Footballers: from ‘hosts’ to intruders

December 5, 2018

Footballers: from ‘hosts’ to intruders

Johan Cruyff Institute brings Jorge Valdano, Roberto Martínez and Vítor Baía together to discuss how to manage football players’ changing role: from stars and ‘hosts’ on the pitch to intruders in the labor market which they join over the age of 35

“If we are realistic, there are two things in professional football that have very little importance—future footballers and ex-footballers”. Jorge Valdano does not beat around the bush when it comes to analyzing the reality of the main protagonists in the football industry. Nor does he blame anyone. The Argentine recognizes that the first ones who must reflect and look for new goals when their career comes to an end are the players themselves. Starting, of course, from the basis that “they will not find anything as exciting as living from playing a game, which is an extension of their childhood, a privilege that only footballers have”.

Of the three former players that the Johan Cruyff Institute invited to the stage of the World Football Summit, Jorge Valdano was the one that first had to face the reality of ‘the day after’. Vítor Baía did so a little later and Roberto Martínez is still active as a coach, although his time will come. Three weighty opinions, three different experiences and different perspectives when it comes to discussing the panorama that a footballer must face when, sooner or later, he has to start thinking about hanging up his boots.

The Johan Cruyff Institute took advantage to bring to the stage of the World Football Summit in Madrid a discussion on the importance of academic training for a group of people that can, with the necessary tools, benefit from a lifetime of experience and end up leading sports institutions. What is and what should be the role of academic training during a player’s active years? What can footballers contribute to the industry once they retire? Are they the ones who understand the business most, precisely because of their years of experience as its leading actors? Do they have a special sensitivity to detect what the football business needs from its managers and leaders? Who should be responsible for training them to be prepared for tomorrow? These are some of the questions Jorge Valdano, Vítor Baía and Roberto Martínez discussed.


Football analyst and business consultant

Jorge Valdano is one of the best-known faces in international football, with a life dedicated entirely to the ‘king of sport’ in all its facets: as a player, coach, director and, currently, as a business consultant, commentator in prestigious media and conference speaker.

Argentinian by birth and Spanish by adoption, Jorge Valdano made his debut at Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario at the age of 18, and his talent soon led him to cross the pond and consolidate his position as a player in European football. He played for Alavés, Real Zaragoza and Real Madrid, with whom he won two Leagues, one King’s Cup and two UEFA Cups. He retired in 1987 after becoming a world champion with Argentina at the 1986 World Cup, and having played 228 games in the Spanish first division, with a total of 86 goals.

His career as a coach and director was no less brilliant. He debuted on the bench of Club Deportivo Tenerife in 1992, and two years later he joined Real Madrid, leading them to win the league and bringing in several first-team players who would later be emblematic figures for the club, such as Raul Gonzalez and Guti. Valencia CF was his last adventure as a coach, before returning definitively to Real Madrid to start his career in the offices. Jorge Valdano held the position of sports director from 1999 to 2003 and director general from 2009 to 2011, and was one of the key men in the construction of the team known as the ‘galacticos’. His last titles were with the team in white: 1 League as a player; and 2 Leagues, 1 Super Cup, 1 King’s Cup, 1 Champions League, 1 Intercontinental Cup and 1 European Super Cup, as coach and director.


Belgium National Coach

Roberto Martínez is a man of challenges accustomed to leaving a mark wherever he goes. He trained as a footballer in the lower categories of Balaguer, his hometown club, but at the age of 21 he decided to cross borders and find his place in English football.

His 21 years in England, first as a player of Wigan, Motherwell and Chester City, and later as coach of Swansea, Wigan and Everton, earned him great international recognition and the nickname ‘Bob’. At Wigan, Roberto Martinez became the third Spanish coach to lead a Premier League team. He helped to save them from relegation for three consecutive seasons and to become FA Cup champion, something unthinkable for a club of its characteristics. Roberto Martinez turned 265 consecutive games as a manager in the Premiere League.

The Belgian national team put their fate in his hands and he did not disappoint: first he led them to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and, once in Russia, Belgium’s third place was its best position ever in this championship, losing only to the World Cup Champions, France.


