Craig Foster joins the Johan Cruyff Institute mission to nurture sport with former athletes working in management, as its new ambassador in Australia
Craig Foster is one of the best-known faces in the world of Australian football. Not only because of his time as a player at several of the clubs with most history in Australia and of the national team in the 90s, but also because since his retirement in 2003 he has remained strongly linked to his sport in various ways.
Craig is a well-known commentator and analyst for the SBS network in Australia, as well as an ardent defender of players’ rights, a mission he carried out from his position as CEO and president of the Association of Professional Footballers of Australia (PFA), of which he remains a member. He is licensed as a professional football coach, which enabled him to become head coach of the Australian Indigenous Team, and he also holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Football Business and a Master in Sport Management from the Johan Cruyff Institute.
Directly involved in a large number of charities, Craig promotes social change through football via different organizations, with a special interest in the rights of the indigenous community, health, education and sporting opportunities. Through his commitment to contributing to the education of future generations so they are much better prepared to lead sports organizations in Australia, Craig also serves as an ambassador of the Johan Cruyff Institute in his country.
In this interview, he brings us closer to the Australian reality and to the future challenges facing the country to become a major player in an increasingly globalized sports world.
Johan always defended that well-educated athletes in management are the best option to lead sport. Do you agree?
Undoubtedly. Former athletes bring many advantages. Domain-specific knowledge, passion of course, often an inherent connection with important stakeholders (fans, commercial partners, broadcasters) and, I would like to think, an ethical framework, work ethic and set of values that come from working within a team environment, understanding the daily work process critical to achievement and, as importantly as these qualities, an ability to think and plan long term for their sport. This is not an exclusionary discussion, everyone has the right to contribute to the sport they love. However, former athletes (players) bring a range of qualities that are highly desirable, provided they are allied to a strong academic foundation.
Johan changed the game, he was a visionary as a player and as a coach, but he also devoted much of his energy to players’ education. What role do you think education has in the world of football and sport in Australia?
Knowledge is critical to the growth and development of our game in Australia, and I would say more broadly across Asia. The game of football moves very quickly for a number of reasons — it is the world’s largest, the most well-financed, and the competitiveness between nations, leagues and tens of thousands of clubs from amateur to professional level ensure that the search for an edge, for better thinking and innovation is fierce. This drives change at an ever increasing rate, particularly with knowledge being analyzed, shared and disseminated more quickly than ever through digital channels. Nations like Australia, and confederations like Asia, without the ultimate global success we seek, for example, can only prosper if we understand the global context, track and monitor the best thinking and progress and work to find our own competitive advantages. All of this requires understanding as the starting point, which can only come from two things — experience and education. Both are critical.
You decided to study at the Johan Cruyff Institute years ago. How did you know about its existence and why did you think it was important for you?
I sought to study football management rather than sport management, which is very popular in Australia. It appeared self-evident that to better work for and in the game, the broadest and deepest possible understanding of the global context is a prerequisite. Having searched, the online component of Johan’s Institute was highly desirable and enabled me to study while undertaking my numerous other duties within Australian football, to update my knowledge while simultaneously applying it. This new model of education is a phenomenal asset to today’s generation of students.
“I believe that a better academic foundation in football, not just for former players but for all contributors to the game is a major ingredient in our long-term success”
You are now an ambassador for the Johan Cruyff Institute in Australia. What challenges do you face spreading Johan Cruyff’s educational legacy in your country?
In football, the challenges for former players are cultural and historically entrenched. This is why the education of former players is so critical. Mind you, our profession is at least as culpable as the administrators of our sport, in that we have not worked hard enough to develop generations of educated and proficient professionals off the field as we have on it, and this pool of administrative talent needs to be vastly expanded. Many, if not most, of the major challenges our game still struggles to overcome in Australia are because of a general lack of knowledge, where we see the same mistakes repeated. I believe that a better academic foundation in football, not just for former players but for all contributors to the game is a major ingredient in our long-term success.
Is the education of (former) players of the challenges that the PFA faces?
Without question. Other sports, for a variety of reasons, such as in rugby’s case where the game was centered in the University system, for example, have created highly educated generations of players, which creates an important post-career network that the game can rely on — whether to operate and guide the game from within, or contribute from without. Football is historically a working class sport, particularly since our prevailing culture in the game was largely inherited from England, before being augmented by different cultures through post-war immigration, and our goal must be to become the most educated sport in future. The PFA, under outstanding present leadership, is working hard to change the mentality of the professional clubs and other stakeholders, and we now have an increasing percentage of professional players undertaking study. This is immensely positive for the future of the game.
“The PFA is working hard to change the mentality of the professional clubs and other stakeholders, and we now have an increasing percentage of professional players undertaking study. This is immensely positive for the future of the game”
Do you think Australian footballers understand the importance of education for their lives “after the game”?
Increasingly, yes. As we promote the champions of thought and action, and those who achieve within or without the game through being educated add to their lifelong growth and social contribution, our new generations coming through can be led to understand the importance of training the mind as well as the body. One challenge faced here is the low priority many coaches and clubs place on players’ education outside of the training field, and this is because many of the older coaching generation do not possess an external education other than coaching licenses. As new generations progress from playing to coaching and administration, this process becomes more fluid, which helps the broader thinking level of football and will generate better decision-making, growth and penetration of the game.
Why do you think it is important to take lessons from the world’s great clubs?
Understanding history is critical to ensuring that it is either applied or, in a vast number of cases, avoided. Knowing what has occurred and is occurring globally in football is not only to be able to extrapolate the important and applicable lessons, of course, but to know what has been done incorrectly, what does not work, what is outdated thinking. For both reasons, a global context is critical. Take governance for example, where understanding the problems at FIFA obviously leads to seeking better ways to ensure accountability, transparency and a strong ethical culture. Smaller football nations like Australia fundamentally have no resources to waste, no time to make obvious mistakes, no opportunity to succeed without innovation and better thinking. We have to train brains as much as brawn. Simple. The Cruyff Institute is one excellent example of educating our own practitioners, at any level of the game, to understand context, to be able to compare and contrast our market to others, to recognize the differences in markets and unique characteristics of our region, and to make better decisions. This is the only way Australia, and Asia, can ever win the global football game.
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