Erling Haaland scored 52 goals in his first season for Man City, but not every player has had such a pleasant experience in a new environment.
After 18 months playing for Tottenham, striker Ahmed Mido returned to Roma and received a call from coach Martin Jol. “You have to go back to Tottenham now,” Jol said.
At that time, Jol coached Tottenham to prepare for the 2006-2007 season, but he was not satisfied with the performance of rookie Dimitar Berbatov. He wanted Mido back, then told the Egyptian striker: “I made a big mistake buying Berbatov”.
Midfielder Hossam Ghaly also convinced compatriot Mido to return to Tottenham with him, because Berbatov failed to make an impression after moving from Bayer Leverkusen. “Berbatov is too slow, so you’ll start if you come back here,” Ghaly told Mido.
Two former Egyptian players reunited on a TV show 14 years later, and laughed as they recalled the 2006 story. “Berbatov is a great player”, Ghaly 2020. “But during the training days. At first at Tottenham, he was too slow, even though nobody got the ball.”
In August 2006, Tottenham bought Mido outright from Roma. But when he arrived at White Hart Lane, the situation was nothing like what Jol and Ghaly described earlier. “When I returned to Tottenham, Berbatov turned into Johan Cruyff,” Mido joked. “Jol used to say that I would easily take Berbatov’s place. But in training he dribbled through everything, picked the ball over the defender’s head and shot into dead corners. I couldn’t compete because of him. very good”.
Berbatov scored 12 goals in the Premier League in his first season, while Mido had only one and was sold to Middlesbrough after a year. The following season, Berbatov scored 15 goals, before joining Man Utd. He ended his Premier League career with 94 goals in 229 games, a success beyond Jol’s initial expectations.
The story of adaptation in football is more difficult than many people think . When playing in another country, regardless of level, players are also human and have to adapt to a new environment. They don’t just go there to play football.
Clubs will do their best to make new players feel comfortable, but there are still barriers such as culture, language, or homesickness. For example, a 20-year-old player going abroad to play, will experience a whole new world, away from family and friends, which can lead to psychological pressures. Whether players overcome barriers or not, they always have an early stage to adapt.
The new football environment is also a barrier, because the intensity or style of competition in each place is not the same. Rookies often ask questions such as what is the atmosphere in the dressing room, what groups the team is divided into, and which groups to be close to.
The rookies are also not sure of the old position, or in the old system, so they need to change. The coach will not want to change the philosophy of football for one player, so each individual needs to adjust the way he plays. This process is not usually completed after a short time.
Not every player has made an immediate impact like Sergio Aguero, when he scored twice on his Man City debut against Swansea in August 2011. He scored another 21 goals in the Premier League season, of which the last goal against QPR was a classic when bringing the championship to the team.
Ruud van Nistelrooy with 36 goals for Man Utd in the 2001-2002 season, Fernando Torres 33 goals for Liverpool 2007-2008, N’Golo Kante won the 2015-2016 Premier League with Leicester with a 1 to 5,000 bet. And now Erling Haaland has broken the scoring record in the tournament in his first season playing for Man City.
However, there are still other good players that need time to integrate before showing their ability.
In his first season at Liverpool, Mohamed Salah was phenomenal as he scored 32 goals to become Premier League top scorer 2017-2018, and set the record until it was broken by Haaland . But when Salah left his home country of Egypt to play for Basel in the summer of 2012, it was not as easy as later.
Salah told ON in May 2018 that the biggest difficulty for him in adapting was culture. In Egypt, he had to spend time with his family, meeting friends every night. “But suddenly, I had to live alone at the age of 19, and it was a big shock,” he added. “I go home at 1 p.m. after every training session, and don’t know what to do until the evening. I don’t know anything about Switzerland, and I don’t have any friends here.”
The Liverpool striker says the adaptation was easier when he moved to Chelsea in January 2014. But then he faced another problem: pressure from the media. “I don’t get to play very often, and there’s always the feeling of wanting to leave,” he said.
Another example in the Premier League is Robert Pires. During his first season with Arsenal from 2000-2001, he asked manager Arsene Wenger if the intensity of the game in England was always the same. Wenger replied: “Yes, even more tense.”
Italy is no exception. Striker Hernan Crespo did not enjoy his early days at Parma in the 1996-1997 season, after his move from River Plate. Crespo scored just one goal in his first 15 games, and was mocked by whistles.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti then worked at Parma, understood the potential of Crespo, so he continued to respect the Argentine player. “Crespo is talented and serious about his job, but the fans don’t like him,” Ancelotti wrote in a book.
Crespo lived up to Ancelotti’s expectations with 12 goals in 28 games in all competitions that season, helping the team finish second in Serie A with two points behind Juventus.
Professional football is also a job, and players also need time to get used to a new environment. The extreme climate can also be a problem for the players in the long term.
Striker Nolito did not have many opportunities to play for Man City, after leaving Celta Vigo in the summer of 2016. Due to limited English, he could not adjust to life in Manchester. The British lifestyle and the weather there were also not easy for the Spanish striker’s family. “After a year, my daughter looked like she lived in a cave,” he said. “Her facial skin also changed color.”
Nolito alluded to the weather in Manchester being not very sunny, contrary to Spain. He also played only a year at Man City, scoring six goals in 30 games, before returning to his hometown to play for Sevilla. Currently Nolito plays in Spain’s second division for Ibiza, where there is no shortage of sunshine.
Even the way players communicate with each other can be a barrier to inclusion. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is fluent in English, but when he joined Leeds United in 1997, he still had communication problems. The Dutch striker realized that speaking directly to his teammates could be seen as arrogant. “In the Netherlands, I could say ‘Let’s do this, that’, and no one would mind,” Hasselbaink wrote in his autobiography. “But in England, I have to say ‘Do you mind if I do this?’ British people want to hear more polite words.”
The pain of integrating in football does not spare world-class players. In the summer of 1993, Dennis Bergkamp joined Inter after two consecutive years in the Top 3 Ballon d’Or. He was annoyed when team president Ernesto Pellegrini promised a beautiful attacking play. But in the end, Inter kicked in favor of defense and did not match Bergkamp’s style. “I faced 100 new things in life, and 200 other problems in football,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Bergkamp scored eight goals in 11 UEFA Cup matches in his first season with Inter, helping the team win the title. But he left after just two seasons, scoring 22 goals in 74 games. Bergkamp moved to the Premier League and played another 11 seasons for Arsenal, being inducted into the league’s hall of fame. A player like Bergkamp can be legendary at one team, but mocked at another.
The acclimatization process needs to be carefully considered before assessing a rookie’s success. Even superstar Lionel Messi says he struggled with life during his first year in Paris. But in the age of social media, a player or coach can be judged after just one game.
Behind a football player with extraordinary talent, tattoos and luxury toys, is also just a person. Not everyone enjoys scoring with a new environment. There are people who take a long time to integrate.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t good enough, just that life works that way.