The former Basque player publishes ‘Subcampeón’ (KO Books), in which he confesses how anxiety and OCD conditioned his career
“The problem with football is that it is difficult to prove that you have a mental health problem,” he reflects.
Tree Gurrutxaga He was a soccer professional for fifteen years. He became runner-up in the League with Real Sociedad. But really, he barely enjoyed his privileged position, beyond some specific moments in Second B or Third.
He was not lacking in level (central defense, he was international with the national team’s youth team), but anxiety and a strong obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) forced him to move away from the elite. Only when he played for Lemona or Zamora, in Third or Second B, he felt like a complete footballer. He only then asked for the ball and felt like a full-fledged player.
Now, became a successful monologist, tells in a book (‘Subcampeón’, co-written with Ander Izagirre and published by Libros del KO) how his disorders conditioned his career. But it is not anxiety that presides over the text, but rather humor and irony.
-The book is an exercise in courage: it must not be easy to confess that sometimes you preferred to lose, or not play, or even for your teammates not to pass the ball to you.
Well, it’s been ten years since I retired, and even longer since I was in First Division. I think there is enough distance to do it, but I wasn’t brave at the time. He said the four phrases that all footballers said. And it’s not that footballers don’t know how to talk, it’s that they don’t want to get into trouble. Now, with sufficient distance and after having worked as a stand-up comedian with narrative material that no one had used for this purpose, I can talk about it normally.
-What was the most difficult thing for you to explain?
Talk about others. Making comedy about myself is not difficult for me. When I sat down to write with Ander, I was afraid of breaking those codes that exist among footballers. I didn’t want to give the impression that I was laughing at a teammate or a coach. I speak of them with the utmost respect.
-What was the reason that led you to write the book?
In the monologues he already talked a little about all this. It’s hard to make comedy out of something like that; You have to try to do it well and delicately. But once the book was published, I received many messages, for example from parents with children who have OCD and who are going through real hell. I tell intimate things, but if it can help someone who has gone through or is going through the same thing, I will be delighted.
-Do you think that in today’s football there can be a case like yours?
I don’t know, but if there were, I imagine it would already be in the hands of a psychologist. I have read about Camarasa, a Real Oviedo player who has had to temporarily leave the team due to mental health issues. The club fully supported him. That is already a step forward. The problem is that in football, proving a mental health problem is complicated. If you have a sprained ankle, it is something that is seen, and everyone understands it. But a mental health problem is much more difficult to prove or prove. In this sense, I liked Oviedo’s attitude, they treated the issue openly, as if the player had suffered a sprain.
-In your case, why didn’t you go to the club?
Not because my club was worse than others, but because it was a different time. I didn’t even know what was happening to me. And I thought that if I talked to the club about my problem, that wouldn’t help me renew. Football demands immediate results, and it works like this: if you are not there to play, I put someone else in and that’s it. But the basic problem is that I didn’t know what was happening to me, I didn’t know what OCD was. I thought I was crazy, a word that covers so much and covers nothing. And the coaches were people from another generation, from another mentality, I imagine they would think that mental health was something for idle people, with too much free time.
The problem is that in football, proving a mental health problem is complicated. If you have a sprained ankle, still, but a mental health problem….
-Would any of your coaches have understood and helped you?
I don’t know, I’ve thought about it sometimes. As I say, it was another time. Maybe Raynald Denoueix, the coach who achieved runners-up with Real Sociedad. He wasn’t so old school, he seemed more like a school teacher.
-How are you now?
Good, compared to what was happening to me a few years ago. Anyone who reads the book will see that I am now four hundred percent better. OCD is not chronic, but it is difficult to completely cure it. Now I have tools that I didn’t have before. You know that you don’t have to wash your hands six times in a row, although in moments of tension, with nerves, I see how that OCD is approaching.
-In the book you tell about a turning point: your house is robbed and you enter an obsessive loop from which you cannot get out.
And another time is when I smoke marijuana with some friends and have an anxiety attack. It’s not the fault of what I smoked. But marijuana ignited what was already inside him. Until then I was a normal, happy boy, without too many problems. But at that moment that shock of anxiety came on, I didn’t know what was happening to me. Everything inside me moved. Then they break into my house, and that day I do have marked as the beginning of the OCD.
In football there is pressure because there is passion, and that is why you make money
-What would have been of your career without this disorder?
Don’t know. I don’t know if my career was affected by that, or it was my sports career that caused all that. You also don’t know what the ideal time is to debut in First Division… I have always thought that to succeed at those ages, either you are more mature than your time or you are unconscious and you don’t realize the impact that all this has . I now see 17-year-old kids in First Division and I think that, either he is very mature for his age or he is unconscious. I was neither one thing nor the other. If I had started at 23 or 24 years old… But at 19 years old I see myself at the Vicente Calderón, marking Hasselbaink. My life changed overnight and I wasn’t mature enough.
I thought I was crazy, a word that covers so much and covers nothing.
-Too much pressure in the world of football.
But there we must be honest: there is pressure because there is passion, and that is why money is made. I’m not rich by any means, but I don’t have a mortgage to pay because at 22 years old I was able to buy a house in Donosti. Everything goes together. I want the First Class salary but don’t let the press pressure me: that’s not worth it. What is not normal is that 40,000 people start insulting a player.
My life changed from one day to the next and I was not mature enough
-Do you think that your example can serve to make it more normal to talk about mental health in the world of football?
I’d love to. At the time, ten years ago, I performed my monologue before the Athletic team. Bielsa hired me. And it was the best audience I have ever had, because the players felt very identified with what I was saying. These are things that many footballers feel, but cannot say. I think they had a great time that day. I have always thought that I would like to do the same on other teams. A few days ago, for example, I approached Zubieta to give the book to several Real players. Let’s see if they take a look.
-Now the presence of psychologists in football is normal.
Yes, but I also have the feeling that young people have much more pressure than us. In my time there were no social networks. It makes me dizzy to think what kids have to endure today. They will be prepared, I imagine. But if I suffer when I see some negative criticism or something like that, I don’t want to imagine the First Division players…
I performed my monologue in front of the Athletic team. Bielsa hired me. And he was the best audience I’ve ever had
-And despite everything, you enjoyed football. Not in First, but in Second B.
Yes, I hit rock bottom but then, away from the pressure of Primera, I started to enjoy it. In Lemona, for example: he played, he asked for the ball. But you can’t imagine how many times I’ve hidden on the field so they wouldn’t pass the ball to me…
To succeed at those ages, either you are more mature than your turn or you are unconscious.
-The book is intimate, but very funny. Was it difficult to find the tone?
I had already read Ander Izagirre, especially his cycling books. I liked his irony and his sense of humor, his way of telling serious things, he has a very fine way of doing it. We comedians can be seen three kilometers away when we are going to make a joke, but I was reading Ander, he would stop me, raise his head and think that thanks to reading his texts one could become a little better person. I’m not a writer, that’s why I thought of him. We didn’t know each other, but I wrote to him, I proposed it to him and he accepted.
-How was the writing process?
I wrote stories about my life, I sent it to Ander, he asked me some questions and I rewrote it. We have a very similar sense of humor, when I read the book I see myself, I think it has worked very well.