The Theft of Football's Soul
Here at Footyscout, we are drawn to organizations that have established a sustainable philosophy and held the fortitude to preserve it's fundamentals through time. Building and embedding a culture into a football club is similar to ingraining a corporate culture into an organization; there is no right or wrong as long as the standard of your club is consistently high and eventually garners positive results.
The majority of sustainably successful football clubs in the world have intertwined a specific ethos throughout history and their style of football now resonates Globally through the success which an established identity has brought them. For example, Barcelona are the kings of tika-taka football, playing into feet and forming small triangles to move the ball up the pitch until they can unlock a defence and create a goal scoring opportunity. The culture of Barcelona football club emanates from the high technical astuteness of their home grown players. This intelligence is instilled within the youngsters throughout their upbringing at La Masia, Barcelona’s globally esteemed academy. Bayern Munich has a culture of efficiency, making the most out of the player in each position and playing their to strengths thereby mitigating the application of mediocrity. The philosophy is tailored to the ability of the players rather than a system in general, although they do emphasize a 'work for the team' mentality. The culture of Bayern Munich embodies the symbolism of the German National team in being efficient and precise in their football. Juventus of Turin are a defensive juggernaut who focus on keeping clean sheets before indulging in offensive onslaughts. They have a mix of physical and technical defenders whose play emanates the philosophy of the club. When they win the ball from their opposition they transition to the players with technical ability that are comfortable with the ball in the midfield at which point , their technical nous begins to take precedence. Going forward, they try and switch the ball from flank to flank until a crossing opportunity presents itself at which time a traditional poacher such as Carlos Tevez or Gonzalo Higuain can finish the move.
The evolution of football has witnessed the influx of financial clout from emerging Asian and Russian investors of larger clubs which has paved the way to purchase more luxurious footballers and managers and in turn, begin to change the historic ideology of football clubs. In addition, the pressure of success due to financial reward has seen clubs stop at nothing short of spending the deficit of 3rd world countries on one footballer to increase the possibility of acquiring silverware. This creates a fantastic spectacle however the purity of the game and the perception of the most famous clubs is being tainted based on a mentality which is hungry for success for all the wrong reasons - pressure rather than the romanticism of victory.
I still stand true with the fixation that an established spirit within a club is the only way to gain sustained success. For example, Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United incorporated a brand which brought up youth talent whom were essentially bred the club's way with leadership, teamwork and success forming the foundation of every side he managed. The famous class of 92’ consisting of David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs formed the spine of Manchester United’s most successful period of achievement in their illustrious history. Sir Alex supplemented the '92 class by incorporating world class additions such as Eric Cantona, Peter Schmiechel, Andy Cole and others. Manchester United weren’t the only club to rely on a home grown backbone as Chelsea nurtured Frank Lampard and John Terry; Liverpool deployed Steven Gerard and Jamie Carragher and Arsenal relied on Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Paul Merson et al as true cultural icons of these great football clubs.
In the current climate of football the foundation is ever-changing and the recipe of long term success through the development of youth has been lost. The shelf life of a football manager at one club is said to be 3-5 years therefore, the anticipation of culture shift will bow to this same expectation. The concern is that if, one day, the money dries up the embedded culture will have been lost somewhere along the way and the club will have to begin the process of development from stage one. Currently the one consistent dependency most club's have is money and when/if that is taken away or lost, the club will inevitably fall into a period of oblivion. Rarely do you see a football club in the 21st century aiming to be self sustainable.
Let's take an example from another sport, American football. The Pittsburgh Steelers have only had three coaches in the last 48 years. They are the first team in National Football League history to have three consecutive coaches serve for 10 years or more. The Rooney family has owned the organization since it's founding in the 1930's. The consistency of ownership and coaches have aided in maintaining an identity of a hard working, team first mentality with a never say die attitude. This parallels the principles of the city of Pittsburgh itself which is known as the 'steel city' due to the iron and steel industries that flourished in the 1830's and brought generations of jobs and security to the blue collar city. Largely due to these traits, the Steelers are one of the most successful teams in National Football League history.
I believe strongly that any successful enterprise follows the same path to long term success, illustrated as follows:
Develop: The foundation of a club must be laid. This is usually developed through the founders and is based on their background. For example, a club developed in an industrial town usually exemplifies passion, hard-work, efficiency, tenacity etc. This definition can evolve through the following stages of development however, the founding principles should always be at the forefront of change.
Embed: Embedding the culture throughout the club is the most challenging part of the process. The common shared values of the club have to permeate throughout; from the kit-man to the executive board. Attaining buy-in is only possible if there is a vision in the form of detailed planning outlining the expectations of development and ultimately the promise of success.
Sustain: Every club will endure trials and tribulations through-out their existence; however the integrity and long term success is based on sustainability of the founding values of the club. Creating a buy-in for successful change is much easier when there is a working foundation that everyone within the club has engrained within their habits.
Invest: All football clubs require investment to maintain success and elevate to superiority. This cash injection benefits stakeholders throughout the organization. For example, the manager needs financial resources to invest in certain players to make their squad better. The supporters require investment to create facilities which create an enjoyable match-day experience. The players require investment in advanced training equipment and facilities to give them the best chance of on-field success. In today’s game, pressure is at an all-time high therefore investment in psychological resources is also integral to the success in keeping a sound mind of all active parties.
Change: With investment comes change and successful transition plans must be incorporated to create the highest probability of achievement through dynamism. The founding principles can be very helpful at this stage as, if the project is veering from successfully incorporating the change, looking upon the original infrastructure of the club can aid in keeping the process on track.
Integrate: Once the change has been completed there is a period of integration where the effected parties go through an adaptation period and they must familiarize themselves with the change. For example, when a team has a distinctive style of play and then the club invests in a world class striker, the current group of players must adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the new addition thus their philosophy may be amended slightly to integrate the change.
The most eminent example of culture within a football club that has brought sustainable success is FC Barcelona. The club are famed for the emphasis they place on youth who are generally given their football education at La Masia. Le Masia was originally a farmhouse in Catalonia built in 1702 however, in 1979 the Dutch master of total football, Johan Cruyff proposed that it be used to house the future generations of FC Barcelona as a football academy. The evolution of an in-house academy has turned into an far-reaching Global initiative with scouts deployed across the globe to identify young footballers worthy of the attention of FC Barcelona. Scouts propose that the players come to La Masia for a life devoted to the beautiful game where their talent is advanced and refined through world class coaching and the collaboration between like talents and like minds.
Globalaization has seen FC Barcelona be proactive in agreeing to relationships with 15 clubs worldwide to act as a partner academy system to La Maisa as the camp only allows approximately 60 players at a time. FC Barcelona pays and offers training to the coaches within the youth ranks of these partner clubs to deploy the Barcelona culture to their players. This mitigates the risk of breeding talented players that don’t understand or buy-in to the Catalonian club's brand of football.
The culture of FC Barcelona has become an iconic brand of football heeding to club’s motto, ‘Mes Que Une Club’ or ‘More Than a Club’ and has bred some of the greatest footballers of this generation and generations past such as Pep Guardiola, Carlos Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andreas Iniesta and Lionel Messi to name a few.
The evolution of a club with a culture steeped in philosophy, tradition and ultimately destined for success must begin at the grassroots level where youthful generations grow to learn a specific methodology that becomes ingrained within their football personality. The contagiousness of the success, which a known doctrine will eventually bring, will emanate through every echelon of the club and only then will a football club have a definition and association.
Don't let money rob football of it's soul.