It is inevitable, yet so many footballers seem unprepared for it. The end of a player’s career is a key moment – a huge change – and how he deals with it will shape the rest of his life. Many players struggle. Gone are the routines of daily training, the adrenaline of the matches, the interaction with team-mates and club staff, and the adulation from fans. There is a massive void to fill.
It is an enormous challenge that requires a different set of skills to the ones used on the pitch. Some players stay in football and become pundits or coaches; there are those who turn their focus to charity work and others who struggle to fill their days; and then there are those who are busier than ever. Louis Saha falls into that final category.
On the day we meet in London he has already spoken at an eSports masterclass. After the interview, he is going for dinner with some investors and possible new contributors to his company, Axis Stars. The two previous weeks he was traveling through Asia, conducting business.
“I have a 25-hour-a-day job now. It’s really demanding,” he says. And as if that was not enough, there is still a football part of his life. The next evening he will be in Spain to play in a Barcelona v Manchester United legends match. The following day he will return to Cannes, his home town. His life is hectic but he seems very content.
Saha had a hugely successful, yet somehow also unfulfilled, career. He played for Metz, Newcastle, Fulham, Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland and Lazio. He won two Premier League titles and the Champions League with United. He played 20 times for France, scoring four goals.
The final years of his playing days, however, were overshadowed by injuries. He was forced to miss the Champions League final in 2008 and all his spells post-Manchester United were interrupted by physical problems. But the injuries helped Saha prepare for life after football. In the aftermath of that Champions League final in Moscow, when United beat Chelsea on penalties, he found a way to express his feelings. “I needed to talk, to get something out of my system,” he says. “I started to write about it and it worked in a therapeutic way. It was a way to process things, like a communication.”
After a while, Saha realized how much he enjoyed the writing process. “When I write, I feel I get to understand what’s in my head. And when I write I feel whether what I’m thinking about is right or not. Also, it’s striking that when you lose what you have written down, you can’t rewrite it, it’s gone. Writing is very much about what you feel at that particular moment.”
Saha, now 38, developed the idea of creating a book, which he hoped would inspire others. He decided to make it about the life of a footballer in general, containing advice for young players – partly aimed at his younger brother, who had footballing ambitions as well. To get the best possible insights, he included as many different voices from the football world as possible.
Saha spoke not only to players and managers but also to a press officer and even a hooligan. He was living like a professional writer – and it proved a long process. “It was really demanding, because I was reading a lot, getting memos, chasing people, interviewing them, trying to comprehend everything and getting it all together in the book. I don’t think people realize the amount of work I put into it.”
Saha was pleased with the feedback on the book, Thinking Inside the Box, but there was also frustration. “I really like it when people understand what you are writing; it’s amazing but even though I got good reviews for the book, I got the sense that not many people read it. And I’m a guy who is all about results. It’s difficult to do all that work, and maybe only several thousand people reading it, even if the majority tell you it was good.”
After he finished the book, he thought of ways to extend it to a bigger platform. “I realized that I really wanted to help young people. So being an agent was a possibility. Being a coach or a consultant was also an option. I had to choose a channel. In the end, mine was to create a digital platform. I felt that was way stronger, because basically anybody can use it.
“So I was like: ‘How can I implement the book idea?’ It was already a guide in some extent. Because it was not only my story, I took the story from other players as well. It’s pretty much the same. Axis Stars is a virtual book in a way.”
It launched in 2014 and since then he has been working pretty much nonstop for the company, which aims to help people with their careers. Anyone, from footballers, to musicians and actors, can join the network.
Saha’s experiences provide the inspiration for the project, where participants can speak to peers and advisers about all sorts of career-related issues. That could include the assistance of coaches or physiotherapists, for example, but also help performers get access to sponsorship and investment opportunities.
“I still get asked for advice by different people on a daily basis,” Saha says. “For instance, my agent called me to say he had a talented French footballer who he wants to bring to England, and asked me for advice on how to create a tailor-made training program. I put him in touch with people I used to work with. This kind of player could join Axis as he can then search for a personal coach in his region.”
Companies and individuals can approach the members too, so that not all of the money ends up with agents. “If a company wants to run an advert with a player, they normally have to go through his agent. That representative might say: ‘I want 5K commission for the deal. Whatever you will give to my player, I won’t move my ass from my chair before I get 5K.’ If the company says no, the player will never know about that opportunity. The opportunity should be controlled by the one who is offering the possibility and the athlete.”
Saha admits agents still play an important role in the background but he believes the initial contact should be made between the recruiter and the possible client. “There are some really good athletes who have the chance to represent their country at the Olympics but they’re struggling to get a sponsor. What we try to provide is an extra platform for them to promote themselves and see if there are any companies that could sponsor them.”
While other footballers might dread the moment they hang up their boots, it was not the case for Saha. When he realized his body had reached a physical barrier, he switched to other endeavors but the former forward says his projects were a result of how his career unfolded. “Obviously, if I had all the luck in the world and played the amount of games Cristiano Ronaldo has played, for instance – who is never injured and got improved contracts because of his successes – I wouldn’t even have been thinking all this.”
But now Saha thinks his new career could become even more meaningful than his time as a player. “In my bad luck, I was lucky, because now I’ve seen the big picture and I have the opportunity to really help. And I think I feel more excited as an entrepreneur than I did on the field. I really liked being a footballer, and it felt very natural to play the game, but this is a real challenge. It is a hard process but it’s so rewarding, because if I can help 100,000 people, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. When you’re on the field, yes, you have excitement. But did I really create something that will last? I’m not sure. This project is something I think is going to last, because the youth – or maybe even my kids if one day they become professional – are going to use it. I really hope players understand they have the opportunity to help the people close to them. Because it’s a headache to be the family member of a star, as you get dragged in to a lot of situations you have never thought about.”
That is also something based on his experience. The fact Saha kept the same intensity level after his career had finished made for a difficult situation at home. He concedes that players who maintain a busy lifestyle may pay a price for it. “I think for a relationship it’s really hard. I think most women feel like they have to sacrifice for the player, that they’re standing in the shadows in a way. So it’s quite hard for them to say: ‘After the football career has finished it’s going to be the same.’ That made it difficult in my situation, because I was not about stopping, I was about to create a new company.”
Saha and his wife split up, and he believes it is common for footballers to get divorced after they stop playing. “I think it happens to 75% of footballers. They disconnect from their partner. There are all different kinds of situations. Some couples may face a different atmosphere at home, as the player might be a bit depressed and is not that excited any more when he retires from football.”
That was clearly not the case with Saha. At one stage he was keen to ghost-write the autobiography of his former France team-mate Patrice Evra and now he wants to write an animated film for children.
Sometimes, however, having too many things to do is better than not having enough.