Playing abroad? Welcome to the new culture club
There is a theory that playing abroad will open your eyes to the more technical side of the beautiful game. While this may be true, it can also cause major disruption and stress on your family life.
As anyone who’s embarked on any form of travelling/excuse not to do proper work (I know … I’m a footballer, oh the irony), mixing with people from different cultures and religions can be a real eye opener. Modern football has given many young people a worldly outlook on life despite spending little time abroad themselves.
Most, if not all, British clubs are now sensitive to the cultural differences within their squads and the needs that arise for those players with different beliefs to our own, whatever they are. But I only really appreciated what some of our finest imports experience when they are plying their trade in foreign climes when I found myself playing abroad.
The laws of football are the same the world over but the way different countries approach every aspect of the game can vary hugely. Today, the difference in playing for many of Europe’s elite clubs is negligible but, when I was playing abroad the nuances were that much trickier to navigate. It was far more noticeable when one committed a faux pas – or “fuck up”, as the British would say. It was still football but, definitely, not as I knew it.
Playing abroad isn’t simply a case of jumping on a plane, signing a deal and getting started. For one, the stress on the family is quite huge, especially on the kids. A lot of people who I know subscribe to the theory that different environments are good for children but, in reality, my family were here because of me. And if they were unhappy, it was because of me.
Does anybody really know if having multiple schools by the time they have reached the age of six or seven is a good thing? I always looked at the situation without attaching the emotion to it; my aim was to help secure a bright financial future for my family and so a little time spent playing football in a different country felt like a modest price to pay.
However, during one particular move, it became overwhelming for one of my kids and he turned into what is commonly known as a “brat”, mainly at school. Moving abroad is a lot to ask of a kid and, despite our best efforts, he remained horribly unsettled by the whole experience. This was his way of rebelling.
As a footballer, you can get caught up in “providing” – it’s not being selfish but, on reflection, it was a very difficult strain on them. They are settled now and they are very outgoing because they have had to make new friends again. I just hope that they see it that way when they get older.
At the time, I was simply immersed in the football and I was having my first real exposure to players from the continent. People will say that foreign players are ultra professional compared to the British – and, to a certain extent, they are – but their dedication to enjoying themselves (getting “completely fucked”, as the Brits would say) is very prominent in my memory. Believe me, there were one or two out there who easily put our intake to shame.
Usually, as the new boy at a club, a player will be forced to sing in front of the lads. Certainly, that is the custom up and down the British Isles. Not here, though. Instead, I was asked to go along for a night out, and it sounded harmless enough. We went to a bar that the eastern European element of our team often frequented; not too surprisingly because it was managed by eastern Europeans.
We were greeted with shot after shot of vodka to the point where not a single one of us was able to walk in a straight line (again, “travellers” may be able to relate to this). Closing time came as a great relief to me … or so I thought until I was told to sit down by the captain, who through drunken and cracked English informed me that I was going nowhere.
As the other customers left the bar, it became obvious that I was bang in trouble. At 3am, the doors were locked and the party really started. One of my team-mates, it turned out, fancied himself as a DJ and he took to the booth like he was “Fat Boy Slim”. By the time I eventually escaped at 7am, I was completely trashed. While I was not alone, I was doing nothing to dispel the British stereotype.
This happened on a training day and so, by the time I rolled in, I just had enough time to shower and attempt to eat some breakfast before rolling into work at 8.30am. At this football club, the players had to report to the manager’s office out of respect, shake his hand and say “good morning”.
I have never seen this or heard of this at any other club. I was still very much the worse for wear when I stepped into his office to offer the obligatory. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said: “I know where you were last night and, as long as you are performing as you are, it’s OK … but don’t take the piss”. Needless to say, I remained at the top of my game for the remainder of my time at the club.
But these players didn’t only know when to let their hair down but also when to get their head down. I’ve generally found footballers to be fairly good at this balance, despite some high-profile examples to the contrary. It was a great insight for me in terms of how different people from different backgrounds can unite.
