What’s the stereotype of a professional footballer? You’re probably thinking mega contracts, dubious agents, fast cars, Gucci washbags and arms covered in tattoos. You’re probably not thinking of having to chase cows from the penalty area of your home pitch, nor having to pick up their droppings with a shovel just minutes before kick-off.
I doubt you picture a professional footballer having to live with 29 of their team-mates in a three-bedroom converted garage with bars on the windows and no doors on the toilets. Yet those were my experiences of playing professional football in Sri Lanka and Brazil. But it wasn’t all bad.
Along the way I shared the pitch with internationals, was captained by a UEFA Super Cup winner, played in front of adoring fans and TV cameras, travelled to some of the world’s most stunning locations – and even managed to score a goal or two along the way.
Even better, playing football abroad allowed me to develop a new career as a writer following the publication of my books The Boy in Brazil and Titans of the Teardrop Isle.
These are five of the most important lessons I learned in my time abroad.
1. Home comforts aren’t always easy to find
At the age of 18, I set off on a 36-hour journey from my hometown in Lincolnshire to Mato Grosso, slap bang in the middle of South America.
My new team Sorriso Esporte Clube (which translates as Smile Sports Club) were based in a town built in an area cleared of Amazon rainforest just thirty years previously.
A decade later, I found myself travelling to Trincomalee in north-east Sri Lanka, to take on a contract with the Trinco Titans.
On both occasions, I was thrust into worlds totally different from what I was used to. From training 13 times a week in sweltering conditions and travelling for up to 40 hours on a bus to get to games to something as simple as having to eat chilli every day for breakfast.
There were many moments when I yearned for a simple pleasure such as junk food (or any food without spice!), an internet connection or a toilet cubicle with a door. International mail proved a godsend, even if it did sometimes take months for parcels to arrive.
As the weeks passed, however, life became easier. When previously I’d been searching desperately for a knife and fork, soon enough I’d dig in with my hands. Rather than surf the internet, I’d play table tennis with my team-mates (with a ball fashioned from a roll-on deodorant) or head into the town. These new rituals soon become new comforts.
2. Luxury has a different meaning
Not many would describe chasing cockroaches around your non-air-conditioned room as luxury. Nor sharing a two-person bedroom with five Brazilian teenagers. Yet at times ‘luxury’ is exactly what I’d characterise my experiences as being.
Whether it was admiring the view as I floated down a river in the Amazon rainforest, witnessing elephants in the wild or the countless times on the beautiful Trincomalee beach, where we’d watch the sun go down before diving in for a swim by the coral with turtles and sharks.
And so it was with the football side of things. The pitches may have been full of stones, divots, knee-high grass or sand (sometimes they even had cricket mats nailed into them), but the treatment I received was never less than VIP.
Everyone wanted to befriend the ‘Inglese’ or ‘Sudha’, regardless of whether they were fans or opposition players. That positive nature ran throughout the places I was lucky enough to live in, from great banners of me hung from the stands to personalised chants. I’d regularly feel like the luckiest person in the world.
3. Fewer people speak English than you think
You often hear that English is the global language, but in Brazil you’d certainly be mistaken. I tried to learn Brazilian-Portuguese before arriving at Sorriso but didn’t give it too much effort. After all, I thought that most of my time would be able to understand bits of English.
In fact, just one of my team-mates spoke any English at all – and he didn’t live with us. My team-mates had one simple solution: to stand me up in the middle of whatever room I was in and have me say rude words in their language.
As news of my talent to swear in Brazilian-Portuguese grew I was stopped in the streets and even asked by opposition players to say rude words. In Sri Lanka, the experience repeated itself. If anything, having a language barrier brought me closer with my team-mates.
4. It’s easy to make friends
As a European, I was considered a rarity by my team-mates. Few had ever met someone from Europe and many were amazed by the differences in culture. This led to fascinating conversations comparing our places of birth.
I discovered what it was like to grow up in the middle of a civil war and learned from my team-mates about life in the favelas.
People were always keen to give the best impression possible of their country. I lost count of the number of people who invited me to their homes to meet their extended family and eat with them.
As a result, I’ve made friends for life. I still speak to many of them weekly. I’ve helped one start a fishing business, while people from both Brazil and Sri Lanka have come to England to stay with me.
5. The memories last a lifetime
Playing abroad may not make you rich. Though I received full board in both countries, the take-home pay was less than you’d receive in non-league. However, I wouldn’t trade anything for my experiences in Sri Lanka and Brazil.
Though there were frustrations and also genuine fear at times – our team was attacked by our own fans in Sri Lanka, while in Brazil one of our club directors was murdered – the memories made in both countries will last with me forever.
I loved exploring diverse parts of the world, meeting interesting people with interesting stories and being made to feel like a superstar. There was plenty to learn on the pitch – I still feel a bit dizzy now from all the rondo circles I was in the middle of in Brazil – but far more to learn off it. Going abroad forces you to grow up fast.
Since returning from Sri Lanka there have been more offers to play abroad. I’ve now played in three continents and there’s a temptation to add to that number. Regardless of the country, it cannot be doubted that playing abroad unlocks opportunities that could never have been expected, whether that’s from the friends you meet or the contacts you make. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.