A recent study showed that more than one third of athletes were expatriates in 20141, with almost half of all active professional footballers having experienced international migration during their football career. But mentioning cultural intelligence and professional football players in the same sentence often raises eyebrows or question marks. Why should football players have to worry about working across different cultures?

If we take a closer look at the industry, it becomes clear that players are finding themselves in multicultural teams, surrounded by diverse staff, often in a place far away from their home country. Cultural intelligence (CQ) is defined as “a person’s capability to adapt effectively to a new cultural context”2. When Bastian Schweinsteiger moved from Bayern Munich to Manchester United this summer, he needed to adapt in a multitude of ways: English vs. German culture, club culture, style of football, and coaching style. Not even mentioning the food, weather and language. Culture isn’t defined by national boundaries alone. A cultural transition can take place when making the switch between any two organizations with a different set of values and behaviors. Those players that can act and adapt appropriately and efficiently to a new cultural environment will be the ones to thrive.

According to an analysis by the PEW Research Center in 2014, two thirds of all national team players at the soccer world cup in Brazil in 2014 played in a country different than their nationality (e.g. Brazil 83%, Argentina 87%, Germany 27%). But it is not only the international superstars like Messi, Özil, and Ribery who are playing abroad. For example, there are more than 450 Brazilian footballers around the world, over 300 French players outside the Hexagon, and many more nationalities in exotic locations. When we look at the international football market, it is becoming clear that the ability of a player to fit in and adapt is paramount to his or her success.

Trinidad and Tobago native Fabien Lewis took the opportunity to play European football in college at George Mason University in the U.S. Going abroad was his way into professional football, by zig zagging across the globe for professional contracts: from Puerto Rico, to Singapore, back to the U.S., and then Philippines. “Discipline and drive helped me take it to the professional level. At this level, there is no more hand-holding, especially when you go abroad,” notes Fabien. He advises other players to “stay humble and open-minded, and always expect the unexpected.”

What sets a player that thrives abroad apart from the rest?

The skill set and mindset that distinguishes a successful international player from a less-successful team mate is often described by the following characteristics:

  • High versatility
  • Adaptability
  • Growth mindset
  • Embrace challenges
  • Open Mindedness
  • Leadership
  • Curiosity
  • Cognitive Flexibility

Most of these skills that set players apart belong to the concept of cultural intelligence. Dr. David Thomas from the University of New South Wales, Australia breaks CQ down into three components:

  1. Cultural knowledge (What do I know about the specific culture and the process?)
  2. Cross-cultural skills (How well can I relate to others, cope with uncertainty, am adaptable, empathic and perceptually aware?)
  3. Cultural metacognition (How well am I aware and can analyzes the influence of culture in a specific context, and plan my own actions accordingly?)

To develop these three subsets in players successfully, it requires not only the pro-activeness and willingness of the players to develop themselves off the field, but also a capable coaching staff.

How can these skills and competencies be fostered in academies?

Academies need to instil this international, flexible mindset into their young talents from early on. Players need to be given the opportunity to experience other cultures to develop cultural intelligence. But the mere experience alone will not make them more well-rounded players. Instead it is the focus on the preparation and the debriefing after any encounter or conflict that will heighten their competence to master a game that has become global and an industry that is highly mobile. International tournaments with active engagement and exchanges with the different teams or football camps abroad are only two ways to creatively shape a culturally competent player. Without these skills, going abroad for a professional contract at an adolescent or young adult age can easily leave an undesired drop in their performance or their evaluation by (foreign) staff.

Research3 has shown that leaders (e.g. coaches, staff) are the single most important influencer whether or not the creativity and innovative power of a diverse team can be fully leveraged. Differences need to be appreciated and not suppressed. Only then can different types of players emerge, show their talent, creativity, and uniqueness and learn to navigate across different cultures.

The importance of continued mobility in the football industry

It can be argued whether or not the quality of the game has increased with the influx of international players after the Bosman ruling in 1995. But the market for professional football is inarguably one of the most globalized labor markets in the world. Research4 has shown that a country’s success in international football championships is highly dependent on both imports and exports of players. The biggest long-term benefit of a player’s success on an international stage besides technical and tactical variety, and the competition against the best, is the self-development opportunities that living, working, and playing abroad offers them.

Robin Shroot, an English football player who now lives and trains near a Norwegian fjord, embarked on his international journey with a small propeller machine when he didn’t find the right conditions in England. “You have to realize that the world is a big place and there are a million other places you can go.” He says. “People and coaches think differently and might be more perceptive of what you can bring elsewhere. You can adapt to new surroundings. I’m here to focus on my career and these conditions provide me with the best environment to improve as a player.”

High peak performance requires excellent team communication, strategy, and trust between team mates. In an interdependent team sport like football, you will however often find players from all walks of life and backgrounds working together for a limited period of time, sometimes only one season. Our cultural background shapes the way we perceive the world around us, the way we communicate and expect others to communicate and interact with us. When a player moves to a new country and club, he or she will need to learn new habits.

Jay Bothroyd recalls his start in Pergugia, Italy in an ESPN FC interview: “When I first went to Italy it was very difficult, of course. No one really spoke great English so I had a translator while I tried to pick up the language. At the beginning it was tough to communicate, but I learned Italian and that was obviously a huge help. I didn’t go there to try to be the English guy in Italy; I went there to embrace their culture on and off the pitch.”

The amount of concentration and attention that is needed to build new habits in the first weeks and months abroad can lead to increased fatigue, exhaustion, disorientation, and depression. Needless to say, this is not the best state to perform at your top physical level.

The recent example of Franco Mussis’ return to Argentina’s Primera Division club San Lorenzo after only half a year with Danish Superliga club FC Kobenhavn shows how much the adaptation and transition to a new culture and club can impact a player’s performance. FCK manager Stale Solbakken admits the lack of adjustment to the local culture as one of the main reasons of Franco’s lack of success in Denmark. “Unfortunately, we did not succeed with the cultural transition, both on and off the field. Perhaps he also left Argentina 2–3 years too early.”5

Why are they helpful later on in life post-active career?

Life skills like flexibility and adaptability across different cultures are transferable into every aspect of business and personal life after sports. In the 21st century it is hard to avoid a multicultural team environment. Developing and fostering those intercultural competencies and skill sets in professional athletes will aid their transition and retirement from active professional days to a post-active career.

Investing in their personal player development off the pitch will create more resilient, creative players that have an easier transition, whether it is to a new country or to a new career.

About the author:

Susan Salzbrenner supports multicultural teams, professional athletes, leaders of today and tomorrow to navigate diverse cultural contexts. She recently published the book “Play Abroad 101” to guide athletes on their international journey. The organizational psychologist and intercultural trainer has lived and worked in six countries on four continents, and founded the start-up Fit across Cultures. Follow her on Twitter @fitaxcultures


  1. CIES Football Observatory
  2. Earley, 2012
  3. Adler and X (YEAR)
  4. Baur & Lehmann (2007)
  5. (dk, 2015)

Cover Image:

Bastian Schweinsteiger for Bayern Munich. Champions League Final, 2010.  Photo: Depositphotos.com

Popular searches: defending, finishing, 1v1, playing out from the back, working with parents