Ask a Premier League footballer what he’d be if he wasn’t a Premier League footballer. A classic question of its genre. Its genre being; banal ‘quickfire Q’s’ to ask in jokey, ‘clippable’, five-minutes-for-Youtube interviews with mostly disinterested players. It goes nicely alongside ‘Who’s the worst dressed player at the club?’ or ‘Who’s got the best tunes in the dressing room?’. Ah, good stuff.
What makes it a particularly enlightening question to ask is the fantastic variety of responses it will invariably evoke. “Erm, PE Teacher?” is one example, but there are many. Sports coach, sports trainer, physio, maybe Golfer for the ambitious, ballboy for the unambitious – the list is endless. Whatever it is, it’ll be something to do with sport – unless you’re asking Peter Crouch, he’ll tell you he would be a virgin and then go on to chisel out a successful media career on the back of it.
Pithy one-liners about the sexless lives of lanky men who aren’t millionaire footballers notwithstanding, the sports-centric focus of these alternative careers is understandable. A majority of footballers playing currently in the Premier League would have been signed up to academies early in their lives and funneled through a system with one purpose, moulding and crafting their talents, showing them the linear path to stardom and the tunnel vision required to make it.
Sport is their lives, it is mostly all they have ever known – so forgive the limited frame of reference. And yet, had you asked ex-Sunderland and Arsenal player Stefan Schwarz that question sometime in the late nineties or early noughties (who knows, maybe someone did) then you’d have gotten a very different response indeed.
Stefan Schwarz would have answered Astronaut. Because Stefan Schwarz wanted to be an astronaut. So much so that when he signed for Sunderland in 1999 his new club felt obliged to contractually prevent him from becoming one for the duration of his time playing there.
A strange decision, but perhaps an understandable one. Whilst player care is an increasingly significant part of the modern game and big clubs all have teams of employees dedicated to keeping an eye on new signings as they find their feet, it was less so 20 years ago. Perhaps today Sunderland might have tasked a liaison officer with popping over to see Schwartz every now and again, just to make absolutely sure he hadn’t left the stratosphere.
But this was 1999, and feeling the need to ensure their new signing be kept grounded, Sunderland took the unusual method of implementing a ‘Space Clause’ into his contract.
At the time, commercial space travel was looking like it would soon become a viable holiday option for the super rich, with companies taking bookings from as early as 2002. After one of Schwarz’s advisers managed to secure a place, the floppy-haired midfielder himself began to show interest.
When Sunderland chief executive John Fickling caught wind that his prospective £4.5 million transfer wanted to jump in a rocket and leave Earth behind, he decided to step in. Schwarz’s contract was to state very clearly: No space travel. He told BBC Radio 5 Live at the time that getting “insurance cover” on a transfer was a common part of negotiations and as insurance policies tend to have “certain exclusions, such as dangerous activities”, the clause was an important piece of due diligence, if a slightly bizarre one.
Coming from Valencia, where he had impressed, the signing of Schwarz was quite a coup for Sunderland. He had first come to attention at the 1994 World Cup where Sweden finished third. National team exposure helped him catch the eye of Arsenal manager George Graham, whom he played a season under in the mid-nineties. Stints in Italy and Spain then followed, before Wearside was calling.
Somewhat ironically for a man whose head was amongst the stars, Schwarz’s on field approach was comparably pragmatic. He was an aggressive, rugged midfielder who kept it simple on the ball, but his experience was crucial for newly promoted Sunderland, who finished an impressive 7th. They repeated the feat the following season, before an aging Schwartz was phased out of the team, and retired in 2003.
Contrary to expectations in 1999, the prospect of commercial space travel has yet to materialise into reality. Now in his 50s, it is likely Schwarz will have to settle with his 306 club appearances and 69 caps for Sweden as his primary accomplishments in life. Despite his quashed dream, he serves as a reminder that football isn’t necessarily the be all and end all for every footballer – for Stefan Schwarz there was a whole galaxy out there, had only he been allowed to explore it.