Jann-Fiete Arp found it flattering when football’s biggest clubs expressed interest in steering his promising football – and life, in turn – towards their imposing arenas and multi-million dollar deals. The 17-year-old German striker, however, reckoned it was a logical decision to stay on at Hamburg — where he could ensure continuity in amongst other things, his education.
17 is when great names in football burst onto the world scene. Elias Abouchabaka, the Moroccon-origin German team-mate of Arp is considered the example to follow for his team. The talented midfielder leads the way in completing his high schools certificate alongside recording an astounding transfer fee of 250,000 Euros at 15 (from Hertha Berlin to RB Leipzig) , and will return home from the U-17 World Cup to scout for a University.
The multi-cultural German team is yet to take off on the field and might be several years away from expressing themselves as charismatically as Paul Breitner, but they aren’t ignoring their books. The German rookies arrived in India with two teachers — one for language, another for Math and Science, and had transformed one of the boardrooms at their Goa hotel into a classroom where they would split into batches of 10 each and sit for 2-hour-long classes daily to keep up with their lessons.
The teachers would return home at the end of the group stage, but the German federation had made it amply clear that they were not simply raising a factory of footballers to fill up the shoes of the World Cup-winning seniors, but were more interested in well-rounded personalities who would not be left in the lurch, should their professional careers not take off.
France ran riot in Guwahati with a staggering 14 goals. That’s in between keeping up with classwork. Anthony Muenier travelled to Assam as the team’s ‘scholar accompanist’. “We have one scholar/educational goal for each player: to pass an exam before leaving their studies. It’s important in case of injuries or if they can’t be professional players,” Muenier says.
The French federation had kept an eye on what became of their Class of 2001, that became U-17 champs that year. While some would further put themselves on the brink of international stardom by winning the 2004 U-21 title, only one would go onto making the reserves of the French senior team. Even Mourad Meghni – dubbed petit Zidane – would struggle to crack the senior XI and turn out for Algeria.
“We still analyse the U17 champions in 2001. We notice that lot of them never had the chance to play at professional level. The way to be professional is long and hard, sometimes too hard, so they have to ensure their future outside of the professional football world,” Muenier stresses.
So Muenier stays in touch with all the club academies before every tournament, and they send him homework and tests. During the tournament, the head coach allows this tutor one hour per day for school.
“Sometimes, we are working on team building too. It’s important to know players and how they feel. When I see that players are no longer focused, I stop the lessons. So sometimes they can work one hour and sometimes they can’t focus more than 40 minutes. I adapt the duration, but ask players to keep their laptops in their room. I don’t impose the lessons, it’s their responsibility, but they have to respect a few rules,” he says.
Similarly, instructors accompany every U-16, U-17 and U-18 men and women teams. Muenier been with the millennials for the last two years in France and abroad, and says, “We want to drive the players three ways: to become professional football players, to pass an exam, and to be a ‘good person’. It’s important for them because some of them will not be professional.”
While the most followed team, Brazil, has no tutor accompanying them among the 17-strong support staff, others like Chile have wrapped up tests before they embarked on the World Cup, their academics rated upto the point they left home. Football has had its share of smarties. From Dr Socrates to Frank Lampard’s Mensa score (he had 11 As in GCSEs at school), from Glen Johnson’s tripping on Math to Juan Mata’s assertion: “I don’t think football and academics are mutually exclusive. I’m focussed on my career, but I have other interests like studying.”
For India, both the professional preparation for football and studies — have been novel experiences. “They did not have a tutor during the tournament. But they had teachers at the camp for various subjects. It’s been on since these kids were picked up for the camp in Goa. They were given off-days to give exams,” says Abhishek Yadav, COO of the U-17 team.
“We couldn’t ignore education, so tried to balance it as much as we could. There were teachers at the camp unless we travelled abroad. We wanted to develop personalities and not just footballers. Without education, that wasn’t possible,” he added.
India has long blamed the over-emphasis on academics for its pitiable support for young athletes. However, one cursory glance at the big teams here points to the reality – both academics and sport can co-exist if those in charge insist on the twin development.
“In Germany, you can’t be out of the school system till 19. Even our Olympic gold medallists in other sports study alongside training,” explains media manager Ronny Zimmermann.
It’s perhaps the most pragmatic call to take, given these are teenagers for whom this early fame could easily disappear in a matter of seasons. New Zealand considered themselves lucky to have qualified for the U-17 World Cup and are aware of how things might pan out in the future.
“We’ve got to be realistic about the chances of our players getting to the highest level, maybe one or two players will make it. So education becomes important for a back-up option,” says coach Danny Hay, also a qualified teacher. The boys have their Level 2 and 3 exams on their return home. “We have a small budget so there was no money to get a tutor along with the team,” Hay says though.
Emphasis on player education
Players from teams such as Mali and Paraguay have been told the importance of education, and quite a few packed books alongside their gear when setting out for India. There’s reportedly a sharp increase in the number of school dropouts among young English footballers with kids vacating classrooms to pursue a professional football career. However, England U-17s team Education and Welfare Officer, Kevin Batchelor, stressed that the FA is putting emphasis on the young players’ education.
“The work they do is set by their club or school depending on their age. In the U-17 team during this last season, the players have had a mixture of subjects and syllabuses to cover – including GCSE, A/S Level, BTEC level 3 in Sport, Functional Skills and NVQ. Each daily session will be in groups of 10 or less and will last 1 hour minimum,” he informs.
During the European U-17 championship, three boys sat their GCSE exams in Croatia and two boys sat A/S Levels.
These boys did three hours of education revision per day except on match days. In Bulgaria in 2015, 47 exams were taken by 11 players with one boy taking 11 exams during the tournament.
This is similar to the England U-19 cricket team’s ‘Dual Aspirations’, wherein the players have fixed times to do their homework and studies while on tour. “It is the same in principle with education timetabled into our schedule in the morning and training in the afternoon. This has been consistent all season for this group,” Batchelor says.
Best to tag books with balls, should dribbles need the back-up of degrees.