If one follows the pattern of player movement, specifically the movement of non-European players to Europe, a pattern begins to emerge. Players tend to gravitate to certain countries and leagues based not only on their style of play and level of ability, but their cultural background too. Footballers can then enjoying a ‘bedding-in’ period to life in Europe, in a place that is not so dissimilar from home as to promote homesickness.
This is especially the case in South America, where nurturing talented players and selling them on helps to balance the books at many clubs. There are a huge number of South American footballers around the world, many of whom are based in Europe. And although the most talented will have moved straight to historically big or nouveau-riche clubs and leagues for exorbitant fees, most have to consider their initial destination in Europe in more than just footballing and financial terms.
What is the quality of life going to be like? Is there a significant difference in cultural customs? One must remember that performance on the pitch (or a lack of it) can so often be attributed to more than just the skill and form of the player or the opponent. If a player is settled and comfortable with the food, culture and lifestyle on offer in his new home town, he is more likely to be able to turn out performances that fully showcase his abilities.
An example of this can be found by looking at a few English Premier League clubs such as Liverpool and Arsenal. There is a decent South American contingent on the red half of Merseyside, consisting of two Brazilians and two Uruguayans. Brazilians Lucas Leiva and Phillipe Coutinho both speak decent Spanish, and a further three Spaniards give Liverpool a collection of seven Spanish speaking players.
This means that while players from South America (or Spain) are adjusting to life in the Premier League, they can seek out there teammates for help, with language, culinary and social questions.
This effect can also be seen at Arsenal, although with European based players. A huge French contingent of six players no doubt helps players from across the English Channel to settle into life in London, and there is also a growing German presence at the Gunners that now consists of four players.
A similar situation has emerged recently at Newcastle United with ten Frenchmen now part of the first team squad. Though Arsenal and Newcastle lack a South American flavour, one can see a pattern forming.
These examples include relatively small groups of a few players at one club, but what about a league wide penchant for players from one country or region?
There are more Algerian players within Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 in France than anywhere else in Europe. There are 38 players from Senegal in France’s top two divisions, with a further 23 in Belgium’s top two tiers. No other countries in Europe reach 20 professional Senegalese players in total. France again scores high with 22 Ivoirians plying their trade in the two highest leagues.
So you can see the connection between African players and their prevalence in France. The language, food and music in many parts of France are similar to those in their home towns in Africa, allowing them to feel a degree of normality as they adjust to new homes and different routines.
But by far the biggest lover of foreigners in Europe’s top flights is the Portuguese league. There are an astonishing number of players turning out for Portuguese sides, with 178 Brazilians alone in the top two divisions. This number doesn’t include players who are contracted to Portuguese clubs who are on loan elsewhere.
SL Benfica have six players in their first team squad who are Brazilian, while Lisbon rivals Sporting have five in their ranks. FC Porto have eight, and each club has more in their reserve teams.
So why do Brazilian footballers flock to Portugal? Historical colonial ties exist between the two nations, leaving an imprint in daily Brazilian life that makes Portugal an attractive destination.
Portuguese is spoken by almost every Brazilian, and speaking the native tongue gives players one less thing to worry about when arriving in a country for the first time. Though there may be subtle differences in accents and dialects, players can communicate clearly with teammates and locals straight away.
Food, weather and lifestyle in Portugal all bear a significant resemblance to that of Brazil, increasing the comfort level of a new signing. There is also the allure of top level European football via the Champions League, as well as the Europa League.
Brazilian players use Portugal as a way to adapt and adjust to life in Europe, embracing the new differences they are presented with while finding solace in the comforts of home. For the players who succeed, big money moves to huge clubs await.
So what about Australian footballers? Which of the European leagues can play the same role for our players as the Portuguese league does for the Brazilians?
England may appear the natural choice but I argue that with the UK player development system being continually changed and remodelled, it is a volatile environment. Not many Australia players are able to come through the lower leagues to star in the Premier League. While Stan Lazaridis, Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill have done, times are changing and Mile Jedinak is the only Australian who is currently getting regular game time in the Premier League.
There is also a greater emphasis on results than there ever has been in the English game, meaning that clubs will spend money to bring in big name players, restricting the opportunities for many of the Aussies within the English football pyramid. There are many young players who are stuck in reserve sides at big clubs for too long and don’t get the chance to play first team football. Equally there are a significant amount who struggle to get noticed playing in the lower leagues.
