Can a nation’s language dictate their footballing future?

by Stefan Kelly

Belgium 2013“We have 80 million people in Germany and I think before 2000 nobody noticed a lot of talent,” says Robin Dutt. “Now we notice everyone.” He is speaking of the German football federation, the DFB, and their youth system revival plan, urged into action by a sub-standard European Championships in 2000. A former sporting director of the DFB, he is as well versed on the production of Germany’s rather terrifying current generation of players as anyone. More than a few English people may have tried to take some hollow victory from German football’s modern revolution, but even Emile Heskey’s icing on the 5-1 shaped cake came a year after the work to mould German football’s future had begun.

Fast forward just under ten years and we have the fluent, youthful Germans embarrassing their English counterparts on an even grander stage, the World Cup finals knockout stages. This was followed by a national feeling, mainly inspired by the press, of ‘let’s have a good, long, hard at ourselves’ and do something about it. What that something was, no one really knew, but it was fairly clear someone such as Robin Dutt would have been rather helpful on the matter. Sir Trevor Brooking’s apparently informed opinion post-finals was that England would need at least 5-10 years to catch up with the Germans. It’s an inconclusive figure, it’s by no means tangible, but it does leave the hanging question, why?

Yale behavioural economist Keith Chen has produced a fascinating hypotheses involving how our way of thinking regarding the future can affect us, with his focus lying in the financial savings region. His theories lie within wide research and proof, and they can also be applied to the sporting world.

Straying from football for the moment, it’s important to understand the different ways languages make us think about the future. Not only do the rules of languages command how we express things, but consequently, our languages command how we think about things. Beginning with English, we have a distinct way of talking about future events, i.e. through the use of the future tense: “We will have a great team in 10 years”. Whereas with a language like German, there is no change to the verb in this expression. If you were to directly translate how a German person would say that, it would be: “We have a great team in ten years”.

It’s a slight difference, I’m not denying that, but its mental effects can pass people by. There is a resulting psychological difference in how the two would think about the future. English speakers involuntarily separate themselves their future while German speakers are likely to be much more conscious of theirs in everything they do.

In layman’s terms, English speakers subconsciously think: “Ah, it will probably be fine” while the Germans would be of the mentality: “Right, how am I going to go about this”. If you do watch Chen talking about this effect, you’ll see his potential proof through Germany’s savings rate as a % of GDP is over 5% higher than that of the UK, as well as the US for that matter.

For the purpose of this question, we’re going to put languages such as German under the title ‘Futureless Languages’ (even though that’s not strictly appropriate). Other languages that fall in this category are mainly Dutch (including Flemish), Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Chinese and Japanese.

I am going to focus on some of the core regions of football development where these are the primary languages spoken, which are as follows: the Netherlands, Switzerland, Northern Belgium and I even want to talk a little bit about Iceland. Then, I’m going to compare the youth system success of these countries to the English speaking countries of the world, mainly the ones where football is either the one or one of two main sports played i.e. The UK and Ireland.

Beginning with the Netherlands, this incredibly small land mass has the most concentrated population in the world, squeezing over 16 million people inside its borders. This 16 million, however, is only a third of England’s estimated 52 million people. Yet in footballing terms, the gap between the two not just in youth facilities is getting larger and larger in favour of the Dutch. Over the last thirty years, the Netherlands have not only competed with England sides that should be better than them, but they’ve claimed superiority, sand show no signs of giving it up.

While Rinus Michels employed his teambuilding ideas to a generation of Dutch players most notably coming out of Ajax’s youth programme, the most notable of which was of course Johan Cruyff (who then carried what he had learned as a developing footballer into the next generation, revitalising the ideas of total football once more), England at the time still had not changed their tune following world cup success on home soil which was slowly vanishing into the past.

Ajax’s youth academy has not slowed down since, with Wesley Sneijder and Christian Eriksen being two examples of players who we may never have had at the level they’re playing at if it wasn’t for their early introduction to ‘The Ajax Way’. In many ways, Ajax’s youth academy is Ajax and is the perfect image of Dutch football, and unfortunately for England, it’s a mind-set on how the game should be run that just may not be achievable in the visible future.

The Netherlands continual production of talent sends them to the forefront of overachieving nations in football, but there are two other futureless language speaking countries vying with them currently: Switzerland and Iceland.

If there’s one factor we can be sure contributes largely to a nation’s level of footballing success, it’s a country’s population, more specifically, the numbers playing the game. It’s pretty simple, if you have a larger group to choose from, you’re more likely to find a gem as a pure matter of probability (e.g. Wayne Rooney). Taking that into consideration, it’s quite remarkable that Switzerland have not only won their UEFA qualification group, but they’ve also breached the top eight of the FIFA world rankings, ensuring their status as a top seed in the group stage draw, which gives this just eight million strong country a great chance of going to the World Cup knockout stages.

