Settling In: How Pro Soccer Clubs Make New Players Feel Welcome
Fans love to speculate on whether new player will succeed or fail, but on-field success might have more to do with a player's off-field transition than with adjusting to a new style of play.
Станислав Ведмидь/Wiki Commons
When Thomas Gomminginger signed for VfB Stuttgart in 1985, the club was still one of Germany's biggest. Stuttgart had just won the league in 1984, and for the then-19-year-old Gomminginger, the move was a dream. One of his new teammates was none other than future World Cup winner and US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Before signing for Stuttgart, Gomminginger had played semi-pro soccer for a team near his small hometown of Leimin. When he arrived at his new club in the big city, he didn't have a place to stay, but the club offered little support. He had to find an apartment on his own.
"I had contact with another player who moved away and I took over his apartment, including the furniture, TV, and kitchen appliances," remembers Gomminginger, "and I paid him everything separately so I could take over the furniture and TV and everything. But the club was not involved."
For years, such was the life for newly transferred professionals in European soccer. Even at top teams, players could find themselves on their own, with little help making the personal transition from one city—and sometimes one country—to another. It was just Sign here, we'll see you on Monday.
"It's the weirdest thing ever" the former Barcelona, Chelsea, and Liverpool player Boudewijn Zenden told Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their 2010 book Soccernomics, "that you can actually buy a player for 20 mil, and you don't do anything to make him feel at home." Kuper and Szymanski called the lack of investment clubs make in settling players after a transfer "one of the biggest inefficiencies in the transfer market."
It doesn't take a Harvard MBA to realize that a person's performance at work hinges to a large degree on their domestic happiness. But while major corporations have, for decades, recognized the value of helping employees make smooth relocations, the soccer world had not.
Today, it seems Europe's top clubs have begun to come around, although the degree of off-field help a player gets following a transfer still varies by club, league, and country. In England, helping players settle is the responsibility of a team's player liaison officer. In Germany, it falls under the purview of a club's so-called team manager. (No, this does not mean Thomas Tuchel and Carlo Ancelotti are helping players find apartments after practice. In Germany, Tuchel and Ancelotti are referred to as head coaches, while managers work behind the scenes.)
In Germany, clubs have employed team managers for some time, but the role was not traditionally so heavy on player service. At Hoffenheim, where Gomminginger now works as the under-23 team's manager, the job is multifaceted. Gomminginger and his colleagues are responsible for organizing team travel, sorting out hotels, and, when a new player arrives, registering him with the Football Association and getting him eligible to play as soon as possible.
"After that," says Timmo Hardung, the first team's manager at Hoffenheim, "we focus on the personal life of the players, bringing their families over, looking for kindergartens and schools for their kids. To make them arrive here as soon as possible as a human being."
That, of course, means doing all the basics—bank account, cell phone, apartment, car. For foreign players, the club's next step is helping facilitate a cultural transition, and this is where things can get tricky.
First, there's the language issue. Although Hoffenheim is a Bundesliga team, its namesake town has a population of just over 3,000 people. Most of the players don't live in the village of Hoffenheim but in Heidelberg, the closest city, which boasts a large university and a population of about 150,000 people. In Heidelberg it's easy to get around in English. If you don't speak English, though, German is a must. Hoffenheim's coaches are bilingual, but they conduct training in German, and the players speak German on the field. The club offers interpreter services for new players who don't speak English or German, but all new players are encouraged to achieve a basic proficiency in German as soon as possible. New players receive intensive German tutoring, focused not just on what's needed for daily life but also on specific soccer terms and even code words.
"You have players who are quick learners and put in real effort," says Hardung. "After two to three months they could be at a good level of speaking and understanding German." Other players, of course, take longer. Some never really learn the language at all, which complicates things at work and can make a player's private life isolated and lonely.
Away from the club, there's the issue of culture shock. For players moving to Germany from within Europe or from the United States, the barriers are not typically anything serious. For players moving from other continents, however, little cultural differences can pose big challenges.
There's the matter of sleep, for example. Players coming in from Asia, Hardung has noticed, often have a different sleep schedule. They nap constantly. "They take every opportunity to rest, in the bus, between practices," Hardung says. All those catnaps are not necessarily conducive to bonding with the rest of the team, and if for some reason the naps aren't possible, the player might be tired all the time. So it's important they change their sleep pattern.
Then there's the issue of time management. Germans are a steadfastly punctual people, and showing up to a social function, let alone work, even five minutes late without an apologetic phone call is considered bad form.
At Hoffenheim, Cesar Thier, a former player who came to Germany from Brazil in 1993, is tasked with helping players from South America get a sense of Germany's obsession with punctuality. He's been known to physically bring newly arrived players to practice. "Don't be late for practice," says Hardung. "Don't be late for anything.... They're used to running 30-45 minutes late and it might not have been a problem before. But in Germany it is."
Gomminginger's job is slightly different. He doesn't see as many foreign players as Hardung, but where Hardung deals with cultural differences Gomminginger deals with youth. During his playing days, Gomminginger may have had to find an apartment on his own, but at Hoffenheim he helps with young players make the transition from the youth academy to a professional life. The role sounds almost parental. In addition to helping them find a place to stay and get their electricity set up and the water flowing, he sits them all down, individually, for a stern talk about the future.
"The young players are usually so focused on being pro that looking at the Plan B is not their primary concern. Sometimes you have to push a few of them to finish school, because you don't know—injury, high competition, no renewal of contract, whatever. It can be over at 23 or 24. So it's a pattern that they really live their dream, which is OK, but some of them need some help with their Plan B. So we push there."
Gomminginger's talk must carry a lot of weight with the young hopefuls—his own top-flight career was hampered by injury.
Although the team managers are willing to help in just about any way imaginable, they are wary of doing too much, and at some point rather than say "yes," they encourage players to find their own solutions. "It is not about us doing everything for them, taking them to restaurants, etc," says Hardung. "[That's] not real life. Someone gets paid to do so, even if he does it with passion, he still gets paid for it. They have to make real friends."
Maybe that sounds obvious, but English soccer is full of horror stories in which players call player liaison officers with all manner of requests. Former Fulham player Alain Goma is said to have called that club's player liaison officer because his goldfish was "swimming round the wrong way."
It's laughable, but "there's no doubt that footballers do live in a bit of a bubble," Bournemouth's player liaison officer Peter Berry told Four Four Two last year. "It's not a bubble of their own creation, but it's there nonetheless. There are times that they just can't do things that you or I can. But they get a bad rap. A large percentage of them are normal guys trying to do a high-pressure job. It can be a crazy lifestyle. Their family have to move to a new city. They need schools, accommodation, doctors—all that normal stuff. Their welfare is paramount. If they aren't happy at home and their family is stressed, they certainly aren't going to play well."
Players today have a reputation for being pampered, and not without reason, but they live a lifestyle that's difficult for your average fan to empathize with. So is it worth it? Is all this attention from clubs making a difference as players move from place to place? To talk with Gomminginger, who has lived both ends of the spectrum, there's no doubt. Whatever you want to call them—team managers or player liaisons—they do a job that the soccer world should have copied from the business world decades ago. They're, as Gomminginger says, "one of many ways soccer has become more professional."
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