Speaking in an extensive, exclusive interview in conjunction with L’Équipe Magazine, former Chelsea physio Eva Carneiro discussed women in football, the infamous exchanges with José Mourinho, and much more.
We hadn’t heard from you for two years, in France, since being on the pitch at Stamford Bridge. What’s happened with you since that day?
I’m finding it difficult to believe the two years have already gone by. It’s been barely a year since the case has closed. I’ve been really busy. I was hoping that I was going to have a better work-life balance but when you love what you do, you get consumed by it. We have set up a new enterprise here, in Harley Street, The Sports Medical Group, a sport treatment consultancy service . The idea is to offer clients treatment similar to what you would expect at an elite sport level. I’ve also worked in Qatar (a collaboration with the Aspetar sports clinic in Doha) and set up a sport treatment centre in Gibraltar. These have been some quite big projects but also it’s been a return to what is normal, which is important for me. I wanted to feel like a doctor again.”
Do you miss football pitches?
Yes of course. It’s mainly the moments off the pitch I miss, behind the scenes. The very particular atmosphere before the game has kicked off. When that is good, the energy radiated by the team is something unique that I’m so lucky to have been part of. The well-spirited banter too. The decisions that need to be made before the players line up. All the things that are at the core of individual or collective sporting performance. Listening to the Champions League anthem, knowing that you are part of its history; that, you never forget.
Did you always want to work in football?
Yes! I picture myself sat on the sofa watching matches with my dad. In my generation, playing football as a girl wasn’t really an option, so while we were sent to the gym, the lads played football. Football evenings were special for me; we used to prepare food and drink like it was some big occasion. When I was a little bit older my parents took me to the Bernabeu. My dad brainwashed me a bit with Real Madrid! Even at university, I slept in shirts of my favourite teams.
What place do you have for football now in your life?
I’m always looking after footballers, as a doctor, but it’s difficult for me to speak about it due to client confidentiality. Now, if I am honest, it took me a year to watch a match of football. The 2016 Champions League final was the only game I was able to sit and watch last year. This year, I could follow it with the same passion as before, jumping out of my chair when Zinédine Zidane and Real Madrid picked up their second consecutive title. This is just like what I used to do. I am really grateful to be able to feel that again after the ordeal I’ve been through.
Let’s move on to that “ordeal” now. How have you and your family got through this period?
As well as I could. It was a real shock to the system at a time where I should have been happy because I was about to get married and go on my honeymoon. One day I came home and I announced that I had to resign. The support from my husband during this time was invaluable. Of course, it had an enormous effect on us. My family in Gibraltar, they are innocent and I was really conscious to shield them from this. I have always been a private person, so this has been particularly difficult to manage. I’m very proud of the way I’ve conducted myself, just like dignity shown by my family.
We know that the tabloid press is particularly intrusive. How has the media behaved in all this?
With few exceptions, the English journalists worked ethically and sought the truth. I was, you know, David against Goliath, and it’s much more comfortable and useful to be on Goliath’s side. I found myself in the midst of a storm, but I feel very proud of the way the English press handled the case. Journalists have such a responsibility informing public opinion and have the power to bring about change.
You’ve received death threats after this episode…
Yes. You comfort yourself every day by remind yourself that you’ve done your job and nothing more. Fortunately the wind starts to blow elsewhere for those cowards who sit behind their aliases on social network sites to go and threaten others. It’s a matter of taking legal channels to pursue these people; we’ve got to go after individuals and get them to take ownership for what they are doing.
Have the threats stopped now?
Yes, I think so (smiles). But they may start again after this interview (laughs). I’m ready!
Has this chapter in your life changed you or your way of looking at things?
Not at all. I’m simply more in control of my life and my work schedule and so I can spend more precious time with my family. In that sense, it’s better today but hasn’t changed what I am or the way I am with people.
What does the daily routine of Dr. Carneiro look like today?
My last job was more of a way of life than a job. The wider public don’t consider the amount of commitment and dedication that staff and players must have in top-level sport. As a doctor, the interaction that I have with my patients and seeing them satisfied by the improvements they make is what really makes me happy. I’ve worked so much, for years, to become a sports medicine specialist; I didn’t have weekends or Christmas with the family or holidays in one unbroken block…I’m discovering and benefiting from this for the first time in my professional working life.
You’ve become, perhaps inadvertently, the symbol of discrimination towards women in football. Does that bother you?
