Former Bundesliga professional Uli Borowka has written a book outing himself as an alcoholic – and he says he was not the only one in German professional football.
"I was on top, and then I was all but dead."
That is how fifty-year-old Uli Borowska sums up his life. He played 388 Bundesliga matches for Werder Bremen and Borussia Mönchengladbach, and had six caps for the German national team.
But the successful defender was fighting a different battle off the pitch, against an enemy that threatened to overpower him: Alcohol. "Beer, wine, spirits, I poured down anything I could lay my hands on," he says now in his auto biography, which was published in Germany this week. He says that some of today's Bundesliga professionals are now asking him for advice. He is keen to help athletes fight addictions.
DW: Uli Borowka, in your book you describe your development from a successful athlete into a lonesome drunk. Was it difficult for you to own up to all that?
Uli Borowka: Writing that book was not easy, I have to admit. When I read the finished text I got very depressed for two or three weeks.
What was the motivation for you to write it all down now?
It was triggered by the reactions I got last year when I gave my first interviews on the subject. Lots of people wrote to me to congratulate me and tell me how much they admire my honesty. And then writing the story down was part of my therapy, really.
How could it have happened that your life derailed when you seemed to have it all – money, a family, a job others envied you for?
I just couldn't take the pressure any more. I had built up this image of myself as a tough successful guy. But there was no room left to admit to any weakness, to show emotions, to just say 'I am not as strong as you may think.' So things just got out of hand, drinking became a distraction but also a valve, to let off steam, to relieve the pressure. And then things spiralled out of control.
Your addiction led your wife and children to leave. How did alcohol change you?
It was a slow process initially. Alcohol addiction is a disease which gets worse and worse. In the beginning drinking just helped me relax. I was friendly and jolly when I had been drinking. But then when I got really drunk my mood would change completely and I was aggressive and full of self-pity. And that led more and more people to turn away, my friends and my family. I can understand that now.
What followed were drunk driving incidents and a suicide attempt – do you sometimes think it is a miracle you are still alive?
I was very lucky, yes. I now have a completely different approach to life. I have nothing to hide: I speak openly about my addiction, that is very important for me. I was surprised at the resonance and amount of positive feedback I got for my remarks.
In your book you also describe how you went binge drinking with other footballers. Would you say drinking is a problem in the Bundesliga?
Things have changed a lot over the years now. The players are under scrutiny all the time, so that it does not go unnoticed when players go out for drinks. But over the past few weeks several players have been in touch to say that they have similar stories to tell – and this is not just retired professionals I'm talking about.
How did you manage to kick the habit?
I didn't see that I was an alcoholic, not until I ended up in hospital. And even then I was still in denial, thinking 'I'll just stick this out for a couple of weeks and then I can go back to moderate drinking.' But then the therapists really drove home the message that I needed to quit immediately, otherwise I might kill myself within a matter of months. In hospital I saw people who had done that to themselves - and that was really an eye-opener.
When you look back on your career as a soccer player, would you say you achieved everything you wanted?
I even achieved more than I wanted. To be honest I was not an exceptionally talented player. But I had a lot of ambition and I worked harder than others and had more willpower, which got me to where I was. But frankly, that was nothing against the willpower and fighting spirit I needed to quit drinking. And to have managed to overcome the addiction means more to me than any sporting success I ever had.