How football’s free agents survive with no income

Players who are without a club and looking for employment have to keep fit for when they do get called up and maintain their lifestyle without pay at the same time.

Being a free agent gives footballers, in a way, a glimpse into what life after retirement is like. There’s no salary coming in at the end of the month and the pressure to provide as heads of households increases. 

It’s a difficult time for those who neglect – not always by choice – to save or invest the money they get. In South Africa, many black footballers come from townships and villages where people have very little to live by. Anyone who is talented enough to make it as a professional footballer is then looked at by his family as the one who will put food on the table.

They become breadwinners, but they also have to remember that they cannot play football forever, which means saving and investing money the right way is of utmost importance. This is important for times when they are without a club, so that they continue to play their roles as providers while looking for employment. 

So, what happens when a footballer is a free agent and there’s no salary coming in every month? Former Mamelodi Sundowns captain Thabo Nthethe has the answer to that. He has been without a club for a year and admits that it has been difficult for him since parting ways with Chippa United towards the end of 2018. 

A move to Baroka FC fell through in January last year because of an ankle injury. Nthethe ended 2019 without having kicked a ball at a professional level. The 35-year-old was however, with proper guidance, able to save money. He is surviving fairly well at the moment, though he admits it is not enough.

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“Currently I’m living on the investment I have with Liberty, though I don’t feel it’s enough,” Nthethe says. “I’ve been with them for more than six years and that’s what has been carrying me. I have been putting money away for my kids’ education and for my retirement in a retirement annuity, and also, I have cover for anything that will stop me from doing my job, like getting an injury. That’s what I’m currently on. 

“I’ve been without a team for a year now and I can, in a way, see life after football. I’ve started other things, business on the side. Money is never enough, so I would not say I’ll be okay. It’s very important when you are playing to invest or save money. 

Nthethe continued, “I feel players don’t like to ask. It’s best to ask, so that you know how to invest. There are different ways of investing, but to ask and know how best to invest or save is important. That’s where we need to step up as players, so that we know more, because most of us footballers don’t know much. You’ll end up knowing how best to invest for life after playing. There are people who are hired to do that, they give you advice. Teams also bring in people to advise players.”

Family pressure 

Nthethe has two children who attend school and they have many other needs that he has to fulfil as their father. This, he admits, puts loads of pressure on him. This is the story for many others in the game who have to survive when they are unemployed. 

“There’s pressure,” Nthethe said. “I think 80% of footballers come from disadvantaged backgrounds, where you are the breadwinner … Immediately when you get a team you don’t even think about getting a car or house, you think about fixing things back home. We all differ, but most of us are breadwinners. We have that pressure to make our families comfortable. Wherever they are, we need to supply them with what they need. That’s the pressure I’m talking about.”

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That pressure can make it difficult for players to save money, according to Nthethe. 

“As the person who is working, you also want to enjoy your money. But you find that you have been helping back home. We come from different backgrounds, so it depends on how many family members you have and what you need to do for them. You also need to consider how much you get and how long that money can carry you.”

Life experience

Another player who is currently a free agent is former Baroka FC and Polokwane City defender Thabiso Semenya. The 37-year-old has a taxi and shuttle business that helps him support his family, eliminating stress while he isn’t getting a salary from a football club at the end of each month.

“I started the business when I was at Platinum Stars. My mom had a line of taxis, but she did not want to have anything to do with taxis. So I got involved. She was the one managing things because I was in North West with Platinum Stars. There’s also a shuttle service and Quantums [minibus taxis] that go to the taxi rank on a day-to-day basis. The shuttle service is for those who want to book the service for any trip they might have. I’m surviving well,” Semenya says.

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Semenya learnt the importance of saving when he was working at a mine, before becoming a professional footballer. 

“When I am at a club, I have money that I put aside every month. So let’s say I’m earning R50 000, I take R20 000 and put it into savings,” Semenya said. “So I’d say this is how much I want to save, depending on how much you are earning. I started saving when I was in the NFD [now the GladAfrica Championship] with Carara Kicks. 

“I was on trial at Platinum Stars for three months and I was not getting a salary, but I was surviving. They provided accommodation, but my kids and I were surviving. I had a target every season to say how much I need to save. If you put R10 000 for 12 months, you have R120 000. So if your contract finishes, you have R120 000 and it will keep you going for a bit. When you are not getting a salary, obviously you’d need to adjust your lifestyle. I was working in a mine a long time ago and I was earning R3 500, and I was able to save R300 per month. It’s something that you learn to do.”

Clubs bring in financial advisers to help footballers manage their money, but some don’t listen despite seeing how many former players ended up broke.

“As footballers, we sometimes get people who come speak to us about finances,” Semenya said. “They would bring in people and everyone would agree. They would even bring in ex-PSL [Premier Soccer League] players who went broke and they say, ‘My life was like this.’ Did that help? No. It’s a personal decision that you make. You can be a CFO [chief financial adviser] and still spend money recklessly. We are not all the same.”

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