When you work as a bodyguard for one of the world's leading footballers, the devil is in the detail.
It goes without saying that you must be highly trained, extremely motivated, in excellent physical condition and constantly alert. And your responsibilities do not stop when you clock off at the end of your shift. Ultra-strict non-disclosure agreements and security concerns mean you can forget about having any kind of presence on social media. Alcohol consumption has to be carefully managed. Even odorous foods are sometimes best avoided, lest the close physical proximity that the job demands expose a high-profile client to the legacy of a particularly strong-smelling meal.
"When I am off, I have to think about avoiding things like garlic and not drinking as much as perhaps I might if I was spending more time at home in the UK," says Chris, a France-based operative with leading British security firm Intelligent Protection.
"You do have to really think forward and be clear-headed. We all get drug-tested and tested for alcohol. There is no room for egos, and you will not find us posting photos of ourselves with our clients."
A former Royal Marine of 12 years' service, Chris joined Intelligent Protection four years ago. The 42-year-old works as a close protection officer for a footballer from a leading French side—one of over 10 players scattered across three clubs in France and Spain who use the company's services. A standard protection package starts at £1,000 a day, and annual security costs around £400,000. It is not cheap, but the players who pay for it are not exactly poor.
In addition to his military background and close protection training, Chris speaks fluent French and is trained in first aid and defensive driving (although the company employs specially trained drivers to transport its clients). He and the team he manages have access to a gym and play team sports to maintain fitness and keep morale high. The whole operation is deliberately polished to a high sheen.
"One of the reasons we operate in the highly professional way we do is because if some criminal group conducts surveillance on our clients, their families or their homes, they will see that they are up against a security team that is slick, alert and aware, not lax security who are going through the motions," he tells Bleacher Report.
Organised criminal gangs seeking to burgle footballers' homes are a source of real concern for modern players, which is why the services offered by companies such as Intelligent Protection are so highly prized. A security operative must undertake surveillance in both the real world and the online world because of the rising threat posed by cybercriminals. They will also teach footballers and their families about the importance of exercising discretion on social media, so as not to advertise their whereabouts to potential thieves.
Reconnaissance operations are another part of the job. If a footballer is planning a holiday, for example, a security operative will travel to the location in advance in order to map out the area, plan routes between the accommodation and key sites and liaise with local police about their clients' plans.
Intelligent Protection also offers its clients self-defence training in the form of Krav Maga, the fighting technique developed by the Israeli military. It caters for an absolute worst-case scenario, but it gives both players and their families peace of mind.
"It's not about standing there and fighting someone—it's about getting away cleanly," explains Chris. "It's not easy having a conversation with a young 20-something wife about maybe having to make that decision to, for example, throw something into someone's face or use an everyday object as a weapon. But when we look at historic cases of home intrusions that have turned violent, like the attack on George Harrison and his wife [in 1999], they had to fight for their lives for a few moments. It was bloody, but it was survival."
Concerns about break-ins mean that many top-level footballers' homes are now kitted out with alarm systems, movement sensors and CCTV surveillance networks. Some players also employ security staff to conduct patrols outside their properties. Graham Minshall was employed to guard the home of a Hull City footballer during one of the club's recent spells in the Premier League and would look after the property when the player was away from home.
"Basically you live in the house as if it was your own, to a certain degree, and look after it as if it was your own," says Minshall, a former dog handler who works for East Yorkshire firm Shield Security.
"There's cameras to check and patrols to do, making sure all the alarm systems are set. You're looking for any sort of disturbance, any footprints in the bedding in the gardens, any gates or fences that are broken or have been forced or any sensors that have been covered."
As the shocking armed street attack on Arsenal players Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac recently demonstrated, footballers also require protection when they are out and about. When players in the Manchester area are looking for security while filming with their commercial partners, they often put in a call to Billy Robinson, managing director of Capricorn Media Protection, who has carved out a niche as the go-to man for on-location security in the region.
A former doorman, Robinson has worked with the great and good of the Manchester football scene over the last 12 years, from Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba on the red side of the city to Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Raheem Sterling on the blue side. He says that "90 percent" of his job is logistics—making sure players are in the right place at the right time—and reveals that while safety will always be his No. 1 concern, he is just as wary of members of the public who might attempt to exploit access to a world-famous football player for their own ends.
"If things are going wrong, you need to know they're going wrong before anyone else so that the player isn't caught up in any issues," Robinson, 46, tells Bleacher Report.
"It might not be a physical issue. It could be a political issue. It could be somebody that is trying to involve them in their argument about something. That is what you've got to be switched on for—not just protecting the player physically, but protecting the player's image and the player's brand. You can't have people coming up and asking political questions or religious questions or questions that could be controversial. You've got to be in there first. You've got to control the situation."
For those who work in the industry, unsupervised interactions with members of the public represent a constant source of anxiety.
"The most unusual situations mostly involve providing close protection services when you're out at nightclubs or other venues," says Stephen from Titan Security Europe. "When one of the players is recognised, things can get a little hectic, which can make keeping a low profile a bit tricky."
Chris from Intelligent Protection has experienced two incidents with members of the public that threatened to get out of hand. One occurred at a petrol station when an "aggressive" group of men had to be faced down with an overt show of strength by a footballer's security team (an incident, he says, that "could have been very nasty"). The other took place in a restaurant where an entreaty to a "very drunk woman" to stop harassing a player in front of his wife and guests led to drinks being thrown. Fortunately, both incidents were prevented from escalating further.
One of the privileges of the job is having close personal contact with individuals who are adored by millions of fans, but that can be a double-edged sword in itself. Paul Hughes, who spent eight years working as a bodyguard for David and Victoria Beckham, ended up breaking off the arrangement partly because, as he told the Manchester Evening News in 2007, he had become "too close" to the pair.
Spending time with footballers means being directly exposed to the highs and lows of their careers, and while injuries and poor results may come with the territory, other low points can be harder to stomach. "One of our clients has issues with racism," says Chris. "The impact on his family is very difficult to witness."
Robinson has established personal rapports with a multitude of famous footballers over the last 12 years, but he knows that there is a line that cannot be crossed.
"They've got their own friends—I'm there as security," he says. "I'm there to do a job, and I have to be 100 per cent on the job for the whole assignment. Because it takes less than 30 seconds for it all to go wrong. That's how fatal it can be."