I never envisaged, or even wanted, to be an example for other women. All that I was dreaming about was becoming a doctor in sport at its highest level. For quite a few years – almost eight in my previous job – I was uneasy with the light being cast on me. When I started, I was determined to not speak about being a woman in this setting and that my work would do the talking for me. But I didn’t have a choice.
The experience made me understand that actually nothing changes as long as you don’t have a voice. At the end of the day, I’ve benefitted from attention that didn’t ask for but I’ve got to rest easy with that and speak about my experience when it’s appropriate in order to bring about change. I am amazed that people find it difficult to understand: the majority of women who work do not want particular attention, they just want to do their work and get some recognition for it when it is done well – like men.
In France, there are no female doctors in the medical teams in Ligue 1. Does that surprise you?
I’m not surprised since there are very few of us out there, maybe three. It just underlines the fact this environment is hostile for women. I can’t think of the number of times that someone has said to me that I couldn’t embrace this profession or even that I shouldn’t…. It’s always men. But the younger generations of footballers are different and a footballing environment where there is equality seems more natural to them. Giving managerial posts to women would definitely help.
Women on boards of directors without the need to be shadowed by men. Football today has a bad reputation not only on the issue of sexism but also more widely on its openness to diversity. Once there is more diversity, women, minority groups and people of all sexual orientation being represented in the decision-making bodies – people who won’t be there to sit hidden away to keep their jobs – there will be a better environment.
This case underlined also what little is made of medical emergency faced with what is at stake in a sporting sense…
The issue of medical treatment regulations in sport and security on and off the pitch is very important. I’ve been appalled to how my case has been treated in Europe. In certain countries, the players’ well-being and medical governance was put in the spotlight. In others, people were only interested in my gender. It reflects the differences in perception in terms of the notion of gender in Europe.
I was sad to see that in Southern Europe, where I grew up, they forgot to bring up the real nub of the issue. Also, if you know football, you know that as soon as the referee blows for a doctor to come on to the pitch, at the player’s request, the game cannot continue, not until the player has been seen. If the doctor takes too much time or refuses to come on, it only delays the game.
Is this why you decided to make a formal complaint against your club and coach? Because this case went way beyond just you?
The legislation on health and safety is very clear in all corporations and a doctor cannot make a decision without undertaking an examination. So when a player asks for medical intervention, a doctor’s hands are bound by law and by the Hippocratic Oath.
Do you think that doctors should have a more important role in clubs?
This is not the issue. Football governing bodies and the Premier League have recognised the need for doctors in clubs because of the safety and legal issues of not having a doctor present on the pitch. However, they have remained silent when doctors have been prevented doing their job or have been confronted by someone unqualified making a medical decision. They cannot stay silent on this. Footballers cannot be modern gladiators, they cannot be fed to and eaten by lions in the name of entertainment at whatever cost to their life, their career and their future. Unfortunately, governing bodies, the Premier League and even player unions have stayed quiet on this.
In the short term, this has serious consequences where human lives and careers are put at risk and in the long term, there are legal consequences where players will question their employers and governing bodies as to why their safety was compromised. We think they would have had enough of an example from the NFL (4,500 retired players have pursued NFL for concealing the long-term effects of injuries which occur due to playing) but it seems they believe the culture of litigation will not reach European football.
What is the biggest challenge for a sport doctor? Is it recuperation? Reoccurring injuries? Jetlag?
Players’ egos! (Laughs) People having personal agendas and protecting themselves in a sense that it prioritised over the team and, therefore, over performance.
Could you come back to a football club, in England or elsewhere?
Yes. I’ve had some very generous offers from England and abroad but they either came at the wrong time or were, without meaning to seem in any way disrespectful, not ones I felt passionate about. In order for me to come back to such a post, every ounce of me would have to be passionate about the proposal. I’m really enjoying my life now, inspired by the professionals around me.
I fiercely believed in and passionately fought for the teams and managers I’ve worked for but I am disillusioned that football does not seem to want to learn from its mistakes. And that tarnishes the game that we all love. That said, I trust my instincts and I’ll just know it if a proposition is right for me.
What advice would you give to young women who wish to set out on the same career path as you?
Follow your dreams, turn a deaf ear to silly comments. Do it with passion, be the best that you can be. But of course, I’ll give you also some advice on how to manoeuvre yourself in certain situations … (laughs)