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.”

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Susan Salzbrenner
Susan Salzbrenner
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Susan is the Founder of Fit Across Cultures and an organizational psychologist (M.A.) and a certified intercultural trainer and consultant. She supports teams, (future) global leaders and organizations to navigate complex environment and change.
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