A recent study found that 1 in 5 Brits secretly enjoy a crafty fag; keeping their habit hidden from friends and loved ones. The study, undertaken by former football league sponsor Endsleigh, also found that 44% of respondents had smoked ‘to some extent’ in the last twelve months.
But of course, this brief cross section of the great British public wouldn’t be reflected amongst the elite footballing fraternity, would it? A world were young men are paid exorbitant sums to do a job most of us would happily do for free, supported by a team of fitness coaches, dieticians and sports scientists? Would these adored sporting millionaires really jeopardise even so much as a modicum of their footballing (and money making) abilities for a cheeky smoke behind the stadium bike sheds?
Well, at the very least, attitudes towards smoking in the game have changed beyond recognition since the middle of the 20th century, before the true adverse effects of smoking were fully understood, or at least publicised. In that era it was not uncommon for players to smoke in the dressing room before a game or even at half time. This image of England legend Stanley Matthews promoting Craven ‘A’ cigarettes is a throwback to a time long since gone.
However, whilst a lot has changed since this 1952 advert, the modern game is not an entirely smoke-free domain. Only last year Arsenal talisman Jack Wilshere was panned by the nation’s media after being photographed smoking outside a London nightclub. He was, of course, just holding it for a friend.
But if Wilshere’s indiscretion was just a momentary chink in his otherwise clean living armour, football is not without those who smoke on a more full-time basis. Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov, recently transferred from Fulham to Monaco, is widely believed to be a regular tobacco smoker whilst former England goalkeeper David James also admitted to being a twenty-a-day man for much of his career as part of a recent anti-smoking campaign.
Zinedine Zidane meanwhile was controversially snapped by paparazzi smoking outside his team hotel ahead of France’s World Cup semi-final against Portugal in 2006 (pictured below). Public feeling was worsened the Frenchman’s frontline role in a major anti-smoking initiative just a few years earlier, although the level of hypocrisy was not quite that of Paul Merson after the notoriously recovering gambling addict became the face of an online bookmaker in 2009.
Zizou wouldn’t have to wait long for the controversy to die down however, as he comfortably topped that headline by viciously head butting Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the dying moments of the World Cup final just a few days later.
Another man not unfamiliar with his own slice of controversy is Wayne Rooney, who’s occasional ciggy related antics have made only a minor splash in his generally rather murky PR ocean. Rooney is not the only England international to have spied been fag-in-mouth, with teammates Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge, along with the aforementioned Wilshere, all previously implicated.
But what’s the issue with footballers smoking? Is it that it clashes with their place in society as role models – a role perhaps not wanted by many young footballers but nevertheless a compulsory by-product of a job which pays handsomely? Whether football players are morally obligated to behave in a certain way, or whether they should be considered role models at all, is another argument entirely. Maybe it’s something else.
Football spectating has become an increasingly expensive hobby over the last decade or two, with the average Premier League ticket now standing at around £38 for adults. For the typical working individual at times of economic uncertainty, supporting their team and subsequently the often monstrous salaries of their players is fiscally challenging.
Maybe then, any act which perceivably in contradiction to giving 100% application and dedication to the cause is seen as disrespectful to those who work hard to, indirectly at least, support the glamorous lifestyle of the elite footballer. But does the occasional cigarette really make a difference to the performance of a finely tuned athlete?
According to Dr Michael Ussher, lecturer in health psychology at St George's Hospital Medical School, not that much.
"Carbon monoxide reduces your capacity to exercise. But if you're only having the odd cigarette, several hours beforehand, it will make marginal, if any, difference."
That’s not the whole story however according to Stephen Spiro, deputy chairman of the British Lung Foundation, "It's wrong to assume that if you're an athlete and have super lung function, smoking doesn't matter. You're making such demands on your lungs that any impairment will affect performance.”
But let’s keep it simple – we don’t need a medical expert to tell us that not smoking is better for general health and fitness than smoking. Perhaps it’s time to stub it out, once and for all.
For help on stopping smoking, you can visit the NHS web site for support and information.