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Cultural Reflections

Euro 2016 provided a fascinating insight into the relationship between football, player development and culture. PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan looks at the importance of culture and how its influences can be traced in different development environments across the world.  


The way we play football is a reflection of culture. Playing styles (team and individual) mirror the social values and cultural practises within socio-cultural contexts. Contexts like the schools, clubs, or groups we’ve belonged to. Growing up in England I tackled hard, avoided making mistakes and played it safe, especially under pressure. Had I grown up elsewhere in the world, within contexts shaped by a different culture, my playing style would have been different.

Culture may be the most important factor shaping environments and influencing player development. Our challenge is to understand it.

Cultures shape the contexts that determine the development environments surrounding football players. These development environments ‘afford’ some actions and limit others. It is this interrelated mash-up of culture and context that we coaches need to be aware of.

To help us understand this nested relationship (imagine Russian dolls), check out this model by Kristoffer Henriksen from the University of Southern Denmark. 

Sports Psychology and Talent Development Environment

Sports Psychology and Talent Development Environment

While many purists (myself included) would love to keep football separate from business, media, education, economics and politics, we can’t. When we recognise that culture and socio-cultural contexts are dynamic and changeable, influencing each other and people’s mindsets, we have to recognise that all aspects of culture can shape our development environments and our coaching.

Your football reflects your culture and your culture shapes your football

“Cultural psychologists view culture and psychological processes as mutually constituted and stress the importance of language, communication, relational perspectives, cultural practises and the meanings, beliefs, and values in human development, learning, and behavior.” (Stambulova & Ryba 2014 p. 2)

For football coaches this means a player’s cultural upbringing and their short- and long-term player development are inseparable. Culture shapes the psychological processes that shape mindsets, and these mindsets create perceptions of the environment that can tend towards creativity / calamity or conformity. Consider the different tendencies of the Germans and the English from this cultural perspective.

Football: the world’s litmus test

Football is the same game all over the world. However, it is culturally expressed in unique ways. Immerse football within a particular culture and you get a unique expression, a playing style that can tell us about the culture. This unique expression gives insight into elements of the culture being expressed, potentially highlighting areas that need further encouragement / expression and areas that need change.

A Litmus test can be defined as:

Litmus test


  1. A critical indication of future success or failure

(from the free dictionary)

If football reflects culture, then is culture shaping football? Do elements of a countries culture provide an indication for success on the football pitch? Yes.

A countries playing style may highlight socio-cultural elements (often called socio-cultural constraints) that need enhancing or dampening in order for player development and footballing success to be more likely. Areas to amplify may include acceptance, open-mindedness, self-direction and creative expression, whereas elements that need dampening include power, status and conformity.


So, recognising how culture shapes football gives insight into the following questions:

  • Why do England players always underperform at major tournaments?
  • How did Iceland do so well at Euro 2016?
  • Why do the Germans consistently excel?
  • How have Belgium and France developed so many world-class players?

While many people – like media pundits – have their own (often simplified) answers to these questions,  from a cultural perspective they are complex. Nevertheless, this complexity is not without its patterns.

How does culture shape football? Some patterns.

Unusual and unexpected events, like sudden immigration and multicultural experiences, can create ‘cognitive disequilibrium’ – essentially meaning ‘unbalanced thought’. Cognitive disequilibrium breaks thought patterns, stimulates adaptation and requires greater mental flexibility: this has been seen to enhance creative thinking (Ritter, Damian, Simonton, Baaren, Van, Strick & Dijksterhuis. 2012) allowing creative exploration. A diverse culture – for example a culture that has witnessed large-scale immigration or some other upheaval – may inspire the disequilibrium that stimulates unusual and unexpected events, new ways of thinking and moving and a general open-mindedness.

Disequilibrium and creativity

Creativity researcher Alfonso Montuori suggested that disequilibrium is a characteristic of ‘open systems’ (2012). He suggested the more open the system, the greater the exposure to experiences of difference, novelty, complexity, and disequilibrium. This means that the more open our athlete-environment/cultural system (pictured as the model at the start) the more opportunity there is for creative stimulation. A view supported within the growing body of literature exploring human perceptual systems, this research cites a ‘wide breadth (openness) of attention’ as facilitative for creative performance (Carson, Peterson & Higgins, 2003; Friedman, Fishbach, Förster & Werth, 2003; Healey & Rucklidge, 2005; Hristovski et al., 2011).


Experiences of immigration and multicultural adaptation are central to the stories of many creative individuals: Messi and Ibrahimovic are examples in football.

Zlatan’s upbringing: a story of disequilibrium and diversity

Check out a brief example of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s diverse upbringing: (from the BBC: Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Manchester United sign a complicated striker)

The following section being especially relevant: “His Croatian mother and hard-drinking Bosnian father were divorced and Ibrahimovic lived with the latter on the outskirts of town, moving regularly to earn the nickname ‘gypsy’. But his childhood also meant he had to make his own rules. He didn’t have the same integration in society as others. His talent was honed on a small shale pitch outside his mum’s flat.”

