I remember the first thing I bought when I received my first professional pay check in Belgium: it was a shiny black Golf GTI—a big deal in those days! In those times, I spent every cent I earned, every month. The last of my worries was tomorrow. In fact, during the three and a half years I spent in Belgium, I did not save a cent and I did not study anything. I thought the school of life and football was enough.
As players we are used to instant results. We play a game: we win, draw or lose. The results are there for all to see after the game. Salaries are high, we live for the moment, the future is for, well, tomorrow, or even next week. The problem is that football careers do not last long. Our window of earning opportunity is short.
I knew that after my career as a footballer, I still wanted to be involved in the game. I made sure I took coaching to the highest possible level by achieving a UEFA ‘A’ license to enable me to understand the technical side of football. Because of my qualifications I went home, to Zambia, to be technical director of the Chipolopolo in September 2003, then won elections, as vice president, in March 2004. I then became president of the Football Association of Zambia; a FIFA coaching instructor; a member of FIFA committees and FIFA task teams and grew to understand the administration side of football.
My climb to football administration was gradual. But all the while, my business ventures continued. If you want to go far in football administration, you best have other business interests, since administration is not a money-making profession. One does this for the love of the game.
Very few players continue to make a living from football after the final whistle has blown, unless they become a highly successful professional coach. But even coaching requires study and qualification. A former player does not automatically make a good coach. Those days are gone. With today’s game, you need to be qualified to understand the technical elements of the game.
It becomes important to think about one’s future on your first day of professional football. In Belgium, retirement annuities are compulsory, the club paid the full amount as part of my salary. In the Dutch Eredivisie, retirement funds, which are tax deductible, are compulsory and as such after 20 years, I am still enjoying regular payments from my playing days in Holland.
We can only hope that the clubs in Africa can follow the European model. There should be mandatory pension schemes for footballers in Africa. Clubs should seriously look into this for both the well-being of their players as well as their own good reputation.
Today, players have football agents who should be guiding them better.
So many former players are faced with difficult times, you read and hear about them all the time. It makes me very sad and it is a question of lack of knowledge, which, as we all know, is power. Maybe it is also upbringing, education and the lack of thinking about the future.
When I was growing up, you thought that you would play forever, the limitations were non-existent. Retirement is not even in your mind. You live a day at a time and you want to have the best gadgets, the best car, the best clothes—and those become your key priorities.
You have too much time on your hands, you’re too young and you’re earning way too much money. Temptations are all around you and you become greedy for the now and it is difficult to see an end in sight. The last thing on your mind is that one day your career will end.
Medical insurance should be on the top of the list—it’s not easy to determine when you are going to stop playing because you can sustain a career-ending injury and without medical insurance your earning days are over.
On our continent for example, in early 1980s, it was common to see a very good talent sustain a small injury like a meniscus problem, a ligament injury or an ankle injury and end their career after a year. Instead of getting the appropriate medical attention, which was hard to come by, you would find that their career would be short lived because the problem would persist for longer than it should have and they ended up not being the player that they should’ve been.
In my school team in the 1970s,when I was just trying to break in, the important players would not come to class during the day, but attend school in the afternoon just so they could play the match. Unfortunately, today’s society tends to encourage the talent you have on the field rather than couple it with academic skills and qualifications. If you look at the American model with scholarships for top athletes, this is hugely successful. Education is encouraged and, even in Zambia, you hear most of the professional parents discourage their kids from too much sport, saying that they want them to concentrate more on education.
This can be a double-edged sword, as this often deprives a talented player of much needed practice time. The key is a balance of the two. It is imperative for young players to ensure they attain their education goals whilst living their sporting dreams.
My advice to current professional players is two-fold; career planning and studying in your spare time.
In Belgium, I spent three-and-a-half- years not knowing Flemish, and not doing anything about it, because I could get by as everyone tried to speak to me in English, so I just got by. Yet the first day I arrived in PSV Einhoven in Holland, they assigned a teacher to me, so I could study Dutch twice a week. Within six months I was fluent. The day I arrived in Mexico as a player for one of the biggest team in Mexico, Club America, I made it a priority to find a tutor to teach me Spanish. By the end of the first year I was fluent in Spanish. These talents are of immense value to me today. Besides my mother tongue, Bemba, I also studied French at high school for four years and can converse in the language comfortably. I used to be the official translator when the team travelled to West Africa during my national team playing days. My Italian improves every day thanks to my wife and mother-in-law, so all in all I can say I am a polyglot—a talent, which comes in very handy in the international football environment.
I did a technical directorship badge in Mexico from 1996 to 1998, which effectively made me a qualified technical director. By the time I ended my professional career, I walked away from football with two professional qualifications and four extra languages.
My advice to young career footballers is to be wise and not to get caught up in self-importance of the now, but rather to picture yourself where you want to be in the future. Don’t just train your body, train the brain at the same time. Unfortunately, you cannot be a player forever and when the final whistle blows you better have a new game plan.