Opinion

The Australian football community failed Sebastian Ryall

After the recent release of former Sydney FC defender Sebastian Ryall's new book, Lucy Zelic explains how too often football forgets the human being beneath the shirt.

I still remember the day the news rang out about Sebastian Ryall’s decision to walk away from football.  

It was an ordinary Wednesday on January 17, 2018 and I was enjoying a day off at home when my Twitter feed erupted with the sudden announcement that he had quit, effectively immediately.   

The stories began to pile up online with the glaring headlines reading; 

“Sydney FC's Ryall quits football” and “Sydney FC teammates shocked by Ryall exit.” 

According to the Daily Telegraph, the circumstances surrounding his dramatic departure pointed to the 28 year-old's desire to “pursue a life outside of football” after “having grown disillusioned with playing the sport.” 

The memory of this particular story is a vivid one because I distinctly remember picking up the phone and contacting a fellow journalist to discuss it, asking “what the hell happened?” 

The conversation carried on into the night when I brought it up with my brother Ivan who said: “you don’t quit football unless you’ve got a damn good reason, so don’t be quick to judge.” 

I admit I was guilty of that charge because my naivety simply couldn’t rationalise why a perfectly talented footballer would choose to turn his back on the game - it just didn’t make sense at the time. 

Now, almost a year later, Ryall has bravely bared his soul in his self-published e-book called “How To Die Today” 

In the chapter entitled “My rise to hell”, Ryall details the night in question which led to him being charged with statutory rape when he was just 19-years-old and the devastating effects it had on him and his family.

After enduring a six-month ban from the game, including two A-League matches, the Under-20s World Cup and all pre-season friendlies, the torrent of abuse Ryall suffered from fans led him to breaking point even after the charges had been dropped and his name had been cleared.  

Taking on his former club Melbourne Victory for an Australia Day clash in 2012 when he was 21, Ryall recants the disgusting chant that fans sung to him from the stands.  

“Oh Seb Ryall, oh Seb Ryall, with a packet of sweets and a cheeky smile, Seb Ryall is a pedophile.”

These words would ultimately see Ryall try to take his own life and it would take two failed attempts, excessive drug use and a stay at a rehabilitation facility for him to move on from it.  

His revelations are incomprehensibly heartbreaking and have continued to haunt me ever since I finished reading the book because I cannot help but think that the Australian football community failed him in such a catastrophic way.

“I just wished you would act like humans rather than fans”, he writes with reference to the treatment of him. 

The problem is, with football becoming increasingly commercialised, we have become accustomed to treating footballers like commodities and have forgotten that beneath the historic team colours and badge, lies a human.  

For too long, misbehaving fans and ‘Ultras’ have cited the term “passion” as a justification for their grotesque actions and have largely been immune to serious consequences until the recent wave of arrests. 

They have used football as a vehicle for their hatred and brought unwarranted shame to the game - they cannot call themselves fans, least of all fit for society.

But will it take the loss of a precious life in order for change to occur?

Globally, we have witnessed some of the most abhorrent narratives emerge recently with racism and player abuse hijacking headlines. 

The disgusting racist slurs directed at players like Mario Balotelli, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford prompted the latter to say that “football is going backwards” and he’s right because we cannot come up with a competent solution to manage it. 

The Serie A alone is facing a reputational crisis with racism proving to be rife but it’s the reactions to these incidents from leading figures that have raised even more cause for concern.

In response to the Balotelli incident which saw Hellas Verona fans racially abuse the star forward, Italian politician Matteo Salvini weighed in on the debate in the most deplorable fashion possible. 

"Poor, innocent Balotelli, poor star. A person so staid and polite. I condemn every gesture of violence and racism but I prefer others in the field to Balotelli. Italy has other problems,” he said. 

What a despicable and irresponsible way to address such inhumane acts, as though Balotelli’s profession or financial circumstances preclude him from feeling hurt or torment.  

UEFA’s “three-step procedure” has been introduced in a bid to combat such events but after they delivered their embarrassingly weak punishment to Bulgaria over racism, which saw them cop a measly fine and be ordered to play two matches behind closed doors, little faith exists in the ridiculous system.  

Just this week, Shakhtar Donetsk captain Taison was sent off for reacting to racist slurs from Dynamo Kiev fans and both he and teammate Detinho left the field in tears.  

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Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka was also forced to make a public statement via his social media account addressing the tirade of disturbing abuse he has endured which included comments like “we will break your legs”, “kill your wife” and wishes that his infant daughter “gets cancer.” 

All of this over a game of football. 

I understand it represents so much more to many of us but extremity can not override civility and respect for our fellow men and women.  

“The sporting world can be brutal and certainly a politically incorrect working space. You would not go to your job on Monday and scream abuse at someone saying that their mother is a whore, yet this happens frequently in the world of football,” writes Ryall. 

Somehow, sport and social media have managed to exist outside the realms of what is acceptable human behaviour and if Ryall’s book can teach us anything, it’s that these primordial attitudes towards the treatment of athletes are no longer acceptable.  

Ryall is but one of many who have suffered in silence for years and if it were not for this brave man’s courage to bring light to his darkness, we may never have known of his plight or how close we came to losing him. 

Ryall wrote his book in the very same spot he had written his suicide letter with the view of helping others because to him “saving one life is infinitely more important than winning any football trophy or any amount of money.”

I want to take this opportunity to apologise to him for all of his unjustifiable suffering - both he and his talents deserved so much more. 

The select few fans in this country should be deeply ashamed of themselves for what they did to him and I hope they feel immense regret and learn from these experiences. 

I also want to thank him for his gallantry and his honesty across all fronts because as the saying goes, knowledge is power and the global community cannot turn a blind eye to these issues anymore. 

I just wish things were different for you Seb, I really do. We may have failed you but your story and your life long teachings are far more important than any game of football ever will be.    

Sebastian Ryall's book can be purchased HERE

More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue or via Lifeline 24 hours a day online and on 13 11 14. The Conversation