Football and gambling: Steven Caulker - ex-Tottenham and QPR defender wants to help addicts

By Alistair MagowanBBC Sport
Steven Caulker fishing
Steven Caulker says he has found 'inner peace' in Turkey after being brought to 'his knees' by his gambling addiction

Sitting on a private jet bound for an all-expenses paid trip to Cyprus, all Steven Caulker and his friends had to do was visit a casino and have fun.

This is the life when you become a VIP, or high-value, customer. There are no costs, other than the money you spend in the casino, and when you have run out of cash: here, have some more.

It might sound like a dream holiday to some, but for the former Tottenham and Queens Park Rangers defender, it was part of a "suffocating" addiction.

Caulker had a gambling problem. He had been to rehab, given his bank cards to his parents in order to avoid temptation, blocked himself from gambling in the UK, and yet when it was all laid on for him and his mates, he found it difficult to resist.

Similar practices across the betting industry have been criticised by its regulatorexternal-link, the Gambling Commission, and explain why some firms earn 83% of their profits from only 2% of their customers.

Now, two years since his last bet on 3 December 2018, Caulker says he has turned his life around and has found "inner peace" in Turkey.

Despite still receiving texts he cannot block from casinos, he is enjoying his new life playing for top-of-the-table Alanyaspor in the Super Lig and continues to help those encountering the same problems.

'The lies I told my family stick with me today'

Like many addicts, Caulker says the biggest cost of gambling was not the money he spent, but the effect it had on his relationships.

It also affected his playing career. There were many times he was thinking about his losses during games, even his one and only England appearance, when he scored against Sweden in 2012.

"Whenever I was with my family or friends or playing Premier League football at the time, there was always that thought in the back of my mind, 'I need to get my money back'," he tells BBC Sport.

"The lies I told my family and friends still stick with me today. It was suffocating, and they were my worst moments looking back. But now I use it as fuel to motivate me to be a better person."

Steven Caulker scores against Sweden
Caulker scored on his one and only England appearance but admits he was still thinking about his losses during games

'Gambling adverts everywhere don't help'

Caulker believes the game's relationship with gambling needs to change.

Three-quarters of Premier League teams have betting sponsors or partners, with that figure rising to 87% in the Championship.

Both the Premier League and the English Football League (EFL), sponsored by Sky Bet, say their clubs comply with regulations. The EFL added that its "mutually beneficial" relationship with the gambling industry was conducted in a "responsible manner".

The Betting and Gaming Council, which represents the industry, says "betting provides sport with the vital funding it needs" and has introduced a whistle-to-whistle ban.

It also says it "worked with the Gambling Commission to introduce a tough new code of conduct on the use of VIP schemes, which has seen the number of players enrolled in them reduced by 70%".

But a House of Lords select committee report this year said gambling advertising should be banned from sport within three years. The issue is likely to be debated more thoroughly, with the terms of reference for the UK Gambling Act review expected to be released by the government next week.

Caulker says: "Did football play a massive part in me starting to gamble? No. I started gambling before that, but I definitely think once I was in it, it very much normalises gambling, which is not OK.

"Having gambling adverts everywhere, including on your shirt and around the side of the pitch, doesn't help. I'm no expert in marketing but if these companies are pumping millions and millions into advertising, they're doing it for a reason."

So would he like to see changes in the way gambling is advertised in football?

"It's definitely a step in the right direction and if football did that, I think other sports will follow suit," he adds. "I think it'd be a massive stand."

Steven Caulker at Alanyaspor
Steven Caulker is enjoying life in Turkey after being brought to 'my knees' by his gambling addiction

'Fear of being dropped fuels secret nature of addiction'

Caulker, who hopes to return to the Premier League one day, first spoke out about his gambling and drink problems to a newspaper in 2017 when he was at QPR. It had two effects.

To his career, it was damaging. But then gambling addicts, both in and out of football, began to get in touch. They confided in him, and by the time he managed to "surrender" his habit, he was ready to help.

"Over the years, that article has led so many people to me, and allowed me to build relationships with people and help them get sober," he says. "It may have affected me in football, but it's worth way more than that. This issue costs people their lives."

Caulker says that "between 20 and 30" footballers have been in touch, that he still speaks to many of them and more needs to be done to offer support and education in the football industry.

The centre-back, who also spent loan spells at Liverpool and Southampton, says there is "a lack of compassion" and the "fear of being dropped fuels the secret nature of the addiction".

"I don't look back and blame any of my coaches or sporting directors for not helping me, because many tried," he says. "But unfortunately a lot of the knowledge is very limited inside football.

"Is it something that could be added to coaching badges? I believe so. Education is vitally important.

"There is work being done, but there's a reason why players talk at the end of their careers."

Information and support for people affected by addiction can be found at the BBC Action Line.

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