Throughout history creative people have struggled to integrate with ‘proper’ society. Historically this is seen as the individual’s fault, or a creative curse. Some, like Zlatan, have overcome this through extreme arrogance and non-conformity but perhaps it is time we re-think our societies and how open-minded we are to the diversity that can stimulate creativity.

Academics Bocchi, Cianci, Montuori and Nicolaus suggest:

“The problem is that our society is not designed for creativity but for machine conformity. Most importantly, it does not support creative ideas. Let’s just look at academia: having a good mind in academia means, among other things, to be razor sharp in critique. But we do not learn how to play with ideas, how to explore together, and support “newborn” ideas and allow them to flourish for a while. We immediately learn to attack and critique. In organisations, we laugh at ‘wild’ ideas. We make jokes about people with their odd approaches. So as Oscar put it, art keeps people sane, but it is the environment that kills creativity in people, and arguably kills many creative people.” (Bocchi, Cianci, Montuori, & Nicolaus, 2014 p.362).

The question then becomes: does the culture or society of [insert any country] embrace healthy diversity and the discomfort of disequilibrium?

To capture a culture’s attitude towards diversity perhaps it helps to reflect on the history of immigration and current immigration policies. Belgium and Germany provide interesting examples:

Belgium’s Golden Generation

The following extract comes from Duke Universities blog (Soccer Politics):

“Belgium has been the subject of waves of immigration since the late 1960s. Today, around 20 percent of the population is foreign-born. Not long ago, the great Belgian footballers only came from elite, well-off neighbourhoods. Recently, the federation has worked to welcome immigrants into the system while also expanding their reach and targeting kids in rougher, impoverished communities. Says Kismet Eris, the owner of a football academy in Liège: ‘With the national youth teams, you can see that you’ve got a lot of children of immigrants, or former refugees, representing Belgium. A few years ago it was not like that. Now it is more open… they are also accepted as Belgian people, because they see some of their own playing for the national team.’

The Belgian FA’s new recruitment strategy is fully in place in Droixhe. Droixhe, a desperately poor neighborhood on the fringes of Liège, has been known for its large immigrant population and crime-ridden area. But now, three of Droixhe’s native sons, Christian Benteke, Axel Witsel, and Zakaria Bakkali, will be heavily featured during Euro 2016 and are poster children for the Belgium footballing revolution.

The team is full of immigrant heritage. Kompany and Everton striker Romelu Lukaku are of Congolese heritage. Fellaini, Bakkali, and Nacer Chadli are from Morocco. The father of Moussa Dembele is from Mali. The family of Divock Origi is from Kenya. More than half of the team is multilingual. One thing links all of these players: they play for Belgium.

Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ reminds many pundits of France’s famous World Cup champion “rainbow team” of 1998 — as a beacon of diversity, hope, and multicultural possibility for the country beyond beyond just the football pitch.”

It’s worth noting that this is not just about players from immigrant backgrounds its about all young players growing up a diverse environment.

Immigration and disequilibrium in Germany

The following extract is from the Telegraph, 31st August 2015:

“Germany has so far taken in more refugees than any other country in Europe, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has been vocal about the need to treat all people arriving in the country as humanely as possible. Football fans in Germany have been getting to grips with the European refugee crisis in the best way possible this weekend – by welcoming asylum seekers at their grounds. Crowds at various different clubs displayed large banners with the message ‘Refugees Welcome’ during their Bundesliga fixtures – and Borussia Dortmund even invited 220 of them along to watch a match.

Many German internationals are born to immigrant parents, with the father of midfielder Sami Khedira (who captained Germany on Sunday) of Tunisian decent and fellow midfield star Mesut Ozil from a Turkish background.”

If playing style is a reflection of culture, and diverse cultures that embrace disequilibrium are fertile for player development and creativity, then the question becomes: is a country’s playing style more diverse or more conformist? And to answer that we may ask, is our culture diverse and accepting of disequilibrium?

We will finish with Ozil and a certain pass at the 2012 Euros, perhaps one of the most creative moments in modern football. It came from a player with a multicultural background, who has developed in an accepting modern culture that has supported immigration.

A question for the comments section:

I saw Ozil bobble a through-ball (between defenders) in the game against Poland and I didn’t understand why? For him it seemed a relativly easy pass, no pressure, it almost looked like he did it on purpose?

Then I thought about it and found this video (Thanks to Tim): The video above is an extreme example but lets ‘play’ with this idea: a bobbling pass is harder for defenders to block or intercept right? (It is the same logic of the ball bouncing in front of the GK and heading the ball down into the ground.)

So the question: Is the speed profile (changing speed) of a bobble pass different from pass rolled along the ground. If for example, the bobble causes the pass to slow down quicker towards the end, it would be beneficial for a through-ball? Faster at the start to get past the defenders and slower at the end for the attacker to run onto?

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