Marko Arnautovic has involved himself with West Ham’s new local scheme
He quickly learned the consequence of bad decisions, how choosing the wrong path can lead to some very dark places. Violence, drug-dealing, prison.
Arnautovic had football to steer him towards safety, and he is now a multi-millionaire international.
But in his adopted home city, he has found the problems facing the young are the same – yet the consequences are more dire still. Instead of fists, blades have become the weapons of choice, and the cost is terrifying.
“Before, back in the day when I was young, when you had some problems, you dealt with it with your hands. No one had a knife,” he said.
I had a lot of friends who were also football players – some of them ended up in prison, some of them had injuries
“Now it has changed. There are a lot of mafia movies that show that maybe you are a tough guy when you put something in your pocket. But it is very dangerous.”
Arnautovic is taking a hands-on approach in West Ham’s Players’ Project, launched this week.
The club will commit £10million over the next three years to help the deprived communities around them and attempt to inspire positive change, and the 29-year-old hopes he can use his own childhood experiences to relate to London’s youngsters.
“I had a lot of friends who were also football players. Some of them ended up in prison, some of them had injuries,” he said.
Marko Arnautovic is adored by the West Ham fans
“I think of my group of friends, I am the only one who is a professional footballer.
“I am still with them [those who went to prison]. I still respect them because they are also part of my life.
“They are out now. Some of them I don’t have any contact with but I was hearing positive things. They have families and jobs.”
And he hopes their stories and his strike a chord in a community that is being devastated by the wave of knife crime.
“It’s very hard to put this in the kids’ minds,” he said.
“There’s a lot on this planet. Everyone is trying, we are trying, all the different clubs, the Premier League, the politicians, but you can’t change a child, woman, man or kid who’s got this in their head. You can’t take it out.
“I see a lot of stuff in my life – they start selling drugs and selling this and that. I think they take this way because it is easy. But you get hard punishment. You are playing with your life.
“Stay with your friends who are close to you. If one of those friends tries to change, talk to him. If he still doesn’t change, go away from him.
Marko Arnautovic has garnered a badboy reputation
“When you’re on the good side, you need to get away from this. Because I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my life and it’s not good to be there.”
Arnautovic, the father to two girls, has already made himself a fans’ favourite in east London. Scorer of five goals in ten games this season, he is confident of increasing that tally at Huddersfield on Saturday.
But he just as focused on the Project, and the difference it could make to the social problems blighting lives in his local community.
“When I see those kids out there, how they play, how they train, how they look up to us, it makes me feel happy,” he said.
“I just want to give advice to everyone to go the right way. It is important for me. The most important thing is to listen to your family.”
The Players’ Project represents West Ham United’s commitment and vision to use to the power of sport to motivate, educate and inspire people in the local community.
First-team players will be helping to drive core community programmes that are delivering life-changing experiences throughout the season.