The creation a “football culture” is key to the long-term growth of football in any setting. The key question for those wanting to develop this culture is – How? Former Aldershot Town academy manager and Cook Islands national team manager Drew Sherman attempts to answer this question by looking at his own professional experiences and discusses the importance of “football culture”.

We hear on an increasingly regular basis about the importance of “football culture”, the need to create a “culture of excellence” when we aim to implement player development models, or how the impact of a “team’s culture” can enhance a group of good individuals to become a formidable team – as we’ve seen with Leicester City in the EPL or with Wales at Euro 2016. Countries with traditionally strong football cultures will be the bookmakers’ favourites at Russia 2018, Brazil will continue to produce world-class individuals and Italian teams will be tactically astute defensively. But if football culture is truly key to long-term success, what chance is there for emerging nations such as the USA or Australia? You need to ask why are China committing millions of pounds to attract the world’s best players to the country unless it impacts on the long-term football culture?

I’ve recently spent 18 months as Technical Director and National Manager of FIFA’s smallest country, the Cook Islands – a nation with just 12,000 inhabitants and absolutely no history in, and limited understanding of football. I fully believe that the creation of a “football culture” is key to the long-term growth of football within any nation, club or organisation. If we know what needs to be done, and we can see why – the key question for such countries is how?

When looking at my own recent experiences I can highlight three key lessons which I feel are essential to an emerging football nation and central to the development of a “club-centered model”. I feel many aspects are transferrable to any coach at any level who feels that creation of a strong culture is key to transforming their organisation.

  1. The unique culture that already exists has to be the starting point

Anthropologist E.B Taylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. Essentially it is a collection of ideas and behaviours of a particular people.

It is impossible therefore, to transplant an existing culture from outside a society and expect it to be successfully adapted by the new group of people – without context and a deep understanding of the pre-existing ideas and behaviours in place.

The world’s best sporting teams have a unique identity which is synonymous with their country or region – think of the All Blacks’ rituals, symbolised by the Haka, or FC Barcelona being the representation of Catalonia to the world. These teams are defined by their existing cultural conditions; it unites them to a following and inspires the next generation.

Any sporting organisation needs to look firstly at the culture of their own environment before beginning to develop an identity. If the national team is not a representation of the ideas and beliefs of its people, then the following, continued growth and inevitable popularity of the sport will suffer.

My experience in the Cook Islands astonished me in this sense. For a small, insular country so disconnected from global football and its influences, I had expected a real representation of the proud Pacific culture and heritage to be displayed in the manner that these people played football. The way Pacific Islanders compete in Rugby codes – powerful, aggressive, attack-minded and committed – is widely known throughout the sporting world and I assumed this would be manifest in football. To my astonishment, however, I found the total opposite with the Cook Islands national team at our first training session.

Of course at this stage I knew very little about the culture of the islands generally, but I most certainly was not expecting the team motto to be “don’t get smashed”! A nation of historically fierce Pacific warriors that travelled thousands of miles in great Vakas (traditional canoes) to settle and conquer nations – promoting a message of fear through their own motto! Surely this wasn’t a team that people would relate to and be proud of? How could we expect to inspire this proud nation and the next generation if our national players were not heroes like those of lore within the traditional stories but merely men praying to lose by narrow margins?

Developing a team culture is far easier than a footballing culture throughout a nation. As such it was for us the start point, we had a blank canvas as we hadn’t yet identified the players! When we eventually did, and it inevitably meant recruiting from overseas, the most important thing for me was that, regardless of where the lads were from they could identify which each other – that they had that commonality of being Cook Islander. The first meeting we had was all about them telling me and each other (as of course as an outsider to these people I was in no place to tell them!) what it meant to be Cook Islander and how they’d show they were proud of their heritage in the games. From this they came up with the mantra “Our Pride, Our Legacy, Our Story”. I believe this was one of the most critical moments in terms of the success we went on to have as it provided the common purpose by which we all lived.

  1. Developing a lasting football culture takes generations

As described above, culture is defined by society, and the nature of society is one of the most difficult stumbling blocks to developing a lasting football culture. Our modern society is very much focused on the “now”. Everything in Western culture especially is becoming increasingly available on-demand, in an instant – while of course this has enormous advantages it can create a dangerous mindset when it comes to developing a long-term strategy and the timeframe for judging success.

Would the fact that we achieved the country’s first competitive victories and reach the highest position ever in FIFA rankings result in being able to implement a football culture in the Cook Islands? Of course not. It’s naïve to think that these small successes will automatically be entrenched into the culture of the country or even converted into a growth in the sport’s popularity – but they should be a catalyst for a considered, methodical strategy to capitalise upon.

Any long-term strategy and culture shift will likely start with the stakeholder that it will have the most significant and lasting impact upon. Inevitably this is the youngest generation possible. To develop a football culture, you have to impact those young enough who have no pre-conception and for whom when they come into contact with the game they have a hugely positive experience. For a nation looking to build this from scratch it isn’t enough to engage just the youngest children and hope that the legacy that you’re aiming to build lasts with them – but it’s certainly the place to start. In the Cooks we had the opportunity to use the successes achieved by the national team and the spirit of the national team’s culture as the ignition point it is vital that this is sustained by the on-going development of a ‘love for the game’ and a desire to be like their heroes.

