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Monday, October 11, 1999 Published at 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK

Sport: Football

Too dim to win?

Would David Beckham be even better with a PhD?

England may have invented the game of football, produced great players like Stanley Mathews and Bobby Charlton, and even won the World Cup, but all that was a long time ago.

Since 1966, the UK's national sides have not exactly been showered with trophies.

The Today programme's Mike Thomson: Are England too dim to win?
What has gone wrong? There has never been a shortage of suggestions put forward to explain the decline and now there is a new one - the idea that many of our players haven't got what it takes between the ears.

To put it another way, they are not educated enough to cope with the complex tactical and creative demands of the modern game.

[ image: Jan Molby: fluent in four languages]
Jan Molby: fluent in four languages
Jan Molby, formerly of Liverpool, Ajax and Denmark, is one who believes British footballers do not spend enough time in the classroom.

"I'm not saying they are all thick, but if you judge them against their European counterparts, you'd have to say that the majority of the continental players are better educated."

In Euro 96, England were beaten by Germany. Several members of the German squad possess the equivalent of A-levels and one is currently studying for a business degree.

The best the English players can boast is one City and Guilds qualification and a BTech in Leisure and Tourism.

It is certainly true that most professional soccer players have very few qualifications.

A whole different ball game

Professor Stuart Biddle, a sports pyschologist at Loughborough University, told BBC News Online: "The critical fact is that 99.9% of professional footballers get sucked into the game very early - therefore their exposure to higher education is minimal."

Professor Biddle contrasts soccer to other sports such as rugby union and athletics.

Rugby union is traditionally a more middle-class game than football and many top players have been to university - often Oxford and Cambridge.

That was particularly the case in the game's amateur days and might change under the impact of professionalism, with players needing to maximise their earnings while in their prime.

[ image: Paula Radcliffe: first class degree, first class athlete]
Paula Radcliffe: first class degree, first class athlete
Athletics in the UK has also been able to combine top class performances with academic achievement.

Professor Biddle points out that Seb Coe set many of his world records before graduating from Loughborough, and leading long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe gained a first-class degree there while competing at the highest level.

Education scheme

One way the football authorities are trying to address the situation is by getting young players to continue with their education.

Clubs often run their own schemes and a £20m scholarship programme run by the Football Education Society is being introduced. This means that all 16- to 19 year-old players are to study at college for 10 hours a week.

West Ham manager Harry Redknapp, however, believes that the principle is "absolute nonsense" and that the most intelligent players he has come across have been as bright as anyone else.

"Most of the best players don't want to go to college once a week. They want to be playing football and practicing football," he argues.

American graduates

But even if all young British soccer players go to their classes, they would appear to be well behind their counterparts in American football.

In this sport, almost every player goes to university before turning professional. Most do so on sporting scholarships, but they are all obliged to attend classes and reach certain grades or risk being kicked out.

[ image: Atlanta's Tim Dwight, sports management graduate]
Atlanta's Tim Dwight, sports management graduate
By the time they reach the National Football League, 30% have gained degrees and more do so during their professional careers.

The NFL actively encourage those who have not graduated to go back to college in the off-season to complete their degrees.

One who did so recently was San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ken Norton Jr, son of the former world heavyweight boxing champion, who returned to the University of California, Los Angeles, to complete his sociology degree.

As well as their undergraduate studies, some players, such as Dallas center Mark Stepnoski, continue with post-graduate qualifications. This would be unthinkable in soccer, though the longer season has got much to do with it.

Analytical reasoning

One particular factor in American football might be that underneath its intense violence, it is a sport which requires careful planning and frequent decision-making.

With its stop-start nature, these are not just instant reaction decisions, but ones which require analysis and the ability to choose from a number of options. What is more, every member of the team needs to reach the same conclusion for a play to be successful.

In his book The New Thinking Man's Guide To Pro Football, Paul Zimmerman observes that many scouts give college players IQ tests.

Those who grade highest are generally offensive linemen and quarterbacks. These are the players who need to make the most complex adjustments when presented with the defense's formation and initial actions.

Such decisions are relatively rare in soccer, and being educated or intelligent might therefore be less important to success.

Zimmerman, who attended college himself on a football scholarship, is in any case sceptical about the benefits of the education many players appear to receive.

"I've seen more knowledge and street wisdom from the 'uneducated' players than I have from doctors and lawyers," he told BBC News Online, "If someone scores highly in an IQ test it might just mean that they are good at tests."

'Phoney courses'

Zimmerman, who is one of the leading writers for Sports Illustrated, America's top sports magazine, says it is important to look at what football players study.

"When I was at Stanford, I took Football Methods, Basketball Methods, Baseball Methods, Golf Methods and Fly Casting. When I transfered to another college they took one look and made me re-take a year!" he said.

Such "easy" courses are still around. One controversial example came last year when it was revealed that Andy Katzenmoyer, now of the New England Patriots, had been forced to take extra summer courses to maintain his eligibility at Ohio State.

His choices? Aids awareness, music and golf. That type of course can have only a limited impact on a player's abilities - except perhaps the latter over 18 holes at Brookline, where in any case etiquette might be an even more appropriate.

So, could it be useful for soccer players to emulate American footballers and study for degrees? Could a smattering of education make the difference next time England face Germany in a penalty shoot-out?

Zimmerman doubts it from the experience of many US players: "I suppose something might have penetrated and they may have sat in a college classroom - but that's not the same as being educated."

The Football Education Society should, perhaps, take note of his words before deciding exactly what future England internationals should study.

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