You’ve all heard of the big name English players that leave the country to play for the world’s biggest clubs. The Gary Linekers, the Real Madrids, the David Beckhams. There are many English players playing abroad, and the majority of them aren’t big names. How do these adjust to a new environment and become successful in a foreign land? And why did they choose to play abroad in the first place?
Playing abroad is not a new trend, but in recent years there have been more English exports than ever before. English footballers are renowned for their ‘island mentality,’ so to play abroad is a big step for many. It appears as though their hands are tied – with the new television deal English clubs now have the money to purchase the best talent in the world. This leaves many without a choice but to go abroad in their quest for first team football. Increasingly we are seeing English players join so called smaller foreign clubs. Just look at Anton Ferdinand. Touted for England recognition after breaking into the West Ham first team, he now plays for Turkish top flight club Antalyaspor.
Not all Englishmen abroad are ex-Premier League. Released by Cheltenham Town in the summer of 2011, Daniel Lloyd-Weston was facing an uncertain future in the game. That was until he received a call from a friend in Greece asking if he wanted a trial with Kalloni FC – a small second tier club. The trial went well and he was offered a two year deal after just two days training. Lloyd-Weston says he had little problem adapting to life in Greece; ‘Greek life is fantastic, I adore the culture. Even though the country is going through times of economic downfall, it is still a stress free life.’ Greek life is relatively laid back, with Lloyd-Weston saying the players work hard, but away from that relaxing and socialising. Socialising with the other players certainly helped Lloyd-Weston to adapt to life in Greece, as did learning the language. He believes that ‘it gives you confidence and allows you grow as a person, as well as showing people you respect them.’
History is littered with tales of footballers failing spectacularly due to their inability to grasp a new language. A case in point being Ian Rush and his now infamous ‘it’s like living in a foreign country’ comment after moving to Italy with Juventus. Needless to say he was back on English shores after just one year. Attitudes are different now, but there are still modern day examples of English players steadfastly refusing to adapt to a new country.
During Michael Owen’s solitary year at Real Madrid, he showed no signs of trying to adjust to living abroad. He holed himself up in his hotel room for the majority of his stay, not attempting to learn a word of Spanish. Had he done so he would have realised the hour and a half drive out of town to buy an English paper was needless, when the Spanish shop opposite his hotel sold them. Owen didn’t make the effort to acclimatise, so was never likely to be successful.
Learning the language increases the chances of a successful career abroad. Jonathan Woodgate did everything to acclimatise during his stay at Madrid. While he was never a success on the pitch due to his injury record, the effort he put in off the pitch was recognised by others. He integrated properly with his team-mates and got to know Spain, travelling around the country on his weekends off – of which there were many. In making an effort to integrate, Woodgate was afforded the respect of his club mates and the media, so much so that one team-mate said ‘it’s like he’s from bloody Malaga!’
Naturally, players are not expected to learn a new language as soon as they move abroad, so it does help if there is already an English speaker in the team they are joining. This is part of the reason Lineker was so successful in Spain (Terry Venables was Barcelona manager when he joined), and also partly why Lloyd-Weston found it so easy to adapt to Greece. ‘I had my best friend playing there so he was with me all the way.’
As well as having an English speaking friend to aid his transition, Lloyd-Weston says the fans were ‘great, very welcoming and always interested and warming whenever they saw me.’ As the fans immediately accepted him, Lloyd-Weston felt he had a duty to perform for them – a mutual respect between the two. This is all despite the club treating him shoddily. Promises were made that were not kept, ultimately leaving Lloyd-Weston to terminate his contract after just a year. Despite this, he looks back on his spell in Greece with fondness, describing it as an experience that will stay with him for the rest of his life. He also has some advice for other footballers – ‘open your eyes and broaden your horizons, and if that involves going abroad then do it.’ Lloyd-Weston did his utmost to acclimatise and adapt, and in doing so experienced a rewarding spell abroad.
Moving to a foreign country is not as daunting as it once was, though before uprooting, footballers should check to see if the culture they will be moving into is the right one for them. Darius Vassell would have done well to heed this advice. After a warm welcome by the fans things swiftly began to go downhill. He complained about everything – from the traffic to the sacrificed goats and even Turkish tea. The fans began to turn against him, with Vassell admitting he didn’t have a clue what was going on due to his inability to grasp the Turkish language. On his blog, he had the following to say about his time in Turkey: ‘As I tie my yellow and blue scarf around my neck I realise it’s too tight a fit, and contemplate whether this is a metaphor.’
It’s clear that Vassell struggled during his time in Turkey, and his inability to adjust to the culture played a big part. After one season (a familiar trend for some English footballers) he was back in England, and after two years at Leicester was released. He’s still without a club.
Obviously, not all foreign countries are as different culturally as Turkey is. Adam Eckersley has been playing his football in Denmark for the past six years, and his first stint in the country was back in 2006, in a loan spell at Brondby. Rene Meulensteen had just taken the manager’s job there, and the good relationship between him and Eckersley was key to the move. No doubt having a friendly face around also helped Eckersley settle in. After this loan spell ended, Eckersley was sent to Championship club Barnsley. The style of play in the Championship is very different to that Eckersley was accustomed to at Manchester United, where you are taught to play with the ball on the ground, and his decision of where to play next was made. ‘After talking it over with my family and friends I decided that football is a short career and I needed to be in a place where I could play the style of football that I was used to. I went back to Denmark.’
