It's game day, and you're dressed from head to toe in team apparel, thinking of the game that lies ahead...
The team bus is pulling into the stadium while crowds of fans mob the entrance, clamouring over each other with cameras and phones in hope of catching a glimpse of their idols through the windows. After a briefing in the change rooms, you lace up your brand new, personalised boots and take to the lush green pitch with your teammates, standing side by side while the adoring public chants and cheers, the spotlights flood the stadium with a brilliant white light for the game that awaits.
What would it be like to be a world class footballer? We dream of what we would do with the money, the fame, the global outreach and the millions of adoring fans.
While football is enjoyed by millions across the world, few really understand the hard work, career deciding choices and life altering sacrifices that's required to make it to the professional scene. Australian footballer Ben Hirsch experienced the tough side of football that many of us don't see. His stories from the humble suburbs of Melbourne to the cutthroat nature of the Spanish system has changed my views of becoming a professional footballer.
I was lucky enough to sit with Ben Hirsh for nearly two hours talking all things football. Apart from being a humble person, his insight and experience was rather unique, and relatable for a lot of young footballers.
Ben was a reserved teen playing for Clifton Hill in the lower state tiers of Australian football. Granted, it's better than your average Sunday league, but hardly of substance for those wanting to make huge leaps and bounds in the world of football.
Ben was playing as a reliable left back for his side when he was scouted to train and play at a football academy in Madrid. As with any young player, a move to Europe for football sounds like a dream. In Ben's case, the dream wouldn't wait, he was asked to board a plane just a few days later.
The two years that would follow had it all, the facilities, the first team treatment, the nerves and challenges of experiencing a new country that he wasn't familiar with, injuries, and everything you can possibly imagine with being a pro footballer.
His introduction to Spain was, in true Spanish fashion, rather direct and blunt. His chauffeur had nothing to go by but a picture of Ben, and they were unable to communicate due to the language barrier. His nerves were high as the driver took him to meet his agent.
"Ready to train?"
Sure enough, straight off a long flight to Madrid, an unfamiliar cab ride and he was still expected to come dressed to his first training session. There was no sympathy for jet lag, or culture shock. As an aspiring athlete you aren't afforded such luxuries as a break like the international players.
Ben recalls fond memories of his time at the academy, where his teammates welcomed him as one of their own. The share housing filled with aspiring footballers from around the world and local footballers trying to work their way up the Spanish system.
"A few of them spoke English so I got to know them pretty well. It was like a family, we'd train together, eat together, live together. Everyone was always on the path for the same goal, to become a professional footballer and we all encouraged each other to keep playing our best and striving for more."
Language was one of the first barriers to overcome. Having come straight from Australia, Ben had no time to pick up any lessons or study beforehand, and it was lucky for him that some of his academy mates were able to converse with him, and make life a little more welcoming for the Aussie expat.
The academy held a unique element of unity, which is something Ben was grateful for. Having been baptised in a myriad of uncertainty and unfamiliarity, his teammates were all very understanding of Ben's disposition.
Fortunately, private tutoring helped him to pick up the language and he was able to adapt to his surroundings a little more.
I shifted the conversation slightly, and asked Ben "¿Todavía entiendes español?" (Do you still understand Spanish?)
As it turns out his Spanish is still very good, we had a short exchange in another language. It's almost funny how language, like sport, has the power to unite people.
On the tactical side of things, Ben needed some time to adjust to the Spanish way of football. Stylistically, it flows much quicker, players are required to control the ball the same way in any scenario. The pace is highlighted by the understanding of both the system that was implemented and the players to execute the plan, regardless of their position or physical ability.
"I felt like a fish out of water, at first not knowing much Spanish, then having to try and fit into a new team culture and system.
"It took me a while to get used to, training up to 5 times a week doing tactics, drills, running and game play all on different days, as well as match days. There was no resting, or time to absorb the local culture when I first got there."
His teammates and opposition came from reaches around the world, however Ben humbly expressed how well he performed against some players that had taken to the international stage.
"There were some internationally capped players, one in particular from the Republic of Congo who had a lot of fanfare about him. I marked on him for a game, and I almost had a laugh to myself about how this kid from Clifton Hill was playing against an international youngster, and did a pretty damn good job too."
Ben's time with the academy was slowly coming to an end, and he was under the impression he would be jetting back to Australia with some overseas experience under his belt. As football takes its twists and turns, it was around the same time former Copa del Rey runners up Getafe CF came knocking.
