwards to £1.5 million, with his debt reaching £800,000 at one point. His gambling took on all forms, from playing poker on the Internet or in schools to betting on dogs and horses; both online and to bookies -- who would use a credit system in order to feed the addiction and their own cash flows.

An intervention from his family forced Etherington to see himself as a gambling addict, but, sadly, he's not alone in his addiction. While recovering from a serious knee injury in Barcelona, Eidur Gudjohnsen racked up £6 million in debt. Michael Chopra, the former Blackpool striker, lost around £2 million on gambling, and was forced to play through injury at Ipswich to pay off his debts. Paul Merson included gambling amongst many demons, and that addiction combined with his abuse of alcohol and drugs cost him around £7 million. Former Arsenal midfielder Kenny Sansom admitted his gambling problems left him bankrupt. Dietmar Hamann, Dominic Matteo, David Bentley and even Wayne Rooney have all suffered from gambling addiction.

While some are lucky enough to catch and treat their disease early -- or like Etherington, are forced to realize their addiction with the help of caring families -- others aren't so fortunate. Former Manchester United keeper, Keith Gillespie, gambled away no less than £ 7 million in his 18-year career. A teammate introduced Gillipsie to gambling, but as he'd already been running to the bookies for Sir Alex Ferguson, few were concerned:

It is football's last taboo. There's that many things players can get involved in, but gambling's probably not taken as serious as alcohol or drugs. There's heavy gamblers in every dressing room. And loads really come unstuck: Michael Chopra, Matthew Etherington, John Terry, me.

A confidential study conducted by Natcen on behalf of the Professional Players' Federation interviewed 350 footballers and cricketers regarding their gambling problems. The study found 6.1 percent of the athletes were problem gamblers, more than three times the rate for the general male population. Four percent of those gamble every day and 67 percent gamble every month. An additional 12 percent were labeled as "at risk to become problem gamblers." The types of gambling range -- an addict will always find a way -- from online sports betting to dogs and casinos. Though gambling's problems aren't as obviously manifest as, say, an addiction to alcohol, it has been linked to poor on-field form and a higher likelihood that the players be targeted for match-fixing opportunities. It's a high like any other drug.

In football, many clubs and competitions are closely associated with betting partners. Constant ads, banners and men in nice suits remind the audience -- and the players -- to bet on matches, to gamble on races, to go online and find a world of easy access websites that will allow them to blow as much money as they please. And because gambling is an addiction like any other, "as they please" becomes more and more money.

Few, including those affected, actually see gambling addiction as an issue. Many believe that it is a voluntary act, thus the players can stop at any time. They are often viewed as overpaid machines with little self-control, even by those inside the game. In 2011, "The Secret Footballer" wrote: "I don't have the definitive answer to the question about why some footballers like to gamble but, from what I have seen, the cocktail is a potent mix. More money than they know what to do with at a very young age would be the obvious reason, although I suspect the amount of free time we have at our disposal is every bit as significant. Throw in a bit of bravado, peer pressure, vulnerability and greed and most of the ingredients are there for your serial gambler."

It is often normal for a player to blow obscene amounts of money, then laugh about it in the dressing room. While players should be the only ones with a say in how they spend the money they've earned, a cycle of detrimental acts should be a warning sign to any caring bystander. Players blowing insane amounts of money continuously on bets that hardly reward them, while becoming more distanced from their careers and friends, should be a red flag to the people who claim to care for these individuals. But many footballers, their friends and even their managers don't see gambling as a problem, helping the sufferers becomes almost impossible until they have hit rock bottom.

The inability to understand how an addiction works and the refusal to categorize gambling in the same vein as substance and alcohol abuse is a major roadblock to reform. Thankfully people like Simon Taylor, general secretary of the PFF, is working to encourage football's governing bodies and clubs to provide education and support for those with gambling issues. Charities such as Sporting Chance, famous for helping Paul Gascoigne with his own demons, are stepping in to help as well.

We use footballers for their bodies, so the least fans, friends, family and clubs can do is to help them when they need it. Matthew Etherington revealed, "I would place the bets in the morning -- first thing I would do, either on the internet or going into a bookies. Instead of getting my head right for the game, I was thinking, 'Right, what horse am I going to back today?'" Such a statement is damning; it reveals that gambling is like a drug, with an addict needing one hit after another in order to feel that first high.

Gambling addicts become powerless, ruining their lives and the lives of those around them while they continue to chase an ever-more-elusive high. Footballers' addiction needs to be recognized as a serious one, rather than simply an issue of rich players throwing away their money. These players need help.

Update: Did a podcast on it!