An array of former international footballers such as Youri Djorkaeff, Maxwell and Luis García have graduated from UEFA's Executive Master for International Players (MIP) programme, a course which is aimed at giving former footballers the professional skills needed to transition into a second career.
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Almost two years of hard work has paid dividends for a group of former elite footballers, with the likes of Gilberto Silva, Dimitris Papadopoulos and Patrick Mboma being recognised for their exploits in the classroom rather than on the football pitch.
The trio were among 21 former international footballers to have graduated from the UEFA Executive Master for International Players (MIP) programme.
"It was difficult because we're not used to it, "said former Celtic, Aston Villa and Bulgaria midfielder Stiliyan Petrov. "When we were younger we used to go to school as part of our education and development, but when we finish football, we are at a crossroads with what to do next, how we can stay in football. Some of us decided to take this path.
"It's hard, it's been a long two years but today is graduation day and we're very satisfied. We worked very hard as a group, very hard as individuals and we are looking forward and are eager to move forward and stay in football in different capacities."
'This course taught me a lot'
Since their induction on the course two years ago, the former players have undertaken seven week-long sessions staged in major global cities. To provide them with a comprehensive overview, each session examined a different aspect of the administration and governance of a football organisation. In addition, players not already working within a sports body had to complete a three-month work placement to ensure they had hands-on, day-to-day experience upon their graduation.
Dmitry Bulykin, the former Russia international who had spells playing in Germany and the Netherlands and is now working as a presidential adviser at Lokomotiv Moskva, said the course gave him an excellent insight into life off the pitch and has been of significant value in his current role.
"It's been a huge help," Bulykin admitted. "I began to understand many aspects of the club's management, how the club is structured and its budget. During the course, we looked at and compared the budgets of Barcelona, Real [Madrid] and Arsenal. That then helps you to understand what it really means to be given a budget at a club. You can start to look at it, evaluate it and make a preliminary analysis of it.
"The course taught me a lot; it helps you to begin to understand various aspects of football, not just on the pitch, but also in terms of sports management."
'First-hand experience is crucial'
The modules on the course are designed to give ex-pros a broad range of skills recognised as essential to succeeding in a second career. For example, students will study the role and the skillset needed in order to take up a managerial position; strategic marketing and communication; and stadium and on-site operational management. Participants also get an insight into North America's model of league and club operations.
Former Germany international Annike Krahn believes the UEFA MIP programme gives ex-players an excellent education about important facets of the game and is also adamant that football players, both male and female, must be involved in the decision-making process of the sport.
"Every female footballer that has enjoyed playing and wants to stay in the field should seek to take on a demanding position within the women's football framework because I don't think anyone knows it better than those who had first-hand experience of the system itself," Krahn explained.
"It will most certainly help women's football to advance, if former female footballers are taking up leading roles."
'I am a lot more strategic in my thinking'
Former Birmingham City defender Michael Johnson has had an eventful couple of years since joining the MIP programme. In 2018 he was appointed the head coach of Guyana, where he helped a country with a population of 800,000 people reach the finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time in their history.
Following his success with Guyana he took up a role as a coach to England's Under-21 side and Johnson says the MIP course gave him the confidence to be more strategic in his thinking, which has allowed him to be more influential when speaking to senior administrators within footballing organisations.
"I am more strategic now in my thinking and about how I get influence in the boardroom," Johnson said. "Whereas before I was just a coach on the pitch, now I am having conversations with leaders, such as the chairman or chief executive, about how you build a strategy and what is our vision and how I try to build this going forward."
'You need to be able to overcome mistakes'
The main aim of the MIP programme is to equip top international players with the tools required to transfer their playing strengths into effective management skills that will also benefit football.
Graduates of the UEFA MIP receive a master of advanced studies delivered by the CDES at the University of Limoges, France, in collaboration with the Birkbeck College at the University of London. The programme is organised in partnership with the European Club Association and FIFPro.
Former Spanish midfielder Gaizka Mendieta has already had a successful start to his second career; he runs a successful restaurant business in London, while in his free time he is a DJ.
However, even despite that success, Mendieta is delighted that the MIP programme has taught him valuable new skills which will help him to continue to develop.
“MIP helps us a lot in terms of recognising situations we've been into for 15 or 20 years throughout our careers and that can be applied in the labour market, both in and out of the football industry," said Mendieta.
"That's leadership, teamwork, sacrifice – having determination, and being able to overcome mistakes. That's very important and something people need years to learn. But we learnt all this just because we played [football]. MIP helps you understand that you've got all this inside you, as well as how to bring it out and make use of it."
'I want to set an example'
Thirty players are now starting out their journeys on the UEFA MIP programme, including Didier Drogba, Kaká and Gerardo Torrado. Former Brazil goalkeeper Júlio César, a 2010 UEFA Champions League winner with Internazionale, has also joined the course following a recommendation from his former team-mate for both club and country, Maxwell, although he also has another reason for wanting to resume his studies.
"I have a son who is 17 years old, and my daughter is 13, so I would like to be an example for them as well," he explained. "They know their dad has a nice history as a player but now after football you have many doubts in your mind; it's terrifying to one day be at home just watching TV on the sofa. I don't want to do that, I want to set an example for my kids, so that's also the reason I choose to do this programme."