But moving to Europe to play professional football is about so much more than which league is the strongest or where the player can get consistent minutes. So I propose that more Australian footballers should follow the lead of Dario Vidosic and Oliver Bozanic in heading to the Alps. Switzerland may just be the little slice of Australia that European football has to offer us.
Life off the pitch in Switzerland is not so different to that here in Australia, especially in culinary terms. The standard Swiss diet is quite comparable to that of the average Australian and there is a vast range of restaurants and cafes located throughout the country, especially during the winter as Christmas markets begin to pop up in town centres. There is no great difference between the two countries in terms of food culture.
Whilst language may appear to be a barrier English is widely spoken and understood throughout Switzerland. The predominant languages (German, 63.7% and French, 20.4%) are also both taught in Australian schools, and are considered to be rather easy to learn. The ability to speak either or both of these two languages can help players move to the higher profile leagues of France and Germany. Indeed Paul Agostino’s time at BSC Young Boys where he grasped German was a factor in his transfer to 1860 Munchen.
Australian players are held in high regard in Switzerland due to Vidosic’s and Bozanic’s impressive performances since their arrivals, as well as those players who have gone before them. Scott Chipperfield, Aurelio Vidmar, Ljubo Milicevic, Mile Sterjovski, Joel Griffiths and the aforementioned Agostino all spent time in the Swiss top flight.
And drawing on the experience of a player who has played in the league is something that Dario Vidosic did before completing his transfer to FC Sion, as he explained in an interview last year:
“When there was a request, I talked to Aurelio Vidmar (Assistant Coach of the Socceroos). He won the Cup with Sion in 1996 and could only tell me positive things. It was an easy decision for me. If you get a chance like this, you have to grab it.”
Vidmar enjoyed success with Vidosic’s new team Sion, while Milicevic captained both FC Thun and BSC Young Boys. Sterjovski was a league winner with FC Basel, and Chipperfield is the all time record holder for titles at the club, having won seven league titles and six domestic cups in his time there. Australians have a track record of collecting silverware in Swiss football.
Bozanic’s FC Luzern side are also in with a shot at the title this season, sitting just one point behind leaders Basel as games resume after the winter break. The former Olyroos captain has been integral to this success, operating as a number ten in a 4-2-3-1 formation and grabbing five goals to currently be the club’s equal top scorer. His second strike against FC Zurich in July was scored from the most remarkable of angles (watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HXZWBJ0PuA#t=148).
Bozanic spoke of about his new found attacking freedom in an interview with the Guardian in November:
“When I played at the Mariners, I was more defensive last season, a defensive holding position, and now I’m more attacking, as a number 10 or a number 8, so I’m already more forward in the game and can get into the box and have opportunities to score.”
Although Sion have been struggling this term, Vidosic has distinguished himself with his performances. He is currently leading the club’s scoring charts with four goals as well as three assists, operating as a playmaker in a similar way to Bozanic.
The top two sides in Switzerland enter the Champions League qualifying rounds, and those in positions three through five enter the Europa League qualifiers. This means that there is a big chance for Aussies playing in Switzerland to experience European competition and put themselves in the shop window. Bozanic echoed this sentiment when speaking to the Guardian:
“It’s a good league to be in and there are lots of opportunities to play in the Europa or the Champions Leagues if you play well. It’s a great opportunity to be playing here.”
The list of players from the Swiss league who have gone on to play in higher profile leagues is an impressive one. Stephan Lichtsteiner, Blerim Dzemaili, and Gokhan Inler are in Serie A, and played in the Champions League group stages this season.
Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Ricardo Rodriguez, Diego Benaglio and Eren Derdiyok are all playing in the Bundesliga this season, and all for clubs currently in the top five. Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah has also earned himself a move to Chelsea with his performances for Basel.
The ability to play football in a country that has a track record of Australians doing well, and also many players moving on to more glamorous leagues is something that can’t be ignored. Add in the fact that half the league qualifies for European competition and the similarities culturally, and you have somewhere that could become the newest gateway for Australian footballers in their European careers.
Although the Aussie contingent in Switzerland may only be two strong at present, Vidosic and Bozanic could be joined by other Australians looking to make their mark on the European stage. And Switzerland may just be the perfect place to do that.