Switzerland does indeed include both German (Futureless) and French (Future tense using) speakers, but the last census states the percentage of natively German speakers is currently around two thirds of the population, with 1 in 5 citing French as their native tongue. Is it also possible that like the Dutch and Germans, the mental relationship Swiss coaches and sporting directors have with the future positively effecting their footballing achievements? Of course it’s possible.

Yes, you can point to the fact that this current crop of Swiss stars have roots in other nations, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka have links to Kosovo while Eren Derdiyok and Gokhan Inler are both half Turkish for example. But all of the main components of this squad have been grown through the Swiss youth programme, with FC Basel leading the way by a long way. In fact, all four previously mentioned stars are all Basel youth products, as are exciting talents like Fabian Frei, Valentin Stocker and Yann Sommer. While rival clubs such as Grasshopper can also boast the production of Diego Benaglio and Beralim Dzemaili.

There are very visible comparisons between the Swiss, Dutch and German systems. Mainly, technical ability is everything and passing is the most valuable system a young player will learn. This has been the case for over a decade now, decades for the Dutch. It is indeed only as they watch countries like these three prosper do the football associations of the relatively underperforming England, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland attempt to play catch-up. Why are they so incredibly far behind? It’s because mentally they’re far behind. Obviously, the real reasons Germany are leading the world in youth production are training techniques and number of qualified coaches available, but what I am saying is the reason they have these two key factors, is because of their mentality towards the future, which ultimately derives from the language they speak.

Taking Iceland into account, this November we see one of the great footballing achievements over the past few years. Iceland, with a population of just over 300,000, are miniscule in comparison with the other nations bidding to grasp the last chance at World Cup qualification in the UEFA play-offs. Unfortunately, they’ve drawn Croatia and are liable to get completely destroyed, but it will take nothing away from a nation with a population just 6% that of Scotland, who fell away from competition early on in their qualification group. However, there is no Icelandic version of Ajax or Basel we can point to in order to fully display their youth achievements. The main reason Iceland have the talent they currently have playing for the national team is because they left the isle at a young age to continue their footballing education. The countries of choice? Sweden, Norway, Denmark with the most prevalent of all being the Netherlands. Kolbeinn Sigþórsson is the latest exciting talent to simultaneously break into the Dutch and Icelandic national scenes. Sigþórsson learned his trade at AZ, before Ajax signed him this summer, where the striker’s record thus far has been outstanding. Other Icelandic squad members to have grown in the Dutch system and still playing in the Eredivisie are Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (AZ), Victor Palsson (NEC) and Alfred Finnbogason (Heerenveen). Even Eidur Gudjohnson, Iceland’s greatest ever player and still an active squad member, came onto the scene at PSV.

These examples are all extremely telling of course, similarly the failures of Scotland and England (as well as English speakers stretching to the US and Australia) relative to their populations and tradition can be very telling. But it can be hard to say to what extent this is the case, considering the fact you can’t directly compare the successes of a futureless language country with the successes of a country that speaks a language with a strong future tense, simply because they are two different countries.

There is however one prime example of a footballing nation, currently right in the eyes of the media and fans alike, that perfectly shows the effects that futureless languages can have on footballing progression and development: Belgium. Belgium is one of the last few nations on Earth with such a distinctive language divide within its population. Currently, estimates show that around 55% of Belgians consider Dutch as their first language, almost all of which occupy the Flanders region, the northern half of the country. The southern half of Belgium, comprises of French speakers, taking up approximately 40% of the population.

The Belgian national team are currently the most written about side on the planet following their automatic progression to next summer’s World Cup, where their young, big names are expected to deliver their best World Cup performance ever. It’s debatable at this point whether this golden generation are either overrated or underrated, but the point remains, for this squad to have been produced by a nation as small as Belgium, the youth systems are doing something right, whether they be in South Belgium or in French speaking countries, or in North Belgium or Dutch/German speaking countries. It’s not difficult to tell exactly what regions are responsible for this team, in fact it’s very simple. Below I have listed the likely 23 man squad to be selected by Wilmots to travel to Brazil next summer, barring any injuries. Beside their name, I’ve put down the clubs responsible for the main periods of their development. Then, I’ve simply stated the primary language spoken at each club, to see if there is a common thread.

