(CNN) — “It was definitely heartbreaking to see,” American soccer star Timothy Weah says of a moment which, even 10 years on, he can still clearly recall.
In January 2013, Ghanaian forward Kevin-Prince Boateng led his AC Milan teammates in walking off the pitch during a friendly match after he was racially abused by opposition fans.
As a 12-year-old, it was the first time Weah – son of legendary Liberian soccer great George Weah – had seen racism in sport.
“I think that was a moment that really … shook me as a young man,” the 23-year-old Weah tells CNN Senior Sport Analyst Darren Lewis. “To see that people really hate us just because of the color of our skin. I feel like he did the right thing walking off the field.
“I feel like, if we’re in a situation like that, there’s no need to play. If we’re not accepted here, there’s no need to play. Period.”
The idea of players walking off the pitch if they’ve been racially abused is still being talked about, and racial abuse is one of the many ways the mental health of young players is being impacted, Weah and Juventus teammate Samuel Iling-Junior say.
As well as talking to CNN Sport, the pair – two of Europe’s most promising young players – discuss mental health and the support offered to players on Juventus’ “Stories of Strength” podcast and insist that being open about feelings and emotions is the best way for players to deal with any difficulties they are experiencing.
While there is a club therapist to talk to, they also say they can share their thoughts with teammates.
“I see these guys every day,” Weah says. “I’m with Sam every day, so he’s someone that I can definitely confide in and speak to in a personal way.
“It [the podcast] was a great experience. Now that I’m getting older, I just feel like it’s very important to get your feelings out and express how you feel in order to continue moving forward.”
While conversations around mental health have increased over the years, some stigmas remain; that admitting vulnerability or seeking help is a sign of weakness, perhaps because the soccer industry is so competitive.
Weah says that his family is “super in tune with their feelings and their emotions,” but he understands that there still needs to be more discussions around mental health.
“My mom made it really easy for me to express how I felt. The communication in my household was amazing,” he says.
“It was always good, but I felt like it’s definitely something that needs to be worked on in our community, especially as Africans.
“I feel like we don’t see our parents, especially our fathers, express how they feel a lot, so it’s definitely something I think we can work on,” adds Weah, talking more generally about Black male masculinity.
Iling-Junior, too, says he comes from a family where being open and honest about your emotions was encouraged and supported.
“I’ve always been really lucky that from my background and my culture we’ve always found it quite easy to talk to each other,” the 20-year-old Illing-Junior tells CNN Sport.
Weah and Iling-Junior agree that not spending much time with family is one of the most difficult challenges young soccer players face, especially those who move abroad, as they both did.
Despite coming from close-knit families, both players said they sometimes struggled to adapt after leaving home.
Weah, who plays for the US Men’s National Team and moved abroad to Paris Saint-Germain in 2014 when he was just 14, says he was absent from some of his younger cousins’ landmark moments.
“They’re all grown up now and I’ve missed everything. Family time, family reunions, birthdays,” adds Weah.
“You kind of just feel distant from everything. And I think that’s really the big thing. But, in general, I think me and Sam know that there’s a bigger goal and we’re just fighting every day for our families. And I think that’s the beautiful thing that’s in it.”
Iling-Junior came through Chelsea’s youth ranks but left his London home for Turin, Italy when he signed with Juventus in 2020. He says “constantly playing” makes it difficult for players to see their families.
“I came away from home; I’m a London boy and I’m in Turin. So I look to see my family as much as possible. We try and find a routine to make that work,” he says.
Weah stresses that while soccer players are seen as heroes and idols by many, it’s important to remember that they’re “just human.”
The American says that the perception of a “beautiful lifestyle” or a “beautiful car” doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness.
“When you really get to know a lot of the players, you might find out some interesting stuff about them,” Weah says. “Everyone has their own separate lives. We all live a different life. Everyone has their own needs.
“And I think, in mental health, that’s important to understand because I think there’s going to be a time where a lot more footballers are going to come and speak out about their mental health.
“Obviously, people when they see us, they see the money’s good, the lifestyle is good, but for some of us we don’t value the money as the most important aspect of our lives.”
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