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The tendency for business school professors to use football as a metaphor for corporate leadership techniques must now be reviewed in light of the unfolding payments scandal at Fifa.

The events of recent days are unlikely to diminish the passion for the game held by Christoph Loch, professor of management studies and director of Cambridge’s Judge business school.

For him, however, the value in what football has to teach about leadership has always been a practical one, about strapping on your boots and getting out on the pitch.

Prof Loch, who taught at Insead for 17 years before joining Judge in September 2011, has both played for and coached amateur football teams in four countries, on three continents.

A highlight, he says, was being part of the Insead over-35s. The team climbed to the highest of the seven French amateur leagues, taking on semi-professional players as well as a former member of the French national team. However, he plays down his own role in his side’s success.

“I was the worst player on this team, and got abuse every game,” he recalls. “But they needed me to fill out the squad with someone who could run all game long.”

Although Prof Loch summarises his playing career as “utterly undistinguished”, he claims that his time on the pitch taught him valuable lessons in life and introduced him to a lot of the people he now knows outside academia.

“In all the countries I played in, I always played on teams largely comprised of blue-collar workers, small artisan entrepreneurs and business people,” he says. “Across the various cultures and countries, I saw commonalities in their work ethic and tolerance of foibles and individual tics . . . I think my involvement in these teams helped me, [as I saw] the world through the eyes of my teammates, [and avoided] a confinement of thinking that may come from only interacting with people of an academic or economic elite.”

Prof Loch stopped playing a few years ago because his knees started to give out, but he is now on the board of the Cambridge United Youth and Community Trust, which coaches underprivileged children in football.

“Cambridge United is about at the same level as the football club in my home town, Trier, where I used to watch home games when I was a teenager,” he says.

“When I came in contact with the charity arm of the club, I saw an activity with values and impact that I had experienced only in rudimentary forms before.”

Football can be an important tool for those involved in business education, Prof Loch claims, because it teaches key skills needed for success, whether that is on the field, in a community or in the boardroom.

“I believe in the integrative force of football,” he says.

While the business of football may at times appear to follow its own rules, Prof Loch defends the telephone number salaries commanded by English Premiership players.

“It is a bit like Hollywood actors,” he says. “It has nothing to do with football or that these people are bad characters.”

Salaries of the top players are a distraction to the value of football as a leadership teaching tool, Prof Loch adds. “Let’s not confuse that with what football really does in society,” he says.

“If you want to understand football, go into the suburbs.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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