If English football is to improve, should English footballers become more disruptive?

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: July 16, 2014

The two highest paid coaches at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil were Russia’s Fabio Capello ($11,235,210) and England’s Roy Hodgson ($5,874,570). Both of these teams exited from the World Cup after the first-round: Russia with two points, England with one point. Neither the Russian, nor the English, squad contained a single player who plays for an overseas club.

In both Russia and England, many people are now debating the reasons for their national teams’ failure at the World Cup. In Russia, Capello has been asked to appear before Parliament to explain the team’s World Cup failure. In England, the response has been less immediately dramatic but more deeply fundamental. Indeed, having spent most of the last four years asking ‘why can’t we be like Spain?’, England now appears set to spend the next four years asking ‘why can’t we be like Germany?’

Culturally and socially, something appears to be amiss with England (possibly Russia too) and despite its periodic soul searching, the country seems unable to enact the changes required to ensure its national team progresses from tournament under-achievers to top-level international performers.

Former England player Ashley Cole has just signed for Roma in Serie A, having spent his entire professional career playing domestically in England (with Arsenal and Chelsea). It is therefore both coincidental and somewhat ironic that Cole has claimed “British players are a little afraid to move abroad. They are accustomed to British culture and for them it is convenient to stay at home”. Cole has reportedly gone on to say, “As soon as I had the opportunity, I was glad to get out of London [to] face a new language and a new culture”.

This is probably ten years too late for Cole and England, and therefore sends out the wrong message to the likes of Raheem Stirling, Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley. Indeed, if English football is going to change and improve, it is not just for the English Football Association and Premier League clubs to take action, it is for the players themselves to change. It is inevitable that many people, most notably the players themselves, will claim that salaries in English football are too high to justify a move overseas on lower wages. And that a career is short, earnings potential has to be maximised etc etc etc.

But is this the kind of short-termist view that characterises too much of English football and, indeed, English culture and society? Could it be that taking a short-term financial hit and moving abroad could be more beneficial and financially rewarding in the long-run? Put another way, if English players went abroad would they become better footballers in the long-run and therefore earn more money? Might it actually be the case that, just as Roy Hodgson and the England national team (possibly Fabio Capello and Russia too) need structural change, they need players to change too?

In the business literature, much has been made of disruptive innovation, the kind of innovation that brings about major shifts in products and markets. Readers should spend time looking at the website of Professor Clay Christensen, who introduced us to the notion of disruptive innovation  You should hopefully then begin to understand how this relates to the future of the English national team (and probably the Russians as well).

Extending your reading further, then take a look at a recent Harvard Business Review blog posting by Whitney Johnson entitled ‘Disrupt Yourself’ Johnson takes the notion of disruptive innovation and applies it to people. Having read the blog, it should start to become apparent that England’s players should indeed be taking Ashley Cole’s lead: in short, if you want to be a better player, move abroad and disrupt yourself.

For football players, the essence of Johnson’s posting is:

-If it feels scary and lonely, you’re probably on the right track i.e. if you are outside your comfort zone, you are already learning and developing;

-Be assured that you have no idea what will come next i.e. learn by exposing yourself to and discovering from new situations;

-Throw out the performance metrics you’ve always relied on i.e. what you earn is not always an accurate indicator of how good you are;

-Your odds of success will improve when you pursue a disruptive course i.e. going to play in another country will improve your skills, enhance your experience and result in you becoming a better player.

Some critics might say there is nothing new about English players’ unwillingness or inability to move overseas, or that salary levels make it inevitable they will stay at home. Moreover, there is something socio-cultural too in all of this as regards English attitudes to ‘foreigners’ and ‘foreign countries’ (I am not Russian – the Russians themselves will have to address this matter in their own way). However, at a personal level, English players may want to recall the words of President Kennedy: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. And if that does not convince them to consider a move abroad, then perhaps the promise of becoming a better player and earning more money in the future might prove to be a more seductive argument for causing a disruption.

About Professor Simon Chadwick

Professor Simon Chadwick set-up and edits The Scorecard. He is Director of CIBS (Centre for the International Business of Sport) at Coventry University, where he works as Professor of Sport Business Strategy and Marketing.  Simon tweets via Prof_Chadwick