Football and Cultural Differences

Football and Cultural Differences

Culture is a buzzword in football circles at the moment. The topic was brought to the fore through the comments of Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. Found guilty of racist language against Patrice Evra, Suarez blamed cultural differences and claimed people had misunderstood. Swindon boss Di Canio, who was sent to the stands for overzealous body language in the technical area, recently ranted on BBC “I have a culture, I don’t stop my culture”. Slowly the discourse has turned towards looking at culture clash in football as a serious issue. Of primary importance for lots of clubs is how to help foreign players settle into life in the UK.

BBC Radio 5 Live’s Culture Club covered the topic for over an hour on their 23rd January (2012) show with some very interesting insights from the likes of Roberto Martinez, Julio Arca and Lucas Radebe.

Kwintessential wrote about all of this back in 2006. At that time Shevchenko and Crespo had been flops in the Premiership. Many pointed to their inability to settle as the primary reason. The business world has been more switched onto these issues for a long time. Research has shown that the inability to adapt to a new host culture is the most common reason for relocation and/or business failure. International companies recognise the importance of minimising this risk and as a result invest in relocation or ‘cultural awareness’ programmes. These help top professionals settle into new countries and cultures, as well as provide guidance on how to work effectively with new colleagues.

So for us, it was clear that these footballers were experiencing exactly the same challenges. We wrote to all Premiership clubs, the FA and the PFA. Only Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United responded outlining how they assisted their players. How things have changed. The clubs, PFA and FA have woken up to the fact that you can’t keep bringing in these footballing superstars and expect them to function as normal. Bad PR as well as failed signings are just two of the negative consequences being witnessed in England.

Anyone who moves abroad to another country will face culture shock (see above image). At first everything is new, exciting and colourful. Then you get home sick and start to question why you are there. If the weather is cold and rainy it doesn’t help! Then you start to get annoyed with the new host country and its ways. Finally, if you can get through all of that, you settle down, understand the culture and start to fit in. Relocation or cultural awareness training explains this process so people are aware of what they will go through mentally. Advice is given on how to handle these emotions. On top of that, the training gives them real information on their new country, the culture, etiquette, ways of doing things, etc. It helps them understand their new home that little bit better which helps them settle quicker.

Within the football world there are plenty of examples of players finding life in the UK tough.

Hernan Crespo left Chelsea due to the inability to settle. Crespo found even everyday things difficult because of language and cultural barriers. Speaking of his time at Chelsea he said: “It was a problem for me to sign a contract for a house. It was even a problem trying to use my phone because I couldn’t explain what I wanted. If the electricity bill came, it was a problem as well. Those things would occupy my mind every day. There was nobody to help me. There was no one to tell me whether to live near Chelsea or the training ground. And when you change your country, don’t speak the language and you feel alone, it’s the worst thing.”

Lucas Radebe signed for Leeds straight from Kaiser Chiefs in South Africa. “It wasn’t really easy. I felt really alone,” he told Five Live. He only had the Chief Scout to help him and it was actually hotel staff that helped him settle in and learn more about Leeds. What surprised him about the UK? The work culture, the drinking culture and Yorkshire puddings!  “Here even if players drink too much they work hard.”

Julio Arca (Middlesbrough) has been in the UK now for 12 years and is one of the success stories. “I never spoke English. Culture was different. Everything was different.” He knew it would take time to adapt so mentally handled the loneliness and isolation well. A PlayStation helped him kill a few hours each day. Emerson (also at Middlesbrough) is known to have left the country due to his wife being so unhappy in the UK. Juan Pablo Angel (Aston Villa) grew long hair – but not by choice – he didn’t know how to ask to get it cut!

Ian Rush’s bizarre description of his ill-fated spell at Juventus; “It was like playing in a foreign country” shows British players can be equally ill-equipped for the change in lifestyle that playing abroad entails.

“Out of 10 players who move abroad, only one of them will go on to succeed straight away,” claims  Vincent Pericard who moved to Portsmouth in 2002. “Yet football fans don’t see the potential problems of life as a footballer. When players arrive they’re expected to turn up, play and perform miracles. But without support, it’s not always easy. I see young foreign players struggling with loneliness or failing to settle in an alien country, not just England.”

It is clear that foreign players and their families have trouble with two major issues: 1) settling in and 2) cultural differences. How do clubs help them? Well, not all clubs do. Those that do have a Club Liaison Officer who will help with basics such as housing, schools, phones, utilities, language lessons, etc. Manchester City now actually has a whole Player Support Unit. However, based on feedback from players, the hardest part for them is life outside the club. If you are an 18 year old from Argentina who lived at home, how are you now going to cope with no family, no friends, no Mum to cook your dinner, etc? Are clubs doing enough to help players and their families socialise, find a community and feel “at home”? They need a support network inside and outside the club.

Where clubs aren’t paying attention is with cultural differences. Commentators jokingly comment about players asking where the nearest beach is, not knowing about the congestion charge in London or being shocked at the weather as examples of cultural differences. These are not cultural differences. Cultural differences are areas such as how you treat people, what a society thinks about race or gender equality, approach to time, expectations on hierarchy, etc.

Let’s translate these into some simple examples, starting with Suarez. If he is being truthful and calling someone a ‘negro’ is fine in Uruguay, then he would have soon learnt in some cultural awareness training that in the UK we value diversity and actually have laws against discrimination, even verbal. We are punctual people in the UK and I expect every serious manager wants his players at training on time. There are numerous accounts of players strolling into training late then wondering why the manager is livid. For them, time simply isn’t an issue back home. The British are a funny lot when it comes to communication; we can be direct, indirect and everything in between depending on who we are speaking to, why and where. How can we expect a foreigner to grasp the subtleties of our communication style on and off the pitch? These are a few examples of real cultural differences and the real issues that clubs need to start addressing.

When asked about how foreign players settled into Liverpool FC Gerard Houllier replied; “The players’ country is Liverpool Football Club and their language is football”. This is a romantic and naïve notion. When a business person moves to China from France, do you really believe his/her country will be the company and the language business? Far from it.

Football clubs invest millions in players. Surely it is time to start looking at the transfer process in more detail and working out how to make sure incoming players and their families settle in and are happy?  Clubs, agents, the FA and the PFA all need to communicate and work together to formulate how to a) help players and families settle and b) what kind of help they can offer to address issues like the weather, food, geography and more importantly the subtle cultural differences of life in the UK.

Cultural awareness training is not the solution – it is part of the solution and even then such training needs to be heavily geared towards the footballing world which has its own very unique culture.

by +Neil Payne

Katia Reed
150 Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.