Insights & Stories Interview with Heinz Moser
There are many with talent but only a few make it right to the top. Heinz Moser, trainer of the Swiss U-21 national team and in charge of the selections for the Swiss Football Association, about the dream job of a professional footballer and the importance of serious career planning.
More than one in three boys in Switzerland trains in a football club. And almost all of them dream of a professional career. Which of them can entertain legitimate hopes?
Those who make it to top-level junior football at the U-15 stage and play in one of the 14 teams competing for the national championship. Around five to ten players in each of these teams possess above-average talent. We're therefore talking about a maximum of 140 junior players per year group.
Does this entail specific physical requirements?
No, there is no absolute 'footballer gene'. What is needed is a combination of various talents. We work with the TIPS system when spotting talent and use it to analyze the different factors, i.e. technique, game intelligence, personality and speed. But after 15 years in the promotion of young talent, I think I can safely say that there is no distinct profile pointing toward a successful career. The total objectivity of talent is an illusion.
Is it possible to plan a career or is it ultimately a case of fate and luck?
Obviously there are no guarantees, but proper planning increases the chances of success. It is important to carry out a regular situation analysis. What stage is the player at? What potential does he have? What are his next steps? It is important here to think from a short, medium and long-term perspective. We subdivide planning into four phases: training, integration into professional football, the leap abroad and – for the crème de la crème – the step to a world-class club.
When does career planning start?
Phase one starts at the aforementioned step to U-15 and lasts until U-18. It is during these years that the basis is laid for a successful future. The training intensity increases in top-level junior football to 25 to 30 hours a week. It is important here to find a balance between top-class sport and studying in order to prevent the double burden from becoming an excessive demand. The clubs need to sensitize the player and his environment to this and support him in seeking appropriate solutions.
Should a talented player complete an apprenticeship or concentrate exclusively on football?
We essentially favor the dual approach. These days there are sufficient sport-friendly vocational schools and apprenticeships in Switzerland that permit customized solutions. For example, Breel Embolo was able to complete an office apprenticeship with the Northwest Switzerland Football Association that enabled him to train intensively. The situation is more difficult for high school students: Cantonal school and top-class football are barely compatible nowadays.
Would the status of a young professional not be more promising?
We only recommend this to the very best. Those six to eight talented players per year group with potential to become senior international players who make it to the "Footuro" project of the Swiss Football Association at the age of 17. Anto Grgic from FCZ is one such case at present. It is important that family and club agree a clear weekly plan with the young professionals. And the players also need to have the chance to use their mental abilities in order to learn languages or complete IT courses.
Is it necessary to switch to the youth department of a top Swiss club?
It's not imperative. Our recommendation is clear: The youngsters should train in their immediate vicinity for as long as possible in order to keep distances short and stress levels low. The decisive factor is always the individual support. Smaller Super League and many Challenge League clubs are also capable of bringing out the best talents, as shown by the examples of current international players: Silvan Widmer was trained at FC Aarau, Michael Lang at FC St. Gallen, Fabian Schär at FC Wil and Luca Zuffi at FC Winterthur.
What role is played by the parents?
The most important thing is the emotional support. Parents need to give their children positive support, to be there and assist them. They should also voice criticism where this is called for and question certain things. But on no account should they exert any pressure. This is unfortunately still quite widespread and has served to greatly impede or even destroy many a promising career.
In what way?
Excessive expectations put the young player under pressure. He is aware that he has to deliver. He loses his sense of ease and sometimes even his enjoyment. The trainer's job is to talk to the parents in such situations and to take countermeasures by setting the player realistic targets. Excessive pressure is also reflected in permanent dissatisfaction on the part of the parents: The child doesn't get to play often enough, is played in the wrong position or is not promoted to the next level quickly enough. This attitude is transmitted to the player and often leads to frequent club transfers and a negative career.
Do talented young players need to complete individual, extra training sessions?
