It’s easy to get carried away by how much money world-class soccer players now make.
The average weekly wage for a player in England’s Premier League is $68,650, according to Sportingintelligence’s Global Sports Salaries Survey published last November. Barcelona pay nearly $9 million in weekly salaries, $675,000 of which goes directly into Lionel Messi’s bank account. A study by the High Pay Centre revealed top players’ earnings had risen 1,500% in 20 years and that was conducted in 2012.
But Mario Melchiot, a retired Dutch defender who made 130 appearances for English Premier League team Chelsea, thinks we’ve become too fixated on what players earn. “Sometimes we talk too much about [footballers’] money,” he told MarketWatch. “Sometimes the parents push the kids to achieve something because they’re so financially focused. That can be a sad situation.”
Melchiot has tried to rectify this by being an executive producer on “Phenoms”, a new 5-part soccer documentary miniseries that premieres May 25 on Fox
. “Phenoms” chronicles the achievements and struggles of 22 global rising stars, many of whom will be playing at the World Cup that kicks off in Russia on June 14.
Players including Ousmane Dembélé (Barcelona and France), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid and Spain), Marquinhos (Paris St Germain and Brazil) and Paolo Dybala (Juventus and Argentina) gave behind-the-scenes access to a roster of filmmakers, headed by the Zimbalist brothers who made ESPN’s acclaimed soccer/drugs doc “The Two Escobars.”
The idea for “Phenoms” arose after Melchiot played a friendly soccer game with David Worthen Brooks, another of the series producers. “There are so many unanswered questions about the game,” Melchiot told MarketWatch when the series premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. “So we said why don’t we bring to the world the reality and the truth of what it really takes to be a professional soccer player instead of just guessing.”
“Athletes don’t normally allow you to get that close and see when they’re having dinner with their parents. Or you meet them in England and the next thing you know you’re in Africa with them.”
The show features young talent such as Columbian defender Davinson Sanchez and German midfielder Leon Goretzka who will soon be seen at the World Cup. According to Brooks, “Phenoms” sought to “get more access to the players who are coming up. The higher-profile players have media training and endorsement deals they need to protect.”
But “Phenoms” also illustrates the fickle nature of what the rest of the world calls football. English goalkeeper Jack Butland is filmed at home in 2017, while injured, digesting the news that fellow shot-stopper Joe Hart is captaining England in an international match against Lithuania. Fast forward to now and Hart has been left out of England’s World Cup Squad while Butland is going to Russia. Players from the USA, Holland and Italy, whose national teams didn’t qualify for the finals, also feature in “Phenoms.”
Not made of money:
Melchiot stressed that he wanted the miniseries to show that top-level players are not defined by the bottom line. “Money is great, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m against it and of course it’s why we play the game. But it’s not the 100% that people think it is [for soccer players]- maybe it’s 10% or 20%. Money gives you comfort but there’s a driven side to wanting to play the game. How do you prepare for a game? What does it take to get to that level and stay there? The greats do it every season.”
He points to “Phenoms” tracking Senegalese defender Alhassane Sylla, who now plays club football in Portugal, having developed at Diambars FC, an academy in Senegal run by French World Cup winner Patrick Viera who now coaches New York City FC. “He ends up earning 20 times more the salary he was earning in Africa and has the capability now to look after his family,” said Melchiot.
“You obviously see the players have got those watches but they’re not trying to talk about it too much in “Phenoms”, said Brooks. “It’s not about ostentatious consumption.”
Yet as well as earning ever-more astronomical sums from their clubs, soccer players now make millions through endorsement deals, image rights and sponsors. Melchiot credits one man with revolutionizing off-the-pitch opportunities. “I have to give David Beckham credit,” he said. “When he started doing it, people were complaining but he kept on doing it and it became a normality. He opened the door for everyone.”
“Phenoms” divides its shows into episodes showcasing “Attackers”, “Defenders”, “Goalkeepers”, “Playmakers” and “Creators” (though there are also 15 separate country-specials and a feature film that is being released which chronicle 65 players in total.) While there have been several football docs flooding the market to coincide with the World Cup- most recently Netflix’s
series about Juventus- “Phenoms” claims to be in a league of its own.
