Off the Ball

Football’s dedicated scholars

Socrates of Brazil
© Getty Images

The world of football is not always associated with high-brow academia, and many supporters would struggle to believe any of their star players could dedicate time to education while they are achieving such remarkable results on the football pitch.

However, there is a long, unheralded association between education and football which stretches back decades. Indeed, many of today’s stars continue their education alongside their playing career in spite of the modern game’s astronomical wages which would seem to negate the need for a second career after retirement. FIFA.comtakes a look at some of the standout scholars in the footballing world.

The English Premier League has a number of individuals who have completed further study during their playing careers. When Belgium goalkeeper Simon Mignolet first arrived in England, one of the main topics during the transfer negotiations for his move to Sunderland was not his wage, or a car to accompany his contract – he wanted to know where he could complete his degree in political science.

“When I started playing, my parents told me to go to university,” Mignolet, who speaks five languages, told the Daily Mail. “They just said choose wisely and find something you can combine with training. It was to have something behind me in case something went wrong.”

His team-mate at Liverpool, Glen Johnson, had similar foresight. He revealed in 2012 he spent two hours a day studying for a degree in mathematics. Another resident of the north-west of England, Manchester United’s Juan Mata, has gone one better than Johnson, studying for two degrees - one in marketing and one in sports science.

“It’s difficult but not impossible,” Mata responded when asked by FIFA.comlast year how he managed to combine studying and playing. “I like the world of marketing, publicity and new technology,” he continued. “There’s no reason why playing football can’t be compatible with those things.”

United’s city rivals are managed by a man nicknamed *El Ingeniero *(‘the engineer’), with Manuel Pellegrini building a side capable of challenging for the Premier League title once again. The nickname comes from his status as a fully-qualified Civil Engineer, a degree he obtained while a professional player. He worked in the field after retiring from his playing career before he took up coaching.

Other coaches in the English top flight with academic experience include Arsene Wenger, who graduated with a 2:1 in economics while playing for French side Mulhouse, and Roberto Martinez, who is a qualified physiotherapist, having attained a degree in the subject during his playing days at Real Zaragoza. It is fitting that Martinez now finds himself at Everton, one of the club’s monikers is ‘The School of Science’.

Fellow Spaniard Andres Iniesta is also a student of biology, studying sports science at university. The FIFA World Cup™ winner has expressed his desire to take charge of the wineries he owns with his family. Honourable mentions for scholarly modern day players also go to Sporting Kansas City’sAurelien Collinwhostarted an online degree in fashion design, and Armenia’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who began studying economics while at Shakhtar Donetsk.

“I’m studying because I feel like it’s important to keep learning throughout life,” Mkhitaryan told FourFourTwo magazine.

When I started playing, my parents told me to go to university. It was to have something behind me in case something went wrong

One player no longer with us, but who continued learning throughout his life and is regarded as one of the most famous footballing scholars is Socrates, the Brazilian midfield maestro who earned a doctorate in medicine. ‘Doctor Socrates’ refused to play football professionally until he completed his studies aged 25, and practised medicine in the Brazilian town of Ribeirao Preto when he retired in 1989.

“I got to meet people who suffered a lot and also those on the other side of society, who had everything,” Socrates told the BBC of his time as a doctor. “I could see both sides of the society we live in.”

A similar story is that of Celtic defender Jim Craig, who arrived at the Bhoys on amateur terms due to studying dentistry at Glasgow University. After finishing his studies, he turned professional and went on to lift the European Cup in 1967.

Like Socrates, there are a number of footballers across the Latin world who furthered their education while playing, and a pair of pairs made an impact at their respective clubs and came out with qualifications to boot. Carlos Bilardoand Raul Madero were key players in the Estudiantes (fittingly translated into English as ‘students’) sides that won three Copa Libertadores in a row in the late 1960s and both became doctors. Bilardo went on to coach Argentina to consecutive World Cup Finals (1986 and 1990), winning the first while Madero is now part of the FIFA Medical Committee, having helped his former team-mate as Argentina’s doctor during the aforementioned World Cups.

Two of the famed Quinta del Buitre at Real Madrid, Emilio Butragueno and Manuel Sanchis both graduated with degrees in economics and went on to get Masters degrees; Butragueno in Sports Management and Sanchis in International Business.

A player from a previous Los Blancos era, Jose Martinez Sanchez, known as Pirri, won ten league titles with Real between 1964 and 1980 before going on to become a doctor, working as part of the team’s medical staff in the 1980s.

Across the border in Portugal, club side Academica based in Coimbra, which is home to one of the oldest universities in the world (established in 1290), had sides made up entirely of players who were students at the local university. This tradition lasted up until the mid-1970s, but the club still retain the nickname of *Estudantes *(‘students’) and their main pool of supporters to this day are students at the University of Coimbra.

It is not just the men’s game that is restricted to studious individuals. Eniola Aluko took a History ‘A-Level’ exam on the morning of England’s 2005 UEFA Women’s EURO group game against Denmark. The then-18-year-old Aluko started the game on the bench and came on in the second half.

“I would never downgrade my education, because education is always going to be a foundation for me,” Aluko told the *BBC. *“But football is my passion, my choice and way of life.”

Football is indeed a way of life for so many and, with initiatives like generation adidas hoping to nurture elite young talent by helping them continue their USA college education if their professional career does not pan out, perhaps we could see future generations following in the footsteps of Socrates, Mata, Butragueno and co as true football scholars.

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