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Culture

Kick for Hope Project Helps Germany’s Jobless Soccer Stars

As the dark age of European soccer continues with more players facing unemployment, the professional players union in Germany has started a training initiative to keep the jobless in shape.

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"You'll have to do better than that if you want a job." Wolfgang Rolff trains the unemployed.

These days, the only thing tighter than the race for the championship in most European soccer leagues is the grip on the purse strings of the clubs themselves. With the soccer boom dwindling to a fading echo, clubs face the coming seasons with less money to spend than ever before. The cash balloon of television rights burst dramatically in Germany and Britain leaving many clubs in debt, and over-spending in the glow of promised revenue that would never be delivered signaled the death bell for many a team.

At the end of the 1990’s as Italian and Spanish soccer teams rushed to regain dominance in the European field, the powers behind the teams forked over millions and millions of dollars for top players, ignoring the long-held belief that, in sports, money cannot always buy you success. Diving headlong into the red with the hope that the investment in big names would reap the rewards, the clubs found themselves pleading with their bank managers when expensive signings failed to deliver.

This coming season will be the third in the new scaled-down age of soccer, where clubs attempt to compete for honors, and in some cases just survive, with severely restricted funds. As with any business, when times get hard, something has to give. In the case of football clubs, that something is more often or not the staff and the players.

Loss of turnover predicted at €180m

Der Manager des Fussball-Erstligisten Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Rainer Calmund

Financial headache: Rainer Calmund.

The German Football League predicts that in the 2003/2004 season, the 36 teams in the first and second Bundesliga in Germany must prepare for life without an estimated €180 million in revenue. Belts will have to be tightened across the board and cuts made wherever they can. Bayer Leverkusen, runners-up in the top flight and European Champions League two seasons ago, must cut €30 million if the club wants to remain in existence. "We must smash our budget to pieces with an axe," said Rainer Calmund, Bayer’s manager (photo).

With 34 players on the club books, many commanding huge salaries, there will be no surprises if some fringe squad members at Bayer find themselves seeking alternative employment in the near future.

Thomas Hüser from the Association of Professional German Footballers (VdV) told Deutsche Welle that the 72 professional clubs in Germany would have to cut their playing staff by at least three members each in the coming season if things didn't improve. "This would mean that an extra 216 professionals become ex-professionals next year and the German league unemployment statistic goes up to 12.3 percent," he said.

Keeping the jobless in shape

The VdV, formally recognized as a union in 2001, is now making a concerted effort to care for its members who find themselves surplus to requirements at their clubs. The VdV has brought in former German national team player and Leverkusen coach Wolfgang Rolff to coordinate the "Kick for Hope" initiative which intends to keep unemployed players in shape while their careers are on hold.

Deutsche Fußballnationalmannschaft beim Training, Japan

Professional training is intended to help the jobless saty match fit.

The scheme, similar to ones currently in operation in England and France, started on June 30 in Duisburg and consists of a once-weekly professional standard training session which will keep the players fit and prepared for that moment of relief when a new club finally comes knocking at the door. Ten out-of-work players were put through their paces by coach Rolff in the first session. "We’re pretty sure there will be more soon," Hüser said.

Of sound mind and body

As well as their physical well-being, the VdV project will also attempt to keep the players positive about the future while working on their behalf to keep them informed of possible contract possibilities. During these difficult times, players may think of perhaps giving up the professional game and returning to the everyday working world, if they have been prudent enough to learn a trade along the way. "Most of the players have more skills than just kicking a ball," Hüser said.

However, the "Kick for Hope" project has been designed to give every encouragement it can to the players for whom returning to the game remains their immediate goal. In time, the VdV hopes, just as the unemployed players do, that the dark ages of European soccer will pass and those without jobs will once again have their time in the sun.

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