Many top sportsmen will enjoy a long and comfortable retirement – but there are some things you never get a second shot at
Where were you when your first child was born? If you are a woman, I'm going to assume that the memory will not require too much dredging up. If you are an unreconstructed man, then perhaps you have a fuzzy recollection of a multi-hour drinking sesh. If you are a more sensitive sort, you were probably massaging your partner's sacrum and pretending not to be offended by a stream of invective more becoming of Shane Warne in an Ashes Test than the mother of your newborn child.
If you are Cesc Fábregas, you were sitting on the bench at the Camp Nou watching your Barcelona team-mates grind out a one-all draw against Paris Saint-Germain to take them through to the Champions League semi-final. Fábregas had been substituted for Leo Messi after 62 minutes ("He had a miserable night," commented the Guardian), while across the city his girlfriend, Daniella Semaan, was bringing into the world a baby girl called Lia.
The birth of a child, particularly your first, is widely considered one of life's biggies, so I had to wonder how Fábregas felt about missing the experience. Fortunately, Twitter exists, so I didn't have to wait long for the answer. "Yesterday was the happiest day of my life," he wrote. Wow, I knew that he had found starts hard to come by this season for Barça, but seriously?
It turns out that emotional absenteeism from some of life's key events – births, marriages, deaths – is an occupational hazard for the world's top sportsmen and women. In another recent case, the cyclist David Millar's second child, Harvey, was born 24 hours before he was due to leave for the current Giro d'Italia. "Phewf, that was close!" he tweeted. "My wife once again proved she is hard as nails."
Historical precedents tell a tale of shifting values over the years. In 1989 the QPR midfielder Martin "Mad Dog" Allen – now the manager of Gillingham – was preparing to play in Newcastle when he learned that his wife was going into labour. Without giving it much thought, he caught a plane back to London and went straight to the hospital, arriving just in time for the birth of his son, George. His manager, Trevor Francis, was unmoved by this heart-warming story. "The following Monday, he handed me an envelope while I was getting in my car," remembered Allen. "I thought it was going to be a note of congratulations for having the baby, but it was a two-week wages fine."
In the US in 1993 David Williams, an offensive right tackle for the Houston Oilers, was due to line up against the New England Patriots when he got the call from his wife. "He let the guys down, and he let hundreds of thousands of fans down," said his coach Bob Young. The Oilers threatened him with a suspension and a $125,000 fine until public pressure forced them to backtrack.
Letting no one down, by that rationale, was Nick Faldo. His second wife, Gill Bennett, has admitted that she hoped for natural births, but all three of their children were induced to avoid him having to miss a tournament. In another extreme example of burying your emotions, the legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre threw four touchdowns and 399 yards, one of the best performances of his career, the day after his father died of a heart attack in 2003.
A strange thing happened as I looked into this topic: I started to feel an uncharacteristic empathy with spoilt, millionaire superstar sports people. They often talk of the sacrifices they make for their chosen endeavour and I always assumed this meant restricting their drink and drug binges to the summer holidays and only playing Fifa on the PS3 for six hours a day to avoid RSI. But actually many of them will compromise or forfeit some of the defining emotional moments of their life. Seeing your child take their first steps or being able to properly grieve the death of a loved one are not things you get a second shot at. You cannot catch up with everything in retirement.
Times have changed and it seems unlikely that any player in any sport would be rounded on these days for taking compassionate leave. The only sport I found where this attitude is seriously questioned is American football. With just 16 games in the regular season, a common refrain from pundits and blogs is: "You have 16 days' work a year. Make sure you show up for them."
Fábregas's decision to play against PSG appears to have been a personal choice – Messi, another first-time father, was given permission by Barcelona to miss a Champions League tie against Celtic if necessary. And that's exactly how it should be. If it's important for a person to be there, they should go; if they decide not to – for whatever reason – no one should judge them.
There is perhaps one exception to this permissive touchy-feeliness. In 2010 John Barnes was working on Sky's coverage of Chelsea versus Liverpool when he found out his wife was giving birth. Admittedly it was his seventh child, but Barnes decided to stay and watch the second half before leaving for the hospital; a decision that led Richard Keys to remark: "He should have gone much earlier." When Richard Keys tells you it's time to go, get your coat.