The trials are over. We've all been evaluated one by one, given an assessment and advice on what to do next. Some of us have been offered or promised a contract. Others have been told to continue their training. Everyone, though, is relieved that this journey has ended. It's been a taxing few weeks. Last night we drank and partied. It was one of the few times since the beginning of this trial that anyone has really relaxed.
When we first arrived, Frankie, one of the younger players, had a nervous breakdown. He was homesick. He spent hours crying in our hotel lobby, repeating through tears that he missed his dog, his family and his home. The coaches and players tried as they could to console him. One of the coaches suggested that he'd be booked a flight home, away from the isolated resort, from being surrounded only by his teammates and coaches for the next few weeks, from the grueling routine of training, eating, training again and then sleeping. He was offered an escape but he willed himself to carry on regardless.
Later that day at lunch, the rest of us were talking about Frankie. I said that he wasn't just crying because he missed home, but that he also felt trapped. Everyone laughed. It was a stupid assertion to make while eating lunch in a super-expensive resort. There we were in Utopia, at the feet of the majestic Mediterranean Sea, at peace, with only the crashing waves and birdsong to disturb the tranquility. It's hard to argue against the reality of Nutella-dripped pancakes and pineapple juice every morning.
"This is heaven. You know how they always tell you to find a happy place? This," one of our goalkeepers, Shaun, said as he stretched out his hands as if to capture the resort, the sea and the air at the same time. "This is my happy place."
But I maintained that the paradise was an illusion, and one that shattered easily. No matter how much effort goes into painting the walls of a cell, its nature cannot change. After a few minutes of discussion that concluded with neither side convinced, I gave up on the issue. I spent the rest of lunch making fun of the other goalkeeper A.J., who eats as if every meal is his last.
It wasn't long before the chains started becoming apparent to my colleagues. And I admittedly took some spiteful joy from it. Gradually, they were becoming frustrated with the restrictions weighing on our daily lives. One of the biggest restraints that we faced was not particularly different from general athletic life: our schedule.
Breakfast at 8 a.m.
Bus for training leaves at 9:15 a.m., sometimes 10 a.m., and on the days following a game, the training sessions were pushed back until about 11.
Lunch at 1:30 p.m.
Afternoon training at 3 p.m., sometimes 4 p.m.
Dinner at 6:30 p.m.
These events changed a little, depending on the days and times that were reserved for our games. Sometimes we had team meetings, as well. But for the most part, the above was standard. Also standard was our clothing:
Polo top and three-quarter pants for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Team issued training tops, shorts and socks for every training. Sometimes the red tops, other times the black ones.
Otherwise, it was team jackets and zip-up tops. Rarely did we wear anything that was not team issued. Uniformity was the goal.
The dress code felt stifling. A few of us began to revolt by wearing our own outfits, some "lost" their issued garments and others would avoid meetings and scheduled food times as to not constantly have to change in and out the compulsory outfits. There was now disgust for the food: it had grown stale from repetition. No more Nutella on pancakes please. No more rice. I'm so sick of rice. Fuck rice.
We spent most of our free time resting in the hotel or by the beach. Eventually, even this began to wear on us. We thought it ridiculous to travel to Antalya and leave without seeing the city and its people. The schedule, clothes and resort that at first was breathtaking had become stifling. The coaches notice the tension, and resolved to take us to the ruins of Side in an attempt to ease it.
To a man, we were exhilarated to be free. The coaches allowed us the freedom to explore to our hearts' content. And explore we did! We saw the Temples of Apollo, Athena and Men, the Theater, we perused through the bazaar and sat by the edge of the sea to eat steaks and kebabs. A few of us even tried unsuccessfully to sneak into restricted areas.
We were given four hours, but even before the allotted time was up, many of the players were exhausted, eager to go back to the resort. After days of complaining about about the enclosed nature of the resort, given a chance at the open world, they craved to return to its comfort. Compared to the regimented life, freedom was fatiguing.
During our last lunch, Shaun was staring outside the window at the Mediterranean. He was taking in his happy place for the last time. After a few minutes, he said to me: "I'm kinda happy that it's almost over. I can't wait to go home and eat a burger and have so much sex with my girlfriend. Oh God, I feel sorry for her." Our whole table erupted in laughter.
I asked him what his plans regarding soccer were once he got home, if he wasn't offered a contract. He said he would go back to playing for his local team and waiting for another opportunity to progress again. I told him that he was going from one prison to another and he snickered at it.
Shaun entertained the thought of quitting soccer if nothing develops for him in the next few years. He was at a critical juncture, and it was now or never. He was exhausted from the constant training and traveling, the never-ending games, the countless hours of film sessions and just wanted to at least have something to show for it. It had reached the point where the fatigue was almost level with the passion for the game.
But as we began talking about the prospect of giving up our dreams, of having to live a normal life, it was clear that both of us were deathly scared of this possible -- perhaps probable -- future.
A few years ago, a FIFPro study found that mental illnesses occur more often in retired players than current professionals and in the general population. Anxiety, depression and burnout were just some of the illnesses listed. Why?
One suggested answer is the lack of structure after players retire compared to their life as an athlete: "The shift that occurs during the transition to life after professional football can have a dramatic impact. Players stop with their intensive physical activities, they lose their structured life, their social support by trainers and teammates diminishes, they need to find their place in 'regular' society, and find another occupation."
As an athlete, everything you do, from training and nutrition to sleeping is regimented. Your clothes, your friends, the trainers, coaches and teams all exist in a sheltered, straightforward bubble. The external world intrudes in only superficial ways, and it takes catastrophe -- debilitating injuries or retirement -- to shatter the encasement.
The end of an athlete's career bursts that bubble and dumps them into the real world, often unprepared and naive. Freedom from structure can easily become a burden. For those who've had their entire lives detailed step-by-step for them, it can be overwhelming.
Athletes are aware that their individuality and freedoms are being sacrificed to their careers, yet they are fearful and unprepared for the moment they must step into the sun. In consequence, many either run back to the comfort of their cells or begin to destroy themselves.
Most of the players from the Antalya trials are going home to play for their local teams like Shaun. They will go from the routine of our time here in Turkey to whatever routine their clubs at home impose on them. In between, they have their freedom, but that escape will only last for a few days. I suspect that they secretly like it that way.
A line from an open letter written by Algerian author Boualem Sansal a while back has stuck with me: "Prisoners like trading one prison for another, for a change of scenery and the chance to gain a little something along the way."
Personally, I can't wait to leave this place. The stillness and isolation is killing me. I need the freshness of going to training five days a week back home. Being stuck in my room for the few free hours a day now seems much more exciting than being stuck in a resort in Antalya. Nutella on pancakes or not.