After sharing my first experience in the most authentic matter possible, I received great feedback from family, fellow players, coaches etc. It’s never an easy thing to voice your truth in the society we live in. Often judging without reason and scrutinising before understanding. The only thing inhibiting authenticity and honesty in most people is fear of how others will react or what it will do to their image. I decided to offer my authenticity with the idea of helping others rather than fearing them.
This experience I wish to share in this current blog, was one I always feared. The first 3 months I spent at Benfica and in my new home Lisbon. These 3 months taught me so much about myself and people I only now comprehend partially why certain things carried out. Something I found very relevant to this experience is the power, hierarchy and social status that plays within a football team, from youth to senior football. Learning how to manage egos of fellow players and coaches would have been a valuable skill I wish I had at that time in my life.
The day finally came where I was making the move to Lisbon in pursuit of my childhood dream. It was a Monday; I remember arriving at the airport so nervous to say goodbye to my family. This day was one of the least fond days of my life for a matter of unfortunate events that followed that painful goodbye. I had never known a life without my whole family around me, I was distraught beyond measure saying goodbye and seeing my cousin’s cry as much as I was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the worst part of that night. After boarding the flight, I could feel my throat was rather sore, I had palmed it off to the crying and didn’t think much of it. After about 4 hours into the long 14 hour haul to Dubai, the sore throat turned into a hot branding iron being shoved down my oesophagus. I had a severe case of tonsilitis, it was excruciating, then came the fever. I was basically paralysed for the entirety of the flight and only made it through security in Dubai as I believe the doctor who checked my throat used a torch with very little battery left. As I arrived in Portugal my dad and I drove straight up to the north where my grandmother lives and went to the local doctor. The doctor found my tonsils so inflamed that I required an injection of penicillin straight into the blood stream, he was so shocked I was allowed back onto the plane in Dubai hence my torch theory. I went on to find out a year later this tonsilitis (first of many) was a result of glandular fever I had picked up but went undetected for quite a while.
After recovering from my penicillin injection and tonsilitis, I was back in the car down to Lisbon. I was very nervous for my first day, it’s like the first day of school, you don’t know what expect and are faced with the reality of whether you like it or not this is home for the foreseeable future. I was staying with a fellow teammate, the very one who helped during the trial phase at Benfica. His family was kind enough to open their home for my father and I to stay until we found our feet. The first day finally came, we caught the train from Carcavelos near where we lived, then in the city had to catch a boat to the other side of the river where the training grounds were stationed. This was all very new, from never having caught public transport to getting a train and boat was quite the step. When we finally arrived at the training ground at caught up with the team, I noticed something very distinct, all the players who were “old” players at the club, would isolate the “new” players and evaluate the threat they may offer. When walking into a new team you have this limbo phase where you are not accepted until you earn respect, it’s a rather primal rite of passage. Now for a foreign player like myself, its multiplied by 1000, as you aren’t only isolated because you are new, but no one speaks your language literally and figuratively. I was an outsider plain and simple.
The first day consisted of some meetings, physical check-ups, kit sizing and an introductory training session. From that first day I started to understand my position in the pack, rock bottom. Not only were the players hesitant there was this certain arrogant body language the coaches held towards me, it was almost as if how dare I come from Australia and take the position of a Portuguese player. So confusing to me, in Australia due to my heritage I was considered Portuguese, I then arrive in Portugal, and I was considered nothing but a “kangaroo” as the Portuguese never failed to mention. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, it was a real destruction of the autobiographical view I had of myself. I recently read a book called the “Power of Suffering” by a Psychologist David Roland, he mentions a quote that goes as follows “Suffering is a breakdown of the intactness of the person as the person knows themselves”, I believe there is a lot of truth behind this quote. By this stage my whole world had changed, what I perceived as me and who I am, was no longer.
A few weeks into life in Portugal, I eventually found myself becoming a little bit more familiar with my surroundings, I had slotted into an international school and found a routine in my day-to-day life. Training although for me had become a place of torture, it was like my fight or flight system was triggered every time I entered the complex, wondering “who is going to have a go at me today”, “in what way will the coaches or players put me down this time”, it was bullying in its purest form. I started seeing football as a place to suffer, it didn’t matter what I did, the fact I was different and spoke another language made me an easy target. The worst part was that I received most abuse from coaches, now as a 13-year-old kid, adults are perceived as very important people especially coaches. Their words would affect me so deeply as it felt like my career and my future was purely in their hands. I remember in the 2nd month of training I fell very ill, I ended up in hospital and had messaged my coach in Portuguese to explain what had happened, my response from him was “ok”.
I look back now I can understand the dynamic of it all, it was like kindergarten, when a child sees another playing with a stick, that child will probably be inclined to pick up a stick and play with it too, classic learned behaviour, “monkey see, monkey do”. Now the dynamic of football is often very similar, coaches’ players, staff etc often are victims of a very intense, aggressive environment. Coaches and players may have been bullied by other coaches or players in more senior positions, therefore they go and replicate that behaviour to the younger generation coming through. Another huge influence is “ego”, everyone was there for their own benefit and purely so, this started from the coaches and naturally spread through the players. For me unfortunately, I had become a punching bag to this concoction of egos and bullies. It started taking its toll, to this date I feel I have not recovered completely as a player and person from that first year.
As a player who is rather emotionally aware, it was this constant battle of what I was feeling and what I wanted myself to feel. This constant dialogue of “you need to ignore it, you are lucky to be here, your family is making a huge sacrifice, you are fine just toughen up” yet the reality was “I hate it here”. It was impossible to ignore the way I felt and to believe it wouldn’t affect me. These first couple months stripped me of confidence and love for the game, although it wasn’t football that was destroying me, it was the only thing I could blame. I was internally suffering, I started to believe that I was just not worthy and not good enough. This was the furthest reflection of my ability as a footballer but the biggest reflection of my environment. One thing had become very apparent to me at that young age, was to not conform to the low standards football had set on a moral level, it is far too easy to pick on the weaker guy, far too easy to bully because you were bullied, you have to be strong enough to break the cycle. Most importantly, stand up for yourself, don’t let status or hierarchy interfere with who you are and want to be. I allowed opinions and comments to dictate what I thought of myself. Who you are and what you are worth has nothing to do with what you do on a football pitch, it is 100% intrinsic and up to you to determine, so be authentic and don’t conform to someone else's low standards.