The Arsenal footballer Mathieu Flamini’s surprising sideline, as the founder of a biochemicals company, highlights a distinct change in the way sportsmen and women now prepare for their longer-term futures.
In less monied times, especially in football, even the top players reaching the end of their careers would see their choices as straightforward.
Some would try to remain in the game, for example as managers or scouts. Others became publicans or returned to businesses or trades in which they had worked before turning professional.
There were opportunities as media pundits but not to anything like the extent seen now. Few had been made wealthy by sport.
In contrast, today’s stars are practically high-earning SMEs long before they stop playing.
The Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan made no secret of his financial motives for moving from the English Premier League to play for Al Ain five years ago and then, last year, from the UAE to China, in each case improving hugely on already substantial wages. Terms of the deal to move to Shanghai SIPG were not disclosed but local media reported at the time he would be earning in excess of the US$250,000 per week he was receiving at the UAE champions Al Ain.
But Gyan has also been investing heavily. By 2012, when still only 26, he was reported to have ploughed some of his earnings into road transport. His company operates more than 20 coaches on the Accra-Kumasi highway in his native country.
Gyan also has a boxing promotion firm, acts as a brand advocate for Unibank Ghana and has dabbled with success in pop music.
Earlier generations of footballers, while comfortably off by the standards of the people they grew up with, earned too little to fund major sorties into commercial life. Until 1961, English players’ wages were capped at £20 (Dh104) a week, and less in the closed season.
That equates to little more than £400 a week at today’s values, a negligible sum when compared with the riches paid to footballers currently playing in the world’s leading leagues.
Last year, the business magazine Forbes listed the top three earners in football as Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo ($79.6 million in the previous 12 months), Barcelona’s Lionel Messi ($73.8.m) and Paris Saint-Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic ($39.1m), their colossal income coming from endorsement and sponsorship deals as well as wages and bonuses.
Yet they were behind other sportsmen, the leading two places in the Forbes list taken by boxers, the now retired US fighter Floyd Mayweather ($300m) and the Filipino Manny Pacquiao ($160m), who added to his fortune with this month’s win over the American Tim Bradley in what he says was his last fight.
In football, as in other mass-interest sports, the injection of huge resources from television contracts means that even average players measure their wages in tens of thousands of dollars, pounds or euros a week if competing at the higher levels.
The most extraordinary aspect of Flamini’s emergence as a businessman is the specialised nature of his growing company, GFBiochemicals. The production of sustainable levulinic acid and bioplastics seems far removed from the business activities sportsmen more commonly pursue.
Last month, on his Instagram account, he announced that GF (standing for Granata-Flamini) had obtained technology-enabled green chemistry company, Segetis.
In November, Flamini announced that GF had become the first company on the planet to mass produce Levulinic Acid, which is said to be able to replace oil in all its forms.
"We are pioneers. We are opening a new market and it’s a market potentially worth £20 billion," Flamini said.
How times have changed. In his autobiography, the late English football star of the post-Second World War period Len Shackleton, who repeatedly clashed with authority with a rebellious attitude that helped to limit his international career, famously devoted a blank page to a chapter entitled What the Average Director Knows About Football.
The average director could have retorted that footballers knew as little about business.
But the examples of Gyan and Flamini among others suggest that the more prudent of today’s handsomely rewarded stars are in a different league.