The globe-trotting footballer

Globalisation – it’s the word on the lips of academics across the globe. Advances in telecommunications and transport have made the world smaller, more interconnected, and as a result, people are on the move. The processes of globalisation are seen in every sport, but arguably none more so than football. Games are beamed all over the world, Manchester United fans cheers in Seoul, French imports light up St James’ Park, and all the while the money rolls in.

In this newly globalised, modern-era of football, players move freely between national borders in search of football success. The impact of Jean-Marc Bosman and the founding of the EU have both been vital, but in reality this movement is largely down to sophisticated scouting networks and the availability of vast quantities of information. Scouts at top clubs are deployed to all corners of the world in search of the next big thing. Once located, they are lured overseas with the promise of money and fame.

Not all footballers are so lucky. For every wonderkid enticed to a big overseas club there are hundreds of players desperate to do anything, to play anywhere, so they can succeed. Dave Low is one such player. He is 30, Singaporean, and a self-confessed football nomad. He has played in 11 countries, and expects to add a few more to that total before retiring. He has never been approached by a club. ‘I don’t wait for clubs to open the doors, I seek the doors for myself’, he explains.

Low never planned on playing abroad. Yet frustration at a lack of playing opportunities following his compulsory national service, and the low wages on offer to young players, led to him deciding to try his luck elsewhere. He had friends in Australia, and their contacts enabled Low to sign for a side in the state league.

Australia proved to be a great success. The opportunity for regular gametime following two years with no competitive football in the armed forces was a breath of fresh air, and the mental and physical challenge that accompanied it was welcomed. After a successful season in Australia, Low returned to Singapore, and discovered that he had developed enough to greatly enhance his playing opportunities in his homeland. This time, however, he was frustrated by club politics and a dearth of knowledgeable coaches, and he was once again encouraged to try his luck abroad.

‘Playing in different countries has improved me, and motivated me to hone my football skills, as I have played with many types of teams and players, which has forced me to adapt to a number of different tactical approaches to the game’, Low reflects, ‘it can be quite imposing being on your own in a foreign country, but it has certainly made me mentally stronger.’

Low has continued to play in an array of countries, from New Zealand to France, England to Mongolia. He was happiest in France, where he was always able to play in the possession style which relies on speed of thought and short, sharp passing. Thailand was similar, but riddled with corruption and player bribes. Still, it was cheap and Low was happy.

Life as a nomad doesn’t always work out, however. With each move comes new challenges to adapt to: food, climate, culture, lifestyle, standard of living, not to mention all of the variations on the pitch. To overcome these challenges one requires a combination of time, patience, and mental strength; all of which were needed during a chaotic spell in New Zealand, where a tyrannical coach, who Low describes as ‘the most un-Brazilian Brazilian’, preached a direct style of play which conflicted with Low’s preferred possession style. Still, Low learned from the experience and returned from it an improved man.

Recognising the challenge and immense benefits of playing abroad, Low shows no sign of being confined within the borders of one country: ‘Fact is, there are many footballers today. If you want to succeed you have to push yourself, to get out of your comfort zone. If it is not working for you then you have to make it work’. This advice, he asserts, would certainly be useful in England.

The island mentality that plagues English football perplexes him. Whereas the majority of other nations embrace globalisation, spreading themselves across the Earth whilst searching for the best football practices and applying them in their homeland, English footballers show a certain aversion to testing themselves abroad. The smugness of The Premier League, fuelled by the English media, brands itself as the ‘best league in the world’. Why would a talented young Englishman move abroad if this was the case? Well, Low says, going to another country would change their mindset, expose them to new styles, new ways of thinking, new challenges, and develop them. They could bring back cultural practices, add to their game and maybe even raise the standard of English football.

Low wouldn’t change his experiences for the world. He wouldn’t mind playing in South America, maybe in France again, but life as a football nomad allows him to live his dream as a footballer, as well as constantly develop him mentally, physically and technically. ‘Life is full of surprises’, he concludes, ‘Ups and downs. I just go with the flow in the knowledge that with God, I am strong. Anything is possible’.

The Author

Seth Burkett

The last Englishman to play professional football in Brazil. My book - The Boy in Brazil: Living, Loving and Learning in the Land of Football, is set to be released in April 2014. Pre-order here:

One thought on “The globe-trotting footballer

  1. Well written article Seth. There really are thousands out there in search of an opportunity abroad. Good luck Dave!

    – Nick

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