If a child plays informally at lunch time in school with free expression, but then turns up to club training and is screamed at to “get rid of it” by their coach, can we really expect them to retain their enthusiasm for the game and find their unique factor? If a talented athlete plays both football and rugby and enjoys both, is it right for administrators of the game to tell them they will not be allowed to play football if they continue to play rugby? Are we not making the choice easy for them to turn away from our sport? If a young player has potential but his family are all huge fans of another sport and pressure them to choose one over the other, should we not try our best as a sport to provide opportunities for that child to be included? These are three examples which I saw almost daily in my role as Technical Director in the Cook Islands. To build a lasting football culture we need to educate more than just one generation. It’s not just players or coaches, but also administrators of the game, parents of young children and any other stakeholders involved in the game we love. Unless we have a clear strategy, are able to influence, unite and inspire all stakeholders then we are doomed to stagnate.

Associations seeking to develop a lasting culture need to work to ensure football is visible in domestic media and that football becomes part of the national psyche. To do this, national teams need to participate in regular fixtures, talented players must have pathways to potentially forge careers and become role models for future generations, anyone should be able to access the game no matter their age or limitations and above all be sure to have an experience is positive. You cannot develop a lasting football culture without football being available on demand in a society where almost everything else is – to watch, play or participate in any other way. Only then, with consistency and over a period of time, will the sport become the nation’s most popular and from that a real football culture can develop. This will take time, appropriate investment and a plan. Unfortunately, as we all know, these are three things often lacking in our game, which often measures success in months and not years.

  1. Change has to be driven by those who are local, passionate and selfless

If the two key areas I’ve already mentioned state that the development of a football culture requires a deep understanding of the existing culture of that society, and that it requires generations to see this materialise, then it is only logical that this development of the game be driven by local people. Who is better placed than a local to understand the society and who else is more likely to have a greater vested interest in the positive growth of the game than someone whose own children and grandchildren will grow up experiencing the football culture he/she has created?

Too many organisations employ a foreigner without an understanding of either of these significant factors – why? In somewhere such as the Cook Islands, there simply isn’t the population for a local to have the skillset to ensure this vision becomes reality…yet. And that is the key word and must be the responsibility of the foreign incumbent. I encountered numerous people who were local, passionate and most importantly selfless, that undoubtedly had the potential to lead and take forward the strategic plan to develop the game within the nation. However, they were lacking in the understanding of how to develop a strategic plan, how to implement it. This was largely due to them lacking football background and subsequently experience – as there was no football culture.

The role of the foreign coach in this environment is to utilise the local people’s existing skills and knowledge and enhance these so that the plan can be continued after they depart. Education and mentoring is essential to ensure long-term success. The role of the foreign Technical Director should not be about the glamour fixture involving the top two local teams, it should be developing strategy and supporting grassroots development, player development and coach education – most importantly ensuring the development of the local workforce with the potential who can go on to become the future leaders of the game.

From a personal perspective I didn’t take the job in the Cook Islands because I was passionate about senior domestic football, I went for selfish reasons to be involved in World Cup Qualifying and because I knew I could make a large impact on the development of the game there. However, what I did become was passionate about a few excellent people in football and the fact that through them I had the opportunity to create something lasting and tangible. The question when you leave is whether the steps will be taken to ensure that work continues and the strategy comes to fruition.

One of the most important character traits in football development is selflessness. The fruition of a development programme takes place often many years after the architects have long since retired or moved on. Therefore one of the most important attributes of the local workforce is that selflessness, the best people to drive the game forward entered football through their love for the game – not because of self interest or a good business opportunity. All too often at multiple of levels of football organisations they are run by people not from “footballing backgrounds”. Is it any wonder that the most successful clubs such as Bayern Munich have Karl-Heniz Rummenigge, Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer running the club?

In a multitude of football environments, kudos and position is a motivator for people to be involved in the game. This is a widely reported challenge throughout world football and as the game attracts significant money it is undoubtedly likely to attract people whose morals and desire to be involved in the sport are maybe not in sync with the development of the game. This is not an uncommon problem in the smaller, less economically developed FIFA nations and of course has been subject to enormous media scrutiny. The key challenge for any organisation wishing to create a lasting legacy and develop a lasting and strong “football culture” is how the football people within it, are able to influence these characters (if they exist) at the decision-making end of the sport.

All to often the failure of long-term development are down to a failing in this regard as the key influencers put self interest and short-term gain ahead of the long-term interests. Any nation able to get all stakeholders on the same page, with a common purpose, united through a vision for football that extends beyond personal ambition has a serious chance to make lasting impact.

Whether on an enormous scale such as the investment going into China or on a micro scale such as the Cook Islands these three points are really the key to long-term excellence and an entrenched football culture. There can be little doubt that some nations are making massive strides, others appear to be in a lull; however, if you are personally provided the opportunity to contribute to such a thing (especially as a local) my key advice would be to persevere and contain self-frustration – which is often a massive challenge for an overseas coach – and remain true to the best interests of the game as the rewards long-term will certainly be worth it.

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