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Last Updated: Friday, 10 November 2006, 20:01 GMT
The hardest tackle of them all
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

As French ex-rugby star Marc Cecillon is convicted of the murder of his wife Chantal, BBC News looks at some of the pressures he faced and some of the efforts being made to help other retired athletes.

Marc Cecillon scores a try against Ireland on 4 March 1995 - his last international match
Matches against Ireland began and ended Cecillon's international career

In French rugby slang, the term for the post-match party is the troisieme mi-temps or third half.

At Marc Cecillon's trial, a picture emerged of a former star inhabiting a dark troisieme of his own since his departure from the national side in 1995 at the age of 35.

"I fell into alcoholism whilst being totally wrapped up in my own little bubble," the former French international captain told the court, between sobs. "I exploded without knowing why."

The "explosion" of "The Quiet Man" of French rugby, as he was nicknamed by some who likened him to the actor John Wayne, saw his wife cut down in a hail of bullets at a party and the ruin of the lives of their two daughters and Cecillon's in-laws, in the words of fellow former rugby star Serge Blanco.

Born 30 July 1959 in Bourgoin, south-eastern France
Played 46 international matches for French national team 1988-95, five of them as captain
Played at national level for Bourgoin-Jallieu and Beaurepaire before retiring in 2003

Blanco, who testified at the trial, remembers a very different Cecillon from the days when they played together in the national team, Les Bleus.

"We never saw any sign of alcoholism during his career though he would go to parties after matches like any other player," he told the BBC News website.

For Blanco, who like other rugby stars of that generation moved on to a successful career off the field, the danger signs only appeared with Cecillon's retirement from the game when he failed to settle back into ordinary life.

Life without the ref

"He was a strong player who was generous in the field. In all of his career he never had a booking, he never played dirty, he was never given a punishment like others," he said.

Serge Blanco preparing to testify at Cecillon's trial
There are people who go through certain experiences and some cope, some cope less well, some don't cope at all
Serge Blanco
director of France's National Rugby League

"But rules are also what you learn in life and life is not rugby - perhaps he lacked a referee in his own life who could have brought him to see that he was on the wrong path?"

The current director of France's National Rugby League admits the game has its drinking culture but argues that, in France at least, this is largely a thing of the past since the sport went professional in 1995:

"Now more effort is required of players who are expected to attain perfection on the field and have to train every day so they have to forego the celebratory post-match bottle."

Some have suggested that Cecillon, the determined amateur rugby man, never got over the move to a professional game.

However, Blanco is doubtful:

"I don't think that's what troubled Marc. I think what troubled him was rather the fact that quite simply his career had ended. Amateur or professional, he saw his career suddenly end.

"There are people who go through certain experiences and some cope, some cope less well, some don't cope at all."

The friendly game

Dr Serge Simon, himself a former French rugby international, founded a clinic for athletes six years ago in Bordeaux.

Franck Eisenberg (photo supplied by same)
All your sporting life was built around your identity as a champion... and then, for the rest of your life, you will be someone 'who was something once'
Franck Eisenberg
French sociologist working with athletes

The Accompaniment and Prevention Centre for Sportsmen (CAPS) seeks to help athletes both active and retired who encounter psychological problems.

Last year alone it helped 275 people but, despite its rugby connections, it would be a mistake to assume that most of them came from the same game as Marc Cecillon.

"Rugby is perhaps one of the most protected sports, so to speak, because it is a team sport which values solidarity," said Franck Eisenberg, a sociologist at CAPS.

More vulnerable to anxiety and depression are those athletes pursuing individual sports: gymnasts who may slip into depression when forced by injury to spend months on end recuperating, dancers struggling with anorexia.

Another problem psychologists encounter across all athletic disciplines is addiction to training, which can harm both their health and social life.

And when the hand of the biological stopwatch comes around, usually between the ages of 30 and 35, there looms the challenge of the "tunnel effect", Mr Eisenberg explained.

Changing worlds

"Many of our athletes talk about this effect," he said.

"At the age of 12 or 13 they get selected as potential champion material, then spend 10 or 14 years in training and their whole lives revolve around it their sport.

"When their career ends, they tell us it is like emerging into a world from which they have been cut off for years and they cannot get their bearings.

"It's a loss of identity because all your sporting life was built around your identity as a champion. You are the runner, the jumper, the rugby or football star.

"And then, for the rest of your life, you will be someone 'who was something once'."

Cecillon once told a French journalist that he was a "bloke like anyone else".

"Yes, sometimes it's nice to be Marc Cecillon but most of the time I arrive late at meetings because people stop me in the street to talk about the latest match... I like my peace," he told L'Humanite newspaper.

It was the summer of 1995 and he was still "something" to the world of sport.

Cecillon under investigation
09 Aug 04 |  Europe

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