Eckersley was just 22 when he made a permanent move to Denmark with AC Horsens, a small coastal town. Eckersley says this was initially a shock: ‘moving to Horsens was especially tough as it was a very small town compared to Manchester, with no friends or family.’ It is little wonder that Eckersley found it tough at the beginning. Moving away from home at 22 is a big thing, moving to another country at 22 is potentially life changing. Eckersley set about trying to settle in, and says ‘it soon became a lot easier after meeting my wife who helped me to integrate and make friends away from football.’
With a stable home and family Eckersley’s performances on the pitch began to improve, and this lead to a move to AGF Aarhus, which Eckersley describes as ‘a big club in Danish standards, with a lot of history and a huge fan base.’ Aarhus is a larger town than Horsens, and Eckersley says he is happier there due to its similarity to Manchester.
Initially, Eckersley didn’t attempt to learn Danish, though he does recognise the importance of doing so. ‘I think that to feel more part of a team it’s important that you at least try to learn the language.’ Eckersley was fortunate in that he moved to a country where English speaking is widespread, but believes there is a good reason for footballers not to learn a new language. Because of the way football works, with short spells at different clubs in different countries, many players don’t want to learn a new language if there is little chance of them being there in a years’ time. Now he is fully settled in Denmark, with a young family, Eckersley has begun learning the language.
Eckersley believes that the move to Denmark has benefited him in many ways, from a new found maturity to learning to cook properly. Lloyd-Weston says the same, describing his spell in Greece as an ‘experience that I will take through the rest of my life.’ They both agree on another point – that it takes a certain type of person to succeed abroad. One who is willing to adapt.
When a footballer moves abroad, they are completely alone in a foreign country. Their families often won’t move until the player is settled, leaving a long and arduous first couple of months. Lloyd-Weston believes it is worth it though, advising other players to ‘open your eyes and broaden your horizons.’ That is advice that Rohan Ricketts has certainly taken on board.
Having played in nine countries in four continents, Ricketts is the master of adapting to new cultures. He says his experiences abroad are all down to him making his first move to Toronto, in 2008. There wasn’t much in terms of adjustment, with Canada being much like England in its traditions and customs. It’s clear Ricketts is happy he made that initial move, saying on his website that ‘so much has happened to me because I allowed myself to go there to Toronto. I met my other half while I was out there, I’ve been involved in charities and done plenty of media work for ESPN.’ Many said he was too young to go abroad, but Ricketts says it is in his nature to explore new opportunities. Since the move to Toronto, he’s certainly done that.
In 2012, after a short spell at Exeter City, Ricketts signed for reigning Indian Champions Dempo FC. Having been playing at a reasonable standard in Europe for the previous two years, the move came as a surprise to some. So why did Ricketts move away again? That would be his sense of adventure: ‘the challenge of living in another country and helping them to build up the reputation of football really appealed to me. I did it before when I signed for Toronto FC in MLS and I found it really rewarding to educate a new generation about the sport.’
India was certainly a challenge for Ricketts. Training had to be done early in the morning due to the heat, though Ricketts says he ‘was late for training on a couple of occasions due to cows in the road.’ If you thought that was surreal, there’s more to come. ‘I bumped into a python on the way back from our game last week. It was like Discovery Channel in its purest form. The day after that I pulled up to the gates of my house and two cows were just standing there dribbling.’ Rather than shirking these challenges, Ricketts embraced them. He threw himself fully into Indian life, even receiving a rather dodgy haircut from an Indian barber.
He credits his team mates for making his spell in India so easy. ‘It was a big plus to have moral support from a lot of the key members of the squad. This is something that can be rare being a player in a foreign country.’ Though he was fully settled in the country, tensions rose with the Dempa manager and Ricketts contract was mutually terminated. Luckily, he received an immediate offer from a club in Ecuador.
Having played in various countries by now, Ricketts finds settling in easy. ‘I adapted quickly and learnt the lingo, which only sped up the settling in process and helped me get the most out of my latest football adventure.’ That’s exactly what these spells abroad are for Ricketts – an adventure. Playing for all these different teams has been a way to explore the world for him, and with each move, acclimatising became easier. His spells at clubs haven’t always been successful on the pitch, but off the pitch is another matter.
Swift acclimatisation in Toronto led to a contract with ESPN, and a new family. In India, Ricketts helped out with various charities. This served him well, as he gained team-mates respect for coming to their country and giving something back. It’s early days in Ecuador, but Ricketts looks to be settling in well, with impressive performances on the pitch.
It’s clear then that footballers go abroad for varying reasons – be it money, the wish to explore a new culture, or just the style of play in a country. But to be successful, they must acclimatise and adapt to their new surroundings. Eckersley did it in Denmark, and he’s currently going into his seventh year in the country. Ricketts has done it wherever he’s gone, and received appreciation from his team-mates for making the effort. Learning the language is vital, as is an appreciation for the culture of a country. But to really be a success, you have to want it. Lloyd-Weston’s spell in Greece may not have been the best on the pitch, but he says he wouldn’t change a thing, and would do it all over again. In his words: ‘have an open mind, find someone you can trust, and other than that, enjoy it.’
* Rohan Ricketts quotes taken from his website, found here http://www.rohanricketts.com