Former Football Player

Vítor Baía holds a degree in sport management. He is the founder and chairman of the board of directors of the Vítor Baía Foundation—a private social support organization that supports children and young people. He is director of Project 1, the goalkeeper school of the Portuguese Football Federation. From 2008 to 2011, he was director of international relations at FC Oporto. He is a former top-flight goalkeeper, playing for clubs such as FC Porto and FC Barcelona, as well as the Portuguese national team, and was one of the most successful goalkeepers in the world. He is also a regular contributor to various media in matters related to sport. In addition, he is author and co-author of two books: Vítor Baía – La Autobiografía and Vítor Baía y Amigos Cuentan Historias para Niños.



Retiring and the benefits of academic training:

Jorge Valdano:

“There are two things that have a massive impact on a football player. The first one is making an abrupt entrance into the world of football and having to face fame, big money and the enormous pressure of rising to a challenge in front of 100,000 people in a stadium, with millions of people watching on television. And the second thing that has a massive impact is having to leave it all behind when you are still very, very young. I think we tend to undervalue footballers. When a player stops playing football we know they don’t have sufficient skills to start a new profession, to reinvent themselves, as they often say. However, football teaches you a lot, just not from a professional perspective. Football teaches you a lot from when you start to play in the park and you begin to understand that you have to respect basic rules of fair play and be part of a team with different roles. You learn that you have to be determined and disciplined to achieve goals, and professional football takes this to the highest level. At around the age of 30, 30-something, or over 35 if you’re really lucky, you have to discover a new world, and there is nothing to prepare you for it psychologically. At this age, other people generally know if they’re going to like the world of work or if they’re going to have a hard time. In any case, they have the psychological experience to prepare themselves for this reality. By contrast, a footballer enters a completely new world and, of course, this requires a huge mental leap. And it particularly affects footballers because everything they have worked for their entire lives has been based on physical talent, right? It starts in the head and then goes down to the feet, but footballers are overprotected for too long. When you have been a top professional footballer for a long time, you don’t even know how to print a boarding pass because someone always does it for you, and there’s always someone who deals with the hotel booking on arrival, and there’s always someone who even chooses what clothes you have to wear. However, when a player comes to the end of their professional career they are protected economically, if they have been playing at a high level, especially nowadays, but they have to face a new and challenging reality. Among other things, they have to deal with feeling a little like an intruder, even in their own family, because for a long time they have been more of an absent dad than a present one, due to all the traveling. And they quickly start to feel out of place in their own home”.

Vítor Baía:

“As players, we’re wrapped up in cotton wool, and people treat us really well. We don’t have to do anything at all, apart from focus on what we’re doing, on our training and on the matches. But there comes a time when this cotton wool is ripped off, and we are completely unprepared for the competitive world we find ourselves in, away from football. And at that point we have to seek education, to prepare ourselves for a second phase of life. In my case, I had a year to prepare myself because I was in a club that concerned itself with this issue. I knew I was going to retire and halfway through the year I registered at a university. I went to university 20 years later than most people because I felt I needed to do it, but it was my decision. It wasn’t something that was organized for me. I felt that for what I wanted, I needed something more, and I did this by becoming the director of international relations at Porto, where I learned a lot, with the team I had played with. At the same time, university was also a good preparation. I think it was very, very important for me.”

Roberto Martínez:

“I think it’s a massive contradiction because we are talking about a problem that is inevitable. I left Spain when I was really young, at the age of 21, and I’ve lived in the UK for 21 years. I’ve seen players who needed a helping hand in the final year of their professional career to make them see that they can feel passionate about something else in their life. I’ve seen lots of players, especially in the English league, that on the day they retire, a part of them dies. And that’s very sad, as well as very dangerous. And it is on an institutional level, for example the AFE (Spanish Footballers’ Association) in Spain, which is the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association) in the UK, where a lot of work is being done to give players the chance to try things when they reach the age of 30. It could be university, a career in another field, but, on a human level, it’s a cycle. What we do when we retire is a problem. When it happens at the age of 65 it is natural, when it happens at the age of 30 it can be catastrophic.”

