Clever play

By Jonathan White Source:Global Times Published: 2016-1-15 9:41:39

Footballers might be smarter than you’re led to think

Duncan Watmore of Sunderland controls the ball during the English Premier League match against Arsenal on December 5 in London, England. Photo: CFP

"Daft as a brush" was what Sir Bobby Robson called Paul Gascoigne but the man who managed the mercurial midfielder at Italia '90 would always have been the first to admit that the Geordie was right when he famously said "my brains are in my feet" on signing for Everton. Gazza, and many other footballers both before and since, have been ridiculed by the popular press for being thick.

Tales of footballers forgetting themselves - and in the case of Jermaine Pennant during his time at Real Zaragoza, his Porsche with a license plate marked P33NNT - provide the bread and butter for many ex-players as they negotiate the after-dinner circuit looking to put food on their family's table. Everyone enjoys stories of Jason ­McAteer, a man who starred for Liverpool, choosing to have his pizza cut into four slices rather than eight as "I'm not that hungry." It was no wonder the Republic of Ireland international was known as Trigger after the Only Fools and Horses character, a street sweeper who once said proudly of his "old broom" that it had "17 new heads and four new handles in its time." Daft as a brush, indeed.

It doesn't help matters that the game has long prided itself on ­eschewing education. Graeme le Saux was roundly mocked by his peers for reading The Guardian during his Chelsea days on account of it being an odd thing to take on the team bus. Nor does it help that the supposed intellectuals are as quick to turn on their colleagues: Sol Campbell, who has dabbled with politics since turning his back on the game, told the Daily Mail last year that he found his fellow footballers "dumb."

Not rocket science

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. For every rocket scientist (Shaka Hislop has a degree in mechanical engineering and once interned at NASA) there are plenty of players that Spanish commentators would call an "abrez lata" - or can opener - on the pitch that would struggle to open a tin of beans off it. Former Norwich City man Paul McVeigh is now a trained psychologist and he argues in his book, The Stupid Footballer is Dead, that players have to be smart, "not academically, but in terms of their thinking." It's a school of thought that is backed up by a 2012 Swedish study that found professional footballers to be among the top 2 percent of the populace in terms of "cognitive function." Put in layman's terms, that means brainpower, and footballers excel at functions of the brain that allow for quick responses to situations, such as you might often find on a top-flight football pitch.

There have always been players who have allied cognitive function and IQ, and been genuinely both smart on and off the field. Much was made of ­Sunderland's Duncan Watmore recently graduating with a first-class honors degree from Newcastle University, and not because he had crossed the Tyne-Wear divide. Watmore ­became only the second Premier League player to gain a first-class degree after David Wetherall, the former Bradford City and Leeds United center back gained his in chemistry from Sheffield University back in 1992.

Wetherall and Watmore have combined top-class educational achievements and playing in the top flight but they are not alone as footballers or ­former footballers with degrees. Former Manchester United winger and Manchester City manager Steve Coppell started his economics degree when he was still at Tranmere Rovers and finished it in his time playing at Old Trafford. Another Manchester United graduate is former Busby Babe Eamon Dunphy who went on to train as a journalist and has long been the voice of football in his native Ireland. Of the current crop in Manchester's red half, Juan Mata may see a similar future for himself having added journalism qualifications to his existing degree.

Cult of intelligence

Many cult heroes also moonlight as footballing intellectuals. Championship Manager and Millwall favorite Matty Lawrence has a degree in American Literature, Bolton legend Gudni Bergsson has a law degree and former Newcastle United and Rangers defender Jean-Alain "Boom, boom, let me hear you say" Boumsong has a math degree and gave up his studies of medicine to become immortalized in terrace chant. Heck, who knew that Iain Dowie has a master's degree in aeronautical engineering and used to work for British Aerospace?

Frank Lampard might. The New York City midfielder is reported to have an IQ of 150 and has also written a series of children's books. Similarly, Clark Carlisle, the former Burnley and QPR defender who became the first Premier League player to appear on cult TV gameshow Countdown and won - something even the dumbest member of the public could understand to mean he was smart. If anyone would know, then it's perhaps the smartest footballer there ever was, Socrates. The man who captained Brazil at the 1982 FIFA World Cup was known as "the Doctor" because he earned a doctorate in medicine during his playing career and then went on to practice medicine after his playing days were over.

The lesson is when it comes to footballers, don't read a book by its cover - and if you must then first check the book hasn't been penned by Lampard, McVeigh or Inter Milan's Nagatomo.


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