It’s the juxtaposition that hits you. Davy Propper and Christian Eriksen made their professional debuts on the same day, and on Tuesday — 4,370 days later — they made radically different choices when faced with an almost existential question: What do I think of football?
One is in love. The other doesn’t.
Christian Eriksen hadn’t kicked a ball in competitive play since that day last June, when he collapsed on the pitch during Denmark’s match against Finland at Euro 2020 and, in his own words, “died five minutes” from cardiac arrest. The prompt intervention of doctors saved his life and he was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). The device allows him to lead a fairly normal life, but it means that he will live the rest of his days in the shadow of risk, especially in situations of high physical and mental stress, such as professional football for example.
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And yet Eriksen wants to come back.
“My goal is to play in the World Cup in Qatar,” Eriksen told Danish television. “I want to play. That’s always been my mentality… I’m sure I can do it, because I don’t feel any different. Physically I’m back in top shape.”
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If he does, it won’t be at Inter Milan, the club he joined two years ago and helped win the Serie A title last season. Regulations in Italy do not allow those equipped with ICDs to practice competitive sports; on December 17, Inter terminated his contract. The risks are considered far too great. He’ll have to do it somewhere else.
And then there is Propper, the midfielder of PSV Eindhoven. He announced on Tuesday that he was quitting the game at age 30 and walking away from the last 18 months of his contract, leaving several million on the table. He said he “gradually lost the love for the game” and “no longer feels comfortable in the world of football”.
“I don’t want to be a part of it anymore,” he said.
The parallels between Propper and Eriksen are deep, and not just because they are the same age and play in the same position.
Both men come from football families. The brothers of Propper, Robin and Mike, play respectively for FC Twente in the Dutch top class and Huissen in the fifth level. Eriksen’s father Thomas was a former footballer turned coach, his cousins Andreas and Mathias are also footballers.
Both grew up immersed in the sport; both made it their careers. Both were precocious talents, both were formed as footballers in the Netherlands, and both made their professional debuts on January 17, 2010. Propper came on as a substitute for Vitesse Arnhem in a 2-1 defeat at NEC Nijmegen, while Eriksen started for Ajax in a 1- 1 draw away to NAC Breda. (NEC and NAC… You can’t make it up.)
They faced each other in the Dutch league, and later faced each other in the Premier League — Eriksen moved to Tottenham in 2013, Propper to Brighton in 2017 — and both played for their country, with Eriksen earning 109 caps for Denmark and Proper 19 for the Orange. And here they are, announcing their diametrically opposite choices on the same day.
Propper says his disenchantment with the game was gradual: “It was hard for me to observe the discipline it took to perform at my best and live my life with a hectic football schedule.” When the coronavirus pandemic hit, it was the final blow. He tried to revive the love affair at PSV and returned there as a free agent last summer, but in vain.
Meanwhile, Eriksen returned to Milan after the European Championship, where he had settled, and worked towards the dissolution of his contract with Inter. He couldn’t play; it made no sense. He went through the paperwork and bureaucracy and went through more tests. And then, most days, he made the half-hour drive across the border to Switzerland and the Swiss city of Chiasso to train with the local team, which plays in the third tier. This month he will be looking for another club. His agent, Martin Schoots, says a return to the Premier League – where player safety rules would allow him to play – “would feel absolutely like coming home”.
Professional soccer players devote their lives to the sport, initially (like the rest of us) for love at a young age — sometimes later without money, devotion to duty, or competitiveness. At the highest level, when careers end, usually in their thirties, they are often parents and millionaires. They go back into society, knowing that they have been living a dream for the past 20, sometimes 25 years. Real life – as most of us know – was put on hold in their early teens. When they come back to it, it sometimes feels like they’ve come out of cryogenic suspended animation. They end up in a world where their peers grew up. (Perhaps that’s why so many cling to the game for as long as possible, trying to reinvent themselves as coaches or experts.)
Eriksen and Propper make very different choices, and both free them from any kind of financial burden. Eriksen has made tens of millions in his career, and while Propper earned significantly less, he also knows that he can live the rest of his life more than comfortably without having to work another day.
But there are two factors that unite them. One of them is love. In Eriksen’s case, it’s love of the game and trying to squeeze as long as possible out of it. In Propper’s case, it’s love for himself and his family, and the self-care it takes to realize that every moment you do something you don’t like is a moment of denying yourself and your loved ones. Most of us don’t have that luxury, because we need the salary. He does.
The other, of course, is courage. Both take a leap into the unknown. Eriksen literally puts himself in danger and he knows how quickly and unexpectedly health can be taken away. He also knows that in those moments of extreme stress that come with competitive sports — when the heart is pounding, when the adrenaline is pumping, when you want to push your limits — he may have to grapple with knowledge of what happened last summer in Parks Stadium.
Propper also forgoes material gain and trades the only life he has known for the past ten years for something else, an “investment in family and friends,” in the hopes that it will bring the same fulfillment that football once brought.
We all look for meaning in our lives and most of us find it somewhere: in friends, family, religion, personal passions, careers. Except being a professional soccer player defines you more than most careers. It’s more like a life in the military, clergy, or police, but unlike those others, it’s not a lifelong pursuit. It ends less than half way before your time on Earth is (theoretically) over, which is why deciding when and how it should end is such a personal and dramatic choice.
Love and courage guided both men in their decisions, despite their journeys ending in very different places.