This is the first part in a series of six articles by Dr Ian Lawrence and is based on the work he did on his paper "The Sport and Cross-Cultural Communication: Applications to and from Professional Soccer in the English Premier League"
The English Premiership League has become arguably the most cosmopolitan sporting organisation on earth in the last decade due to the influx of foreign players into the professional division. Having exported soccer to the world in the nineteenth century, England then spent more than 100 years being institutionally opposed to foreign players. Historically this scenario dates from the ban imposed upon foreign players by the English Football Association (F.A) between 1931 and 1978. The philosophy that motivated the ban was arguably an underlying ethnocentric belief being that foreign players were inferior to those of British origin.
The ban was eventually lifted when the European Community forced the FA to appeal its legislation as unlawful. Yet it was not until the landmark ‘Bosman’ ruling in 1995 by the European Court of Justice that overseas markets become the primary source of talent for domestic English and other European professional clubs.
The implications for this piece are that in theory, an English Premiership game could be played by eleven French and eleven German nationals. The cultural shift in the traditional composition of teams that emerged from the structural changes to the professional game was possibly best demonstrated in England by Arsenal F.C on February 14, 2005 when they named the first all-foreign match squad in English Premiership history.
The intense globalization experienced by soccer and its business environment has an endless number of possible outcomes. A mischievous look into the future may reveal a scenario where assistant referees have to check notarized passports instead of the soles of the shoes of substitute players.
The resulting diversified workforce brings a variety of perspectives and approaches to work that can challenge the pre-existing culture in place. Professional teams that wish to compete fully in the marketplace for players inevitably have to consider recruiting and retaining what is a highly diverse workforce. Diversity in this context may manifest itself in a variety of ways to managers. This may include the presence of many religions, languages, cultural norms and expectations.
Managing a Culturally Diverse Team
Managing a culturally diverse team, as in any workforce context is a complex issue. Therefore, a team manager who can demonstrate skills and experience in a cross-cultural setting is potentially in demand in today’s dynamic soccer market. Therefore the nationality of the team manager no longer appears to be an issue as long as they can produce the necessary results.
The degree to which a manager offers ‘human capital’ to a team (the level of previous success and experience) may be crucial in determining which managers are appointed by clubs to new positions, but this might not always be the best selection procedure if managers have a dominant style that is incongruent with players’ preferences and situational factors. It appears that effective management behaviour necessarily varies across specific contexts as the characteristics of the players and the environment change.
The ability of the club to recognise that culture diversity can be synergistic is significant if they are to optimise the strengths of their playing staff. Such clubs create new forms of management and organisation that transcend the individual cultures of their members.
In 2000, researchers Martens, Mobley and Zizzi advocated for increasing the knowledge of cultural groups among consultants who work with players from multicultural backgrounds. Arguably this concern is likely to become an increasingly sensitive topic with the number of foreign players working in the EPL showing no evidence of decreasing.
Researchers have consistently acknowledged a lack of understanding on the behalf of those individuals charged with optimising the talents of their players. This is acutely demonstrated in sport psychology, an area in which soccer managers are expected to demonstrate high levels of knowledge and application.
In many professional soccer settings it is likely that managers do not share the culture of their players and may have what could be described as a parochial or ethnocentric approach towards their work with the team. In the context of this series of articles, misunderstandings based on cultural differences in interpersonal communication are likely to affect exchanges between managers (other support staff) and their players.
Dr. Ian Lawrence is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Business Management and Marketing at the Leeds Metropolitan University.