His parents joined him in Madrid for a few days, unbeknownst to all that he was about to be offered a 2 year contract with the La Liga outfit that same week. He signed a 2 year senior contract on the day of his late uncle's birthday, which struck an emotional chord for him as his uncle was a passionate sports fan.
"It felt like a dream, I had my parents in Spain with me, I got a shirt with my name on it, I couldn't really believe this was happening for me. It felt like such a huge shift from the state leagues in Victoria to be training in Spain, then signing for Getafe."
From his academy and his roommates, he was thrust into his first professional environment at Getafe. He details the things that made it feel like the dream had become reality.
"It's the things like walking through the change room, getting treated by first team medical staff, stuff like that which makes you feel like you're a part of something big.
"We trained on top of the hill at the training grounds, and down below you could often see the first team training. Sometimes we'd be lucky to finish early and watch them train, and it was like nothing I've ever seen before.
"They'd come up to us later, knowing we were the reserves and take time to say hello and get to know us a little bit."
As most footballing careers sound dreamy, this is where the hard yards kicked in for Ben.
Unlike his time at the academy, Getafe is a professional outfit and the expectations were much higher. In terms of the team chemistry, Ben recalls it being a much harsher environment than his academy teammates.
"It was much harsher. They weren't exclusive or anything, but there's this element of competition for places because for these guys, it was their career they'd worked hard for, or it was their means of making a living. They weren't going to give up their spot without a fight."
As for many La Liga sides, their reserves play in lower tiers of the Spanish football pyramid. Ben tried as he might to get into the first team but stumbling blocks along the way slowly dissolved his love for the game.
The difference in the culture and environment was easily the biggest difference, despite the academy and Getafe both being based in Madrid. The weight of expectation slowly began to play on his mental health. He credits his relationship at the time being one of the stable elements of his life during his footballing career.
"This is the main reason I wanted to get my story out there. I didn't realise until later on how much this was playing on my mental health. I was anxious, had bouts of depression because week in, week out you're pouring in your blood, sweat and tears, only to find out you weren't on the team sheet. But you'd do it all again the following week.
"I played a few minutes in a game, maybe once a month if I was lucky. It was so tough, putting in all this effort for the chance to be involved. My girlfriend at the time was probably the best thing about my life. She was able to help me through some of the feelings and emotions I'd gone through, and if it wasn't for her I probably would've had some sort of break down or gone home earlier, who knows."
It was an injury that lead to Ben questioning his future. A hamstring injury put him out for the better part of a few weeks, in which time he could finally relax and enjoy his surroundings, something he had lacked while living the tough life of a professional athlete.
"The physio spoke English and she was really nice, it felt good getting treated by the first team doctors and being around the first team facilities. I wasn't training for a while, so I got to go out and experience the city a little more.
"I was wearing my Getafe tracksuit, and an older man saw me in the street, and he was thrilled to meet me. He asked how my leg was, said that I've got some talent and he can't wait to see me play. It's those sorts of moments that take away the hard yards a little bit and make you feel like a pro."
Ben made the most of his injury and took his first trip back home to Melbourne since leaving for the academy. Spending time in the unforgiving but glorious Australian summer, he realised what was most important to him, which was taking care of his mental health and spending time with his loved ones.
"I simply couldn't do that if I were to pursue being a footballer abroad. My mental health was suffering, and I didn't realise until I'd spent time with family and realised what I was missing back home.
"I went back to Madrid soon after and the manager agreed to let me go out on loan, but my mind was decided. I was ready to return home. My experiences were amazing, and I'm forever grateful for them, but evaluating what I truly believe to be best was to be back home."
After a long and arduous 2 years in Madrid, Ben finally returned to Melbourne. His life and career experiences have helped to shape him as a mentor as he manages Manningham's under 16 side in the state leagues of Victoria, the same leagues he once played in at a similar age.
"These days I love coaching and developing the next wave of players. Given my experience in Spain, I can play that big brother role for some of these younger guys, telling them what it takes to play in Europe and helping them to be the best they can be."
These days, Ben works in the family's business of a winery, while continuing to manage and be involved in football at a coaching level. He hopes to one day move up in Victoria's footballing world as a manager, but for now he's content with life, and continues practicing his Spanish.
Que viva la vida.