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Who first coined the phrase “The Beautiful Game” (from the Portuguese ‘O Jogo Bonito’), is disputed, but it is clear it was the legendary Pelé who linked it to football. It’s a phrase known across the world, just like the sport itself: football. But it is definitely more than a ‘game’: it’s an international business. So much so it led to the creation in 2016 of the International Football Business Institute (IFBI), based in Brussels, in partnership with the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). IFBI offers a year’s study course (60 ECTS) in Football Business, with an international postgraduate VUB certificate at the end.
When chatting to one of the lecturers – over 90 lecturers are brought in from across the industry - Steven Sweeney, who is Community Operations Manager at Aberdeen FC Community Trust, it’s clear there’s an added dimension to the sport that elicits quite a following. There’s passion involved. The same holds true for those who want to make a career in football off the pitch: “There is a clear gap in people’s business skills within the football industry”, Sweeney adds. A course like this is not a normal business course. It adds in all the specifics from the sector.
Simon Van Kerckhoven is CEO of IFBI and explains that although similar types of courses have since cropped up, there is an inherent but significant difference: most of those courses are online and if not, they are aimed at people already in the industry (e.g. former players, coaches, etc.). This course is still fairly unique, as it is open to anyone with a passion for football, who wants to have a career in the football business, and who already holds a Bachelor or Master. The profiles of those who have so far attended the course is far-ranging, but football connects them all: law, civil engineering, business administration, renewable energy, IT, marketing. On top of that, it includes 3 trimesters packed with lectures, but also 6 tours across the year, where students are taken to some of the biggest clubs across Europe, attend conferences, visit stadiums and of course, go to matches. One of the most invaluable assets, however, is the network you get. (continue reading below the picture)
The football industry is tough for outsiders to get into – it is heavily based on the contacts you have. A course like this makes all the difference. The students not only get tailor-made classes from the best lecturers in the business, and the 6 experience tours, but they also get perks like a tailored IFBI suit, a free city transport pass, and breakfast and lunch at the IFBI where all the classes take place. But it is the network they’ll acquire throughout that year’s study, which will prove priceless. The students – and lecturers – all get each other’s contact details. One of last year’s students approached Steven for an internship opportunity at Aberdeen FC Community Trust. The fact Steven knew him as a student in the IFBI course, made it a no-brainer. It is clearly a set-up that benefits all those involved, and not just the students.
The students themselves come from every corner of the planet. This year they are from Belgium, New Zealand, India, Bulgaria and Jordan. Those who have expressed interest in studying next year so far are from India, Bahrain, Lebanon and Jamaica. None of them so far are women though. Simon says that based on their current outreach, the majority of those who show interest in the course are men. Although, the media attention for women’s football has increased. And certainly, there are more women working in the business itself, but it is still very much skewed towards men. Raising awareness among secondary schools, like the STEM studies do, to encourage girls to look at often perceived male-dominated studies, is one way to go. There’s definitely still work to be done in that regard. (continue reading below picture)
So, what about those first graduates? Where are they now? 11 graduated last year from IFBI’s course, and some have certainly started to make their way in the football business, with one graduate now working for the European Professional Football Leagues in Switzerland, another completed a 6 months’ paid internship with the Bundesliga, another works with the Sports Authority of India, while yet another one is a sports producer and journalist with Hotstar (an Indian digital and mobile entertainment platform). Not bad going for the first year.
When pursuing a career in the football industry, one thing is clear: you must be internationally mobile. This is something two of the current students are acutely aware off. Philippe and Gauthier (both Belgian) started the course after having completed their Master’s degree in respectively Economics and Law. They wanted to follow their passion and realised that although their MAs would get them into the business world, getting into the football industry was a different kettle of fish. They are both adamant they want to get the international exposure. They are already getting a taster of that within their own student group which they both say is a hugely enriching experience, and by being in this international mix, they are also building their own network separate from the one they will have through the IFBI lecturers and platform. Both Philippe and Gauthier are unsure about what will come when they obtain their certificates – there are a lot of options in terms of careers that have become clear to them through the course, but they’re both already proactively reaching out to the lecturers to see about internships and placements, so they are certainly not idle.
This isn’t the VUB’s first foray into the world of football. Double Pass, a VUB spin-off company, was founded in 2004 and has quickly become the international reference for talent development in sports and football in particular. Today, some 60 people work there and are active across the world. Double Pass helps clubs, federations, and leagues optimise their youth academies and their player potential. It’s not for nothing that all this is happening in Belgium. After all, the country currently has one of its best (if not the best) national football team, and ranks 5th in the FIFA world rankings!
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