FA Cup: Former Newcastle striker Michael Chopra’s gambling addiction changed his life

Michael Chopra for Newcastle against Wigan in the 2006 Premier League
Michael Chopra has nine goals in 60 Premier League appearances for Newcastle United and Sunderland

“My name was one of the first people that came up when you Googled ‘professional football players and gambling addiction,’ so I got people to ask me for help on social media,” Michael Chopra said .

The former Newcastle United and Sunderland striker is putting his life back together after admitting he gambled up to £20,000 a day at the peak of his addiction and was hunted by loan sharks.

As his drug addiction worsened, he sought professional help and was sent in The Sports Opportunity Clinic, set up by former Arsenal captain Tony Adams, Who ever said football was dealing with a gambling ‘epidemic’.

Ten years later, Chopra is changing his life.

As well as speaking out about his addiction in an attempt to help others, he recently returned from the Maldives, where he spent time with vulnerable young people as an ambassador for the Football for Peace Foundation.

The veteran of 60 Premier League appearances is also back in action after a six-year absence and is preparing for an extra FA Cup qualifier.

Chopra, 38, joins West Allotment Celtic, a team near Newcastle, who play in the 9th tier of English football and make a 150-mile round trip in the world’s oldest cup game on Saturday.

This is Chopra’s 11th career club – having played for Cardiff City, Watford (loan), Nottingham Forest (loan), Barnsley (loan), Ipswich Town , Blackpool, India Kerala Blaster and Aloa Athletic.

The striker – who reached the FA Cup semi-final with Watford in 2003 – is ready to face Penrith, telling BBC Sport how he now helps others find satisfaction.

“I always reach out to people who need advice because you don’t know what drastic action they might take,” added Chopra, whose addiction became so severe he would set an alarm at 3 a.m. so he could Just bet on South America.

“I want to try and help.”

‘You have to admit you have a problem’

It has been nine years since Chopra told the court how he was targeted by loan sharks during his time in Ipswich.

“They came to me and asked for my autograph and said I’d better get myself into the club and get the money now,” the player, Testified in £750,000 cocaine trial, said at the time.

“They said they knew what car I was driving and they would follow me until I paid them. They said they knew what school my little boy went to, where my parents lived and I lived in Ipsway Where is strange.

“I feel sick because I put my family in this situation with gambling.”

In 2013, Chopra said he had lost around £2m as a result of his addiction which started around the age of 16 and went on to make more than 400 professional appearances and 121 goals throughout his career.

“I was a youth team player at Newcastle on £70 a week and five or six of us would put £1 or £2 slot machines in the arcade,” he told the outlet. Sports Highs and Lows Podcast.external link

Michael Chopra celebrates scoring for Sunderland in 2008
At Sunderland, Chopra realises he has serious problems with gambling

“It helps us kill time while we wait for the bus to take us home. That could be the start of it all.”

As Chopra’s salary increased, so did his bets.

“I just turned 17 and I was paid £500 a week, then £3,500, then £6,000 to £10,000 in Cardiff – I doubled my pay at Sunderland and it started to become a big problem ,” he added.

“Sunderland sent me to a specialist hospital and I stayed in a hotel around the corner from the hospital. I would have my classes at the hospital, but as soon as I was done I went straight to a nearby betting shop because I didn’t want to help myself.

“It wasn’t until around 2012 that I really wanted to help myself.”

Chopra is open and honest about his past and uses his story to help others.

His direct messages were open to his 35,700 followers on Twitter, and a day before the interview, he was contacted on social media by a partner of a footballer who was concerned about gambling.

“Gambling is a really bad addiction. Deep down inside you, it kills you, it really drains you,” he said. “You have to open up and admit that you have a problem. That’s the first step in recovery.

“I’m glad I’m there for someone who needs someone to talk to and offer my experience.”

Using football to help tackle extremism

Made up of scattered islands in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is known for its sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, but beneath the surface, all is not as it seems.

“A lot of people think of it as a paradise destination, some parts of it are, but there’s also poverty that tourists don’t see,” added Chopra, one of the best football talents in the South Asian community in the UK.

“I went to a few islands with basically nothing.”

In his role of Football for Peace, Chopra helped run a workshop this summer on how to use football as a construction tool “Resistance to Extremism”external link in Maldives.

In recent years, there has been concern that the Maldives has become a “Recruiting Paradise”external link for extremists.

“The locals are passionate about football,” Chopra said. “I was there to encourage young people to be upright and narrow.”

Michael Chopra (left) as Football for Peace Ambassador in the Maldives in June
Michael Chopra (left) takes on the role of Football for Peace in the Maldives in June

‘Penrith would be an eye opener’

When asked when was the last time he gambled, Chopra said: “A few years ago. You have to take it day by day. That’s how I live now.”

He has traveled back and forth between the Netherlands (where he has a family home in Amsterdam) and England after his return to football.

Spending the preseason with the Western Conference Celtics has helped Chopra both physically and mentally. He has lost some extra pounds since he stopped racing in 2016.

West Allotment Celtic play at Palmersville East Stadium, about 8 miles from Chopra's former club, Newcastle United
Westside Celtics play at Forest Hall near Chopra’s former club Newcastle United

“I lost about 10kg in about two months. The first training, we ran 5km and I was blowing by the end.”

At 18, Chopra played against Barcelona at Newcastle’s Champions League Camp Nou. Fast forward 20 years and he is now preparing for the Jeonbuk First Division FA Cup in Penrith.

“It’s an eye-opener,” he said with a laugh. “I’m used to playing in the FA Cup in January – not early August.”

If you or someone you know is affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please visit the following URLs for support and information BBC Action Line.

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