Additional training in strength and fitness generally tends to be counterproductive. There are parents who push for this and overpower their children. The clubs are competent and capable of correcting individual weaknesses. It is necessary to have trust in the clubs and to have patience. No player develops on a linear basis. There will always be phases of stagnation, setbacks due to injury, growth spurts or simply a loss of form.
Is it necessary to have an agent?
The demand for our talented players has risen tremendously since the 2002 U-17 European Championship and then of course due to the U-17 World Cup in 2009. The influences raining down today on young people and their parents are enormous and can no longer be managed alone. The ideal environment comprises an allocation of tasks. As well as the parents there is a need for competent player's agents and for neutral sources of advice, for instance from the specialists at our association. We already start making the U-15 international players aware of the need for career planning. From U-17 we then offer the Footuro players targeted support in making the step to professional football. This step involves targeted talent management, a kind of 'tuning' task. Support is provided much more intensively at the individual level.
When does it become clear whether a professional career is a realistic prospect?
At the age of 17 or 18. Anyone belonging to the top players of his team is a serious candidate. This may be around 40 to 60 players per year group.
How is the step made to the Super League?
There is no ideal solution. Those who are very advanced athletically should make the step to the professional squad. The others should play with the U-21 in the first division and/or try approaching the Super League via the Challenge League. The key factor is match practice. Sometimes you also have to take a step backwards in order to climb the next step on the career ladder. One current example is the U-21 international player Leven Gülen. He was dropped from the first team at Grasshoppers at the start of the second half of the season and, also on our recommendation, was sent on loan to FC Vaduz. He's now playing regularly, gaining further experience and benefiting enormously from this. This is an example of active career planning.
What are the greatest obstacles on the road to becoming a professional?
Undoubtedly the lure of money. Players frequently succumb to attractive financial offers from abroad and in doing so put themselves offside. From a human perspective I can understand this, particularly in the case of families that are not particularly well off and have invested everything in their child's career. But the statistics speak a clear language: Of the many talented players who already moved abroad at junior level, only Johan Djourou and Philippe Senderos have made it to the professional team of their club. Fortunately, word of this appears to have got around. At present only two to three budding international players per year group are playing abroad.
What aspects require particular attention during contractual negotiations?
More important than the club's fame and the salary is trust. Do I have the club's support? Will I get to play regularly here? Does the club have a crystal-clear career plan for me? At least equally important as the support of the trainer is that of the sports director. He is responsible for the medium and long-term strategy and has normally also been in office for longer.
When is the right time for a move abroad?
After one or two years' experience in the Super League as a regular player and high-performer. Only then has the training been fully completed. For a player, choosing his first foreign club is an extremely important decision and needs to be considered carefully. What is clear is that it only makes sense to make the step to a top-five league, i.e. to England, Germany, Spain, Italy or France. But it ought not to be a top club there.
What are the arguments against this?
Despite all our successes, we still remain the "small Swiss" who have to perform more in order to gain respect. On top of this, anyone coming from the Super League needs at least six months to acclimatize – physically, tactically, mentally, and culturally. We therefore recommend taking small steps and not omitting any stages, much like the most successful players have already done. Chapuisat went to Uerdingen and not directly to Dortmund. Sforza's path took him via Kaiserslautern to Bayern Munich, Lichtsteiner arrived at Juventus F.C. via Lille and S.S. Lazio.
If you had to underline something: What is the most important characteristic for a successful career?
The ultimate deciding factor is personality. Determination, having the will. And humility. We do everything we can to keep our talented players' feet on the ground so that they remain grounded. Unfortunately we do not always succeed in this.
Heinz Moser, 49, has trained several teams of the Swiss Football Association (SFA) and since 2015, he has been trainer of the U21 national team. He is also in charge for talent management. Moser played as a professional footballer with FC Luzern (championship title 1989, cup victory 1992), BSC Young Boys, FC Sion (cup victories 1995, 1996) and FC Thun (promotion in 2002). With his wife Renate and his two children (Dominik, 21, and Daphne, 18), he lives in Ennetbürgen, Canton Nidwalden.