  1. Thibaut Courtois – Genk (Dutch)
  2. Simon Mignolet – Sint-Truiden (Dutch)
  3. Koen Casteels – Genk (Dutch)
  4. Toby Alderweireld – Ajax (Dutch)
  5. Daniel Van Buyten – Charleroi (French)
  6. Nicolas Lombaerts – Gent (Dutch)
  7. Jan Vertonghen – Ajax (Dutch)
  8. Guillaume Gillet – Liege (France)
  9. Sebastian Pocognoli – Genk, AZ (Dutch)
  10. Thomas Vermaelen – Ajax (Dutch)
  11. Vincent Kompany – Anderlecht, Hamburg (Dutch, German)
  12. Axel Witsel – Liege (French)
  13. Kevin De Bruyne – Gent, Genk (Dutch)
  14. Marouane Fellaini – Anderlecht to Liege (Dutch, French)
  15. Eden Hazard – Lille (French)
  16. Steven Defour – Genk (Dutch)
  17. Moussa Dembele – Beerschot, Willem II, AZ (Dutch)
  18. Nacer Chadli – MVV, Apeldoorn, Twente (Dutch)
  19. Romelu Lukaku – Boom, Lierse, Anderlecht (Dutch)
  20. Kevin Mirallas – Lille (French)
  21. Dries Mertens – Anderlecht, Gent (Dutch)
  22. Zakaria Bakkali – PSV (Dutch)
  23. Christian Benteke – Genk (Dutch)

 

Eighteen members of this 23 man squad came through systems at clubs where Dutch was spoken. French, naturally, has thrown out five of this squad, but its insignificance in comparison with its futureless counterpart is just incredible to run through. It’s true that the north of Belgium outperforms the south in terms of number of clubs in Belgium’s top division, the Jupiler Pro League, but then you have to ask the question again; is the use of Dutch at these clubs positively impacted their progression to the point that they dominate Belgian football? This final conclusion to my argument that a country’s language does in fact somewhat dictate their footballing future has to be the most conclusive of all.

I want to finish up then considering the question, if it is their mentality towards the future that drives these countries forward ahead of the rest, what specific actions are the most important towards youth development. I believe you need to go with the German thought process on this one in that there are two main elements: coaching and money. Approximately 600 million euro has been invested across Germany over the past 10 years, through wages and site development mainly, but the fact the effects start to show within 10 years is quite frightening. How good will their generation that comes through in 2020 be? When it comes to coaching, well they just blow countries like England out of the park. The UEFA B licence is held by almost 30,000 coaches across Germany. An astonishing figure emphasised further by the fact that England currently has around 1,800. When it comes to the licence, Germany 5,500 (England: 900 or so) and regarding the Pro licence, Germany have 1,000 while England have struggled to conquer the 100 mark.

Next summer’s World Cup should be one of the best in recent history, mainly due to the sheer number of genuine candidates for the throne. But if the German threat truly winds up being the strongest, and Joachim Loew’s squad become world champions, than not only will we see the global youth production system revitalised, resulting in the next generation of world footballers being even better, but we’ll probably see the Germans be forever grateful for what they’ve been blessed with: a wide population, a rich footballing tradition, an intelligent national federation and what they should be most thankful for, their language. I suppose only time will tell.

2 Responses

  1. Leifur says:

    “The main reason Iceland have the talent they currently have playing for the national team is because they left the isle at a young age to continue their footballing education” – Wrong. The main reason for this influx is a complete revamp of the youth program in Iceland, started just over 10 years ago (sound familiar?). It’s not enough to start training at a good level at 16-17, you have to grow up in a good system. A good system maximizes the amount of talent discovered and nurtured from a young age. Case in point: Iceland U-15 have qualified for the Olympics (easy route, though). Iceland U-17 won their group in the first round of qualification to the Euros against Russia, Slovakia and Azerbaijan. Iceland U-19 came second in their first round group behind Belgium, but ahead of France and Northern Ireland. Iceland U-21 is battling with France for a Euro spot, having won every game against other nations in the group, although the side lost to France 3-4 just over a week ago so France are in the driver’s seat at the moment.

    Those results indicate a good youth program, not just some lucky players leaving abroad. Alfred Finnbogason never played in a foreign youth program, he started playing at senior level in Iceland before moving to play in Belgium at senior level and then Sweden at senior level before transferring to the Netherlands. Victor Pálsson went abroad 16-17, true. But he went to Denmark for a little while and from there to Liverpool, where he didn’t get a chance to play so he transferred to the Scottish Premier League to take the step into senior football. From there he went to the MLS and from there to the Netherlands. Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson grew up in the Icelandic youth setup before briefly playing for Chelsea and Fulham (as his parents moved to London for non-footballing reasons), but eventually went back to Iceland because he disliked London. There he played senior football in 2008 before transferring in 2009 to AZ, where he played in their youth setup for a year, not more.

    I was disappointed in how you approached Iceland in this. Minimum amount of research, apparently.

  2. Morgan says:

    Since when is Anderlecht a Dutch-speaking club? They’re based in Brussels, which is overwhelmingly francophone.

    Also, one problem with your theory about the future tense: every World Cup champion since 1994 (and all but one since 1978) has come from a Romance-speaking country – all of whom use the future tense extensively. We’ll have to come up with another reason to explain why England stinks.

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