“We didn’t want to make a reality show,” Brooks said, citing acclaimed 1994 basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams” as an influence. “If we had just been filmmakers we wouldn’t have got the access but if it had just been footballers, it would have been like that Ronaldo documentary.”
“For the first round of interviews, everyone was guarded,” he added. “There was one guy- I won’t identify who he was- but he was a real “Johnny hairstyle”, coming out with the truisms. But then I started hearing his story and the things he had to deal with. Every time he scores a goal he does this ritual where he’s talking to his mother. It’s so endearing and emotional.”
Most top players, they discovered, faced adversity growing up. “Whether it’s the loss of a parent or displacement, they’ve all had to deal with some major life event in their early teens that would be difficult for a 50-year-old man,” said Brooks.
“Look at Marco Asensio who has scored key goals for Real Madrid this season,” said Melchiot. “We got to see his development and how he moved away after he lost his mother. The dynamic of the team inspired him.”
“It’s how quick players have to adjust to setbacks. People aren’t always aware of it because they always look at the financial aspect, the cars, the houses and the girls. But those are the key things we didn’t want to focus on because we don’t think that’s real football. We wanted to see who they were as people.”
Or take Dele Alli. The attacking midfielder, who plays for Tottenham Hotspur, is one of England’s brightest prospects. But at age 13, facing an increasingly difficult home life, his mother moved him into the home of a neighboring teammates family, the Hickfords. Despite now earning $80,000 a week in wages, Alli still lives with members of the Hickford family.
“Dele talked about how the Hickfords took him from a very tough neighborhood and gave him love and a place to flourish,” said Brooks. “I think he said that three of his best mates from when he was a kid are now in institutions.”
Following in Beckham and Messi’s footsteps, Alli is now sponsored by Pepsi
. “Phenoms” features Alli at a fashion shoot for GQ magazine. “He was saying his attitude was that these are nice clothes and felt good to wear but that he would never go out and buy them,” said Brooks. “Those considerations of the self as a brand run through all the players we’ve dealt with.”
Melchiot himself faced adversity as a teenager growing up in Amsterdam when his eldest brother died of a heart attack. “I went to my mother and said I didn’t want to play anymore,” he said. “My mother said if you stop playing he wouldn’t have been happy if he was still alive. My family was suffering so I needed to uplift them. Next thing I knew I became successful.”
Melchiot played for Ajax Amsterdam before signing for Chelsea. Despite interest from Manchester United, West Ham and Sunderland, Chelsea gave him a tour of West London’s stylish Kings Road, located near their stadium, and his decision was made. One of his early appearances came in Chelsea’s FA Cup Final win over Aston Villa in 2000. He went onto play 22 times for Holland.
“The key difference in soccer between now and when I was playing is the level of distraction now and the size with which the game is growing,” he said. “But when I was playing, I did acting gigs and photo shoots. I did a centrefold in [UK adult magazine] Mayfair where I was standing butt naked with a ball in front of me.”
— ChelseaFan12 (@fan12chelsea) December 1, 2017
During his time playing for Chelsea, Winston Bogarde, a Dutch international former teammate of Melchiot’s at Ajax, attracted financial notoriety in Britain for playing just 12 times between 2000 and 2004 and yet reportedly pocketing $12 million dollars. “People always said he came to Chelsea because of me which was weird,” said Melchiot. “I was just a starter. How could I be involved in a deal like that?”
Another trend the “Phenoms” team discovered was that it pays to be the youngest sibling. “Younger brothers seem to make it,” said Brooks. “The older brother becomes the taskmaster to the little kid.” Melchiot testifies to this. “I always had to impress and get respect because I was the little one,” he said. “Psychologically I was always fighting.”
He’s proud of his new documentary: “When you finish it, you will never watch the game the same way because we are making sure you will understand better who the players are and what they go through. And people who don’t like soccer will be interested because it’s about life, not just athletes.”
Above all, he wants soccer-playing kids not to take their eye off the ball: “I always say to the younger generation, “Love the game- it makes everything else easier. Tell your parents that from me.””