FIFPro, that's me
Vincent Gouttebarge: ‘Modest pro’ turned scientist
Tuesday 12 March
‘Only a few scientific studies have been done about the long-term social-medical problems that arise as a consequence of a career in top sport’, says Vincent Gouttebarge, former professional footballer turned scientist.
Considering his age, Vincent Gouttebarge could still be playing football, but he prefers not to risk it. ‘If I were to play football now, I’d break in two’, says the 37-year-old Frenchman. ‘When I stopped playing four years ago, I became a fanatical runner. That has made me lose about 4 kilos in muscle mass. I am sure that today I would mainly lack speed and strength in a one-on-one duel.’
Gouttebarge knows all about the risks he would face if he decided to return to professional football. Doctor Vincent Gouttebarge has a Master’s degree in Human Movement Sciences and a PhD degree in Medicine, with special expertise in the field of (top) sport and health. He works as senior researcher at the Coronel Institute of Occupational Health from the Academic Medical Center (AMC) in Amsterdam, and is co-owner of Vintta, a research and consultancy unit for sport health.
Gouttebarge was a professional football player in France and the Netherlands. He was admitted at the age of seventeen as full prof at AJ Auxerre, at the time one of France’s top clubs. ‘I could have joined a professional academy earlier - FC Metz, AS Monaco and Olympique Lyon all wanted me - but my parents emphasised how important it was to gain my secondary school diploma first. I also thought that important. After I had completed my school, I went to Auxerre.’
Gouttebarge stayed with Auxerre for two years. He played with the second and third teams, but did not succeed in playing for the main team. ‘After two years of only playing football, I missed studying. I wanted to go to university. Auxerre was not a university city and there was no university nearby.’
Gouttebarge went to study in Clermond Ferrand and continued his football career with the third division Cournon.
‘Another reason for leaving Auxerre was that I saw no perspective. I was adult enough to realise that I wasn’t good enough for Auxerre’s first team. I could have stayed there another year, but thought that there was a big risk that I would end up with empty hands.’
‘I decided to study. I wanted to find a place in society that I could assume after my football career.’ Gouttebarge decided to study human movement science. ‘I wanted to become a physical education teacher. It was a four-year course. After two years, I changed my mind. I wanted to continue as researcher. The challenge of searching for solutions to problems appealed to me.’
In 1997, Gouttebarge returned to full professional football. With the help of a friend, he ended up at FC Volendam in the Netherlands. After a successful trial period, he signed a four-year contract at the club that, at the time, played in the Dutch premier league.
At the same time, Gouttebarge continued his study. ‘I had 1 year left before I obtained my Master’s degree. In France, they are very understanding with studying top athletes. I was able to set the speed of my study myself. In June, after the end of each football season, I could return to France to sit my examinations at the university. In the end, I took three years to complete my last study year. That was in 2000.’
It was, Gouttebarge says, ‘not too difficult’ to combine his career as professional footballer with his study. The university granted him extra time and at Volendam the team trained mainly in the mornings. ‘After the training was over, I had quite a bit of spare time.’
‘It would have been even easier for me if I hadn’t been so unlucky with injuries. I was, unfortunately, frequently injured which meant I often had to spend complete days on my rehabilitation.’
During a match at PSV towards the end of his first season, Gouttebarge injured his left knee in a duel with Boudewijn Zenden. The nature of the injury remained unclear for some time. It was only after the following season’s winter break that they discovered that a cruciate ligament had been torn. After an operation and the necessary lengthy rehabilitation, Gouttebarge returned. But a year after the operation, the ligament tore again. As a result, he played much too little in his four seasons with Volendam.
‘After four years, I wasn’t able to extend my contract. I then trained at Sparta (where Frank Rijkaard was coach), but the club didn’t have any money to offer me a contract.’
Gouttebarge played as a semi-pro with FC Omniworld, that was an ambitious club at the time and since 2005 plays in the Dutch second division. ‘In addition, I had a job for 18 hours as junior researcher in the AMC in Amsterdam. In 2003, I started my research for my PhD thesis at the Coronel Institute, and in 2008 I obtained my PhD degree. It took me one year longer than normal. The Coronel Institute understood. You have be fortunate in that way.’
Vincent Gouttebarge as a player of FC Omniworld in a match against Ajax
‘It wasn’t always easy to combine my thesis research with football. At Omniworld, we trained in the afternoons. Before that, I did my research: I got up at 5 in the morning and by 6 I was already at work at the AMC. And at the end of the week - every Friday evening - I had to perform in the championship... I wasn’t always very rested.’
‘It was never really too much, because I really enjoyed doing it. It was a fine combination of mental and physical effort.’
In the middle of 2007, Gouttebarge brought his football career to an end. ‘I was 32, it was time for me to retire. It wasn’t hard. I was pleased to be relieved of certain obligations.’
‘If I look back over my pro career, then I should have cherished it more. Playing football is something special. Many people dream of being a professional footballer, but it is reserved for just a few people. The solidarity within professional football is great. You don’t have to be friends, but you have a bond with each other. It’s always great when you meet each other. What’s more, there are a lot of people around ready to help you. Then I thought that was normal. You only realise later that it’s not at all normal.’
‘I was a modest footballer, but I am very happy with my career.’
Gouttebarge has never played football again. ‘You can spend a lot of time on research...’, he smiles. Yet he is still involved with football. For example, he has done research into the social-medical problems that top athletes (particularly footballers) experience when their career is over and the care it demands. He is currently studying the social/mental problems that arise both during and after a professional career.
In this way, Gouttebarge tries to make a contribution to improving the (socio-medical) care of professional footballers and other top athletes.
‘When their career comes to an end, only a few footballers have everything financially in order. The vast majority probably have to do something else after their career is over.’ Not too many players seem aware of this. ‘During my study, I have met too few other footballers who were also studying. Many players would prefer to continue working in football.’
‘Naturally, the player himself is responsible for studying and career planning, but I think that other parties involved (trade unions, clubs and football associations) must play a role: the trade union could take the initiative, and clubs and associations could facilitate it.’
‘The VVCS Academy and FIFPro Online Academy are excellent examples. When you’re a professional footballer, one injury can end your career. And then? Everybody thinks: That only happens to other people. That won’t happen to me. That’s what I thought too. But it is very important to be prepared for your future. As player, you have to take the responsibility for that yourself.’
Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge will in the future be writing articles with some regularity for the FIFPro Website. In his contributions, the health of professional footballers will take a central place. He will, among other things, write about the studies he has undertaken and report on other relevant matters.
FIFPro, that's me
FIFPro, that's me is a column in which FIFPro puts 50,000 professional footballers under the world's close scrutiny. What are the positive aspects of the profession? How do they survive in a footballing world that's occasionally difficult? What tips would they give to a professional colleague? What does the professional future look like after a footballing career? The footballer speaks: his story is also the story of FIFPro.
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