We had no less than 16 different nationalities in a squad of roughly 30 players and to see people embrace each other’s religion and way of life was, without getting mushy, pretty special in itself. We had Brazilians, Hungarians, Germans, Dutch and Macedonians, to name but a few, and the banter was always flowing and everybody took it in good humour. Yes, I missed home and so did my family, but the way I was made to feel welcome was something that will remain with me for life.
During the season, we hit the inevitable bump in the road and, for a while, results were poor. After one match, the chairman walked in to the changing-room and read us the riot act. But he finished by saying: “From now on, every time we win a game, we will all go out as a group to a top restaurant at my expense”. I’m sure he felt that his money was safe and, to be honest, at that time, we were fairly certain it was, too.
But during this meeting we all had our own say in whatever language it was (no Steve McClaren attempt at a foreign accent from me) and most of us managed to get our point across. The “universal language of football” is an awful phrase but it was sort of applicable here and it brought the bond between the players and the staff that bit closer. We went on to win the next eight games and the free Monday night meals, courtesy of the chairman, began. At one point, it was in danger of becoming a new tradition.
It was this back-to-basics grass-roots approach to football that brought about and demanded respect. Academy players today do not have to clean boots, they are handed free ones. But, at this club, “respect” was taken one stage further – all the balls we trained with were individually numbered and the ball that coincided with your squad number was yours to look after and cherish as if it were your first born. You don’t have to be Einstein to work out that the metaphor here is in keeping the ball. This simple gimmick encouraged you to look after the ball, just as you are told to during games. It made sense then, it does now.
But any similarities that I may have with a gap-year student ends at my refusal to continue living out of a backpack for any longer than I have to. I had started tentative discussions with the club to see if they could offer my family a more permanent living arrangement than the hotel we were crammed into and, much to my surprise, the club said that they would look into it. One Monday evening, just before the chairman’s meal (we were on a roll), I was summoned to the end of the table, where the chairman, manager, chief executive and coaches were sat.
I was told in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t getting the apartment and that I had to find myself a place at my own expense. This was disheartening to say the least – in fact, I was thoroughly pissed off – and, just as I was about to get into an argument with the powers that be, the lights in the restaurant went out.
I’ve seen a lot in my football career but nothing like the vision that confronted me next. As the generator kicked in and the lights recovered some of their power, in sauntered/stumbled/rolled this “large” lady who was somehow carving out a career for herself as a stripper. Fair play to her but not fair play to me.
She pulled me on to the top of the table, took off my T-shirt and smothered baby lotion all over my chest, which she accompanied with wildcat noises. My team-mates, the chairman, the chief executive and manager were in uncontrollable fits of laughter. When it all calmed down, the chief executive stood up and proclaimed that the club would give me an apartment and to “enjoy” the rest of the evening. It was laughter at my expense but that was just the way the club was. That level of involvement from the top to the bottom of a football club is all but dead in Britain now.
Things in England are different post-Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez – and more aligned to Europe – but training at this club involved precious little fitness work. It was just assumed that we were fit. We would work tirelessly on our shape and pattern leading up to the next game.
The manager would leave no stone unturned and would make sure that we all knew our individual opponents inside out. It was all about “football” and training was just to keep things topped up while drilling into us what we could expect from the other team. We would study them on a daily basis, with video analysis on which foot the player preferred, his strengths and his weaknesses and although this is hardly stimulating for a young footballer, come matchday I was equipped with everything I needed to have a good go at being successful. I learnt so much in my time at the club that I would definitely advise a young player, or any player for that matter, to have a go at playing abroad.
It can be hard to settle abroad and I have seen foreign players coming over to England and being shocked at our culture. But many eventually adapt. Some though, never take to it and regret it the minute they come over. At every one of my clubs, there have been players who simply could not settle despite being very talented.
In my experience, as with any job abroad, it is very important to immerse yourself in the culture and the way of life. The natives will certainly appreciate you that bit more for the effort … especially the strippers.