The shortcomings of the system

Jorge Valdano:

“If we’re realistic, there are two things in professional football that have very little importance—future footballers and ex-footballers. All the focus is on the current footballers and their performance. Speaking about the end of your career is a taboo subject. We are so terrified by this cliff edge that we never talk about it, and this doesn’t seem like a good idea because in order to fix a problem you have to recognize that it exists. What happens is that what you are doing is so exciting and it’s so difficult to replace it with something else, that it becomes impossible to cross this line and imagine yourself as the person you will be in just a short time. This is another of the problems that goes with being a professional footballer.”

Vítor Baía:

“There is a point to be made about children’s training. The parents are very important managing expectations. I mean, some parents—and we can’t lump all parents together—but some parents invest in their children because they think they will be football players, which is terrible. Then later, they don’t have any qualifications and not everyone is going to have a professional career in football. I think this is the main issue and I think, as regards training, the coaches and managers have a huge problem and they know it: how to also manage the parents and the expectations that they create in very young people who have a very difficult decision to make—choosing between football and getting a school education”.

Who has more pressure, players or the manager?

Vítor Baía:

“It’s easier when you’re on the pitch, because that’s where we’re in control of the situation—sometimes, though not always. There, we’re part of a team that is well organized, well structured and has an aim. In the office, we are dependent on whether a goal is scored or whether the players play in the way we would like them to. Now, we are responsible for making the right choice, for finding the right players (if finding the right players is our job) or the right coach that will ensure the team do an excellent job. But the pressure is outside. On the inside, everything is under control.”

Roberto Martínez:

“I think people put pressure on themselves. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you put pressure on yourself and you know how to distinguish between what actually matters from public opinion or from people whose advice you really value. I think that when a football player has confidence in himself, the pitch is where he feels happiest, the place where he can forget about everything. And I think it’s the same when you’re in an office and you’re really good at signing players and developing young footballers. If you’re really good at something then you feel good”.

The future

Vítor Baía:

“One day, all the lights go off. You turn the lights on and you have something you’re not even remotely prepared for and you feel nervous. I have colleagues that have suffered depression because they don’t know what they can do. An ex-footballer can do lots of things, and you have to make the most of it. But first and foremost, you have to explain. This is what is missing, someone with a plan, someone who has organized a plan of action who can tell you what you can do when you stop playing football, to make you feel calmer. Because being an ex-footballer doesn’t give you the right to a well-paid and prestigious job, you have to fight for it. It’s what I talked about before—competitiveness. Just because we are elite footballers, it doesn’t mean that we are going to be the president of a team’s management board. You have to fight for it. That is the ultimate goal, but you have to work your way to the top.”

Jorge Valdano:

“The future has to start with academic education. Being a footballer doesn’t give you the right to be a coach, because they’re different professions. It’s about seeing football from another perspective. If I had to give some advice to a footballer for when they retire, it would be to make sure they fill their days with something they like. They need to leave the house, start an activity, do something they like even just a little. While knowing that they will never do anything as exciting as making a living from playing a game, which is an extension of childhood. It’s an amazing thing to experience, prolonging your childhood and it’s a privilege that only footballers have”.

Possible future career paths

Vítor Baía:

“We have two options, either we work in strategy and training or we get in sport management. There are two ways forward and there is a lot to explore in each one. But let’s go back to the start again. There needs to be education and training. They need to know how to speak in public, speak several languages, know how to manage their image. There is a range of situations for which they need to be prepared. In my case, in 2004, I set up a foundation because I also felt the need to help, or to make a contribution socially and culturally for those who most need it, children and young people”.

Roberto Martínez:

“I always tell my players that they need to have two strengths that aren’t related to sport. They need to have inquiring minds and never be lazy. Footballers work two hours every day and the rest of the time they can spend doing whatever they want. Therefore, they can study languages, they can maybe try doing something related to economics, something reading-related, something that can in some way enrich them, but from a not-being-lazy point of view, because the hardest thing for a footballer is to go home and decide to do something other than think about the match at the weekend. And then there is another aspect, a cultural aspect. In some countries, the idea of ex-footballers having a position of power is frowned upon, but we really ought to value them if they are well-equipped and good at what they do. There are countries like the United States where ex-players are strongly encouraged to take on positions of power because they are seen as having the right experience for it. In England, people are focusing more and more on ensuring that ex-footballers are prepared and encouraged”.


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