Centre circle

Centre circle

Culture challenge for clubs in Premier League’s melting pot

Heard the one about the Englishman, Dutchman and Japanese man? Andrew Matthews/PA

Some decades ago, there used to be a series of jokes in Britain that began with the line “there was an Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotsman and a Welshman”. Such jokes are generally no longer told: among other things, they perpetuated stereotypes, implied nationalist division, and created a hierarchy of importance with the Irishman typically being the butt of every joke.

Manchester United won the first ever Premier League title in 1993. The team consisted of Englishmen (such as Steve Bruce), Irishmen (Denis Irwin), Scotsmen (Brian McClair) and Welshmen (Mark Hughes). Such teams generally no longer exist: globalisation took hold, the EU’s Bosman ruling gave players greater freedom of movement, television money flooded into English football allowing top clubs to attract foreign players, and the Premier League became a commercial phenomenon.

Teams are now made up of a mix of players from around the world – at the expense of international success for the UK national sides. International matters aside, the influx of overseas players presents us with another major issue: culture. With top football teams now featuring the best of a global talent pool, how do multicultural sides work together?

In wider society, Britain is involved in an almost perpetual struggle to come to terms with multiculturalism, immigration and matters of integrated, harmonious living. Yet as soon as a football club signs an overseas player new to the country, the player is immediately expected to settle in, be part of the team and drive the club to success.

For some time, Chelsea’s under-achievement, especially in Europe, was attributed by some people to differences between the Iberian, African and British player factions in its squad. Others point to Sir Alex Ferguson’s trouble with his Dutch stars Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy as being attributable to cultural differences. Newcastle United meanwhile have had to deal with the fallout from the Papis Cisse Wonga affair (where their Senegalese muslim striker refused to wear a shirt sponsored by the controversial lender) while also being criticised for creating a cultural imbalance at the club by signing so many French players.

Cultural insights

The work of controversial Dutch management theorist Geert Hofstede provides some interesting insights that are undoubtedly relevant to football. Hofstede defines culture as the “collective mental programming of the human mind which distinguishes one group of people from another”. Hence, when commentators talk of an English, German or Brazilian mentality, they refer to a particular way of thinking, behaving and, in football terms, playing.

But within every English Premier League club side, more than one national mentality is represented and managing this juxtaposition of cultures poses some interesting challenges. Manchester United in 2013 is a different proposition to the team of 1993, consisting of players who are Mexican (Javier Hernandez), Japanese (Shinji Kagawa) or one of many other nationalities.

Hofstede identifies Mexicans as being hierarchical, collective in their orientation, highly masculine, decisive, assertive, but averse to uncertainty and keen for security. The Japanese by contrast are, he suggests, not typically used to living and working in a hierarchical setting and are highly individualistic.

Throw in the likes of Tom Cleverley and Danny Wellbeck and the situation becomes even more complex: Hofstede identifies the British as being paradoxically individualistic yet hierarchical, coupled with a desire for creativity and innovation, and short-termist with a desire for quick results.

Good luck David Moyes, that’s a lot to take in. And while you’re dealing with such an apparent mix of cultures, you’ll also have to win some football matches.

Melting Pot FC

Getting disparate groups of young men to form a cohesive team is easier said than done (anyone remember that guy Roberto Mancini?); players take time to acclimatise (just ask Manchester United flop Diego Forlan); and managers may sometimes struggle to understand the cultural dynamic between the players they have signed (think Andre Villas-Boas during his Chelsea months).

Villas-Boas: culture clash victim. Nick Potts/PA

Clearly a player, when signing for a club, should know that he will need to adapt to the local culture, both in general and in footballing terms. Yet the big managerial challenges rest with the signing club: after all, if a company bought a new machine for £20m then it would endeavour to ensure that the machine worked properly and that it delivered a return on the investment.

This means knowing something about the culture of a player’s home country; with the globalisation of football, the old adage of “the player has to fit in” has never been more apt than it is now. Football teams are about much more than money and statistics, making the multicultural pieces fit is important too.

Once a player has been signed from Chile or South Korea, say, clubs then need to help the player settle down and “fit in”. Speaking English always helps, as does understanding golf days, going to watch horse racing and eating Yorkshire puddings. But there is more to cultural acclimatisation than two hours learning English at a local college or playing a round of golf at St Andrews, and this once more is where the work of people such as Hofstede is so important.

For example, if a player from a hierarchical society is brought into a more egalitarian one, this will affect how the player is coached, plays and lives in a country. In a club where players are asked for their input, a player used to hierarchies may expect to be told what to do. If they are not told, then they may be silent, seem disinterested, look confused and may even be labelled surly. Other players may in turn perceive this player as being isolated, unwilling to fit in, not a team player and possibly see it as a sign that the player is only at the club for money.

So, the one about the Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman and Welshman is no longer a joke. Nor, for that matter, is the one about the player from South Korea, Brazil or Russia. Getting to grips with managing multicultural teams is vital to the success of any group or organisation, not least a football team. Those managing football clubs and their various teams will ignore this challenge to the detriment of on-field performances.

Managers would do well too to remember that, whatever the joke and whoever it involves, while Tom Cleverley and Danny Wellbeck might laugh at it, culture dictates that Javier Hernandez and Shinji Kagawa might not actually see the funny side.