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Can the Continental System Work in England?

FC Barcelona celebrate winning the Champions League.There’s an entertaining mini-history to be written (by someone else; I just track down links) of the resolutely British prejudice against the football management structure called “the continental system”—which sounds, first of all, like a euphemistic torture device from an Ian Fleming novel, and second of all like what James Bond would have tried with Anya Amasova a few minutes after he escaped it. For those of you who didn’t get to experience it on your school trip to Paris, “the continental system” is the nom de xenophobia pundits have assigned to the familiar corporate hierarchy that installs a “director of football” or a “sporting director” between the manager and the board. This executive-looking character gets control over some combination of finances, transfers and scouting while the manager is freed/forced to focus mainly on the team on the pitch. It’s the system utilized by most of the most successful teams in Europe, but for a large section of English fans and media, there’s something disturbingly un-English about it.

What’s un-English about it is that, so far, English teams that have tried it haven’t managed to make it work. After the high-profile flameouts it’s suffered (try a Google search for “Comolli” and “Tottenham Hotspur F.C.”, though Harry Redknapp can tell you the problem isn’t limited to Tottenham), it’s easy to understand why fans wouldn’t be rushing to embrace it. Its style is a problem as well. It draws attention to the indoor, men-in-ties, board-politics side of the club and thus does nothing for the romantic view of the game. Also, since it takes power away from the person we see on the pitch every week and gives it to some sinister Frenchman with oil-casket hair sitting cloaked in shadow in the darkest part of the stands, I think it makes us feel like the club is less in our hands. One way or another, the manager is usually an imaginary proxy for the supporters, and having a sporting director can’t help but make a team seem less accessible and more assassination-prone and mysterious.

But the idea that the system “doesn’t work”, as we sometimes hear, is just the slightest bit hysterical given that this is the structure favored by Barcelona, Juventus, Milan, Real Madrid, and nearly every other footballing superpower outside England. The idea that it “can’t work in England” due to some mysterious combination of the national temperament and The Way Things Have Always Been isn’t much better. We’ve been hearing this forever, and it’s never made any sense. Fortress built by Nature though it is, there’s nothing specific about England that makes it uniquely resistant to forms of corporate governance that have been perfectly satisfactory elsewhere. Sure, there’s a tradition of powerful managers in England. There was a tradition of riding horses, too, before the railroads rolled out.

What the continental system requires is employees who are able to cooperate and egos that can be kept in check. The intangible complexities of relationships and the self-regard of powerful men make this a difficult goal to reach, and certainly a difficult one to sustain over a long period of time. Having clearly defined areas of authority and processes for negotiating disagreements can help in this regard. When this works, it means managers can spend all their time and energy on the team and trust that the number-crunching and negotiating will be handled by sporting directors. But what we’ve seen in England is the appointment of incompatible personalities with vague, overlapping responsibilities and no means of resolving differences but to resort to the kind of trust-destroying no-prisoners boardroom warfare that finally drove Jol out of Tottenham. We’ve also seen the appointment of more or less incompetent sporting directors whose lack of accountability has made them seem to have an unfair amount of power over their betters. But just because this is what we have seen, obviously, doesn’t mean that this is how the system has to work. That this is even an open question, as it is on SoccerLens today, tells us something about the way the system has struggled in England, but also something about the limitations of the current debate.

In many ways, personally, I prefer the transparency and glamour of the old strong-manager scheme, and I respect the argument that the continental system represents the triumph of the corporate mindset over the creative side of the game. But there’s no sense saying it doesn’t work when it so often clearly does work. And there’s no sense saying that it couldn’t work in England when there’s obviously no reason it couldn’t. Its failures at Tottenham and elsewhere have been failures of execution.

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Can the Continental System Work in England?

by Brian Phillips · November 1, 2007

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