Manufacturing logic for football skills

There is a select group of people who can’t take seriously any sentence with the word “skills” in it because, at an impressionable age, they were exposed to Napoleon Dynamite. ND being a film about a boy who is convinced that a range of fairly worthless skills – from the use of nunchucks to high-performance computer gaming – will impress the girls. Not being a sports fan myself, my reflexive response would be to put football (that is, for any compatriots of mine reading this, soccer) skills in this category: it can be a fun game and maybe you will impress those who you wish to impress (or maybe not), but if we’re talking about the problem of skills in our economy surely we should get serious, and talk about literacy, numeracy, and that sort of thing.

Germany wasn’t doing well in international football competition a decade ago, and to solve this problem it turned to what it does best: training. What Germany has done to improve its football skills in recent years as documented in an excellent article by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian last May is particularly interesting because is shows how the passion for learning a skill for which the market is small and precarious – the case here is football, but similar cases could be made for many arts and sciences – can be harnessed to ensure the acquisition of general, transferable skills.

There are two reasons to treat football skills as meaningful human capital. One of course is that football, like many sports, is a business, a living for a lot of people, an item of traded internationally. The other, and the one that interests me here, is that football skills are an example – indeed, an extreme example – industry specific skills, the acquisition of which represents a risky investment for the individual player. Very few of those who aspire to making a living playing football will ever succeed in that, and most who do become professionals will have very short careers. Yet we know that many, many young people are passionate about becoming very good at football. And this is not peculiar to football – it is so of many skill sets for which there are only small and precarious markets: performing arts, visual arts, and scientific research among them.

Jeffries’ article tells of the vast army of qualified trainers deployed to nurture players from an early age. The investment both in coaches – Germany has 28,400 with a UEFA coaches with the “B” licence, to England’s 1,759; 5,500 with the higher “A” license, to England’s 895 – and in facilities is impressive, and the magnitude of the investment is likely to make residents of austerity Britain – to say nothing of the southern Eurozone countries caught in the deflationary vice imposed by Germany itself – think it a pipe dream, something for people on another planet.

But what stands out for me in Jeffries account is the way general education is combined with football training. Jeffries visited the football academy run by the Freiburg team. This is a place for teenage boys who are not simply fanatical about football but who also have a serious chance of becoming professional players. Yet, Jeffries tells us:

Freiburg place great emphasis on academic work, so much so that they like a selection of their staff to come from a teaching background, so that they can provide educational help whenever it is needed, including on the way to matches. It is not uncommon for players to do homework on the coach [bus]. Streich says that clubs have a moral obligation to think about what happens to those who fail to make the grade.

“When I went to Aston Villa [a football team in Birmingham, England] eight years ago I told them our players, under-17, 18 and 19, go to school for 34 hours a week,” he says. “They said: ‘No, you’re a liar, it’s not possible, our players go for nine hours.’ I said: ‘No, I’m not lying.’ They said: ‘It’s not possible, you can’t train and do 34 hours of education.’ I said: ‘Sure. And what do you do with the players who have for three years, from the age of 16 to 19, only had nine hours a week of school?

“They said: ‘They have to try to be a professional or not. They have to decide.’ I said: ‘No, we can’t do that in Freiburg. It’s wrong. Most players in our academy can’t be professionals, they will have to look for a job. The school is the most important thing, then comes football.’ We give players the best chance to be a footballer but we give them two educations here. If 80% can’t go on to play in the professional team, we have to look out for them.

So there you have the difference: the English coach says “you have to decide: football or education”, the German coach says, “no, you don’t have to decide; if fact, if you want the chance to be a professional player, you have to study as well”.

I’ve written here before about how social insurance – particularly, generous short-term unemployment benefits and subsidies for retraining – can encourage people to invest in risky skills: Danes will spend their time learning skills that are useful only in a certain industry or using a certain technology because they know that if the job disappears, the state will support them through re-training. But the difference between Freiburg and Aston Villa tells us something else about risky and safe skills: systems of education and training can be structured to provide a measure of insurance internally, by packaging risky and safe skills together; or they can do the opposite, and force young people to make a choice between risky and safe skills.

Britain’s education system, which requires particularly early specialization, does a lot of the latter. Students aren’t stupid, they know that specialization means risk, so in huge numbers they “specialize” in very safe, broad subjects like Management (Classics and History are equally safe and general if you went to Eaton and have social connections, but for the masses safety is Management, or maybe Law) and not enough risky skills – football, science, art, engineering – are learned. I really shouldn’t complain about this, teaching Management pays my mortgage, but it does arguably produce a rather poor overall skill profile for the country.

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