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Doctor Soccer: Academia and the beautiful game

Paul Greatrix celebrates the football players who combine sporting excellence with a higher education qualification.
This article is more than 2 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

All the excitement of Euro 2020 prompted thoughts of links between higher education and football.

We have covered this topic here before of course, including universities sponsoring teams and this piece of silliness combining university and football team names.

It’s long been the case, certainly in the UK, that the vast majority of footballers have been strangers to higher education. While a few have netted honorary degrees, there really are not many over the years who have completed undergraduate degrees and even fewer have gained postgrad qualifications.

Those who do excel academically have often been viewed as rather freakish individuals and often mocked for it too (I recall Graham Le Saux being lambasted regularly for having the temerity to admit to reading a broadsheet newspaper). The bar is pretty low for academic achievement with lists of footballers with qualifications generally covering similar small pool of players.

Football’s undergraduates

For example, this list includes the well known players Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany and Juan Mata – but also features Juventus player Giorgio Chiellini who is currently featuring in Italy’s team at Euro 2020.

And just having  decent GCSE grades can be seen as something of an achievement too. For example, Frank Lampard, who is often noted as a footballing intellectual, was known as ‘the professor’ as a player on the strength of his school results (it is difficult to ascertain the accuracy of some reports that he has a masters degree in Latin) and an apparently high IQ score measured by Mensa.

But it is difficult for footballers to try to fit it all in. Combining degree studies with the demands of professional football can be really challenging, as the legendary Martin O’Neill observed recently, he had just started a Law degree at Queen’s University Belfast when he signed for Nottingham Forest:

“I’d only started out when the [Nottingham Forest] opportunity came in October time in 1971,” he explained. “I went to the head of the Law Department and asked him if things didn’t work out could I come back and he said yes.

“But with a bit of determination I tried to make the grade. Around 1974 I thought about doing an external [degree]. I went to Nottingham University and they were trying to manage my tutorials around my training in the morning with Nottingham Forest. And then along comes Brian Clough to the football club and put extra demands on players and that idea disappeared. We didn’t realise it at the time but it was great news for all of us.”

He did at least eventually receive an honorary degree from Queen’s.

Players with a PhD

Which is why I was genuinely delighted to hear recently of this story of Turid Knaak, a German international footballer, who has completed her PhD while still an active player. This extract, translated a bit roughly, gives a flavour:

Like the Brazilian men’s national team with Sócrates, the women of the DFB now also have a doctor in their ranks – the Essen-born Turid Knaak.

The 30-year-old was the first active German national player to recently complete her doctorate – in special education at the University of Cologne – and is now allowed to hold the doctoral degree.

Whether this will give women’s football more recognition remains to be seen. Attention should be guaranteed, however. The Brazilian national team led by paediatrician Sócrates enjoyed this in the 80s of the last century, not only because of his doctorate, but above all because of his playing style.


I did ask on Twitter if there were any other footballers in similar positions and it was pointed out that Socrates was in fact a medic rather than a PhD.

A professor on the pitch

But there are a couple of others of note. Mike Merrifield (@astromikemerri) drew my attention to the amazing Bohr brothers. Both were extraordinarily gifted academically with Niels, the Nobel-winning physicist, and his brother Harald, an outstanding mathematician, also playing football to a high standard. Harald though did actually play for the Danish national team including in the final of the Olympic games in 1908 (they lost 2-0 to Great Britain) – this was just before he was awarded his PhD but he did go on to play for Denmark as a doctor too.

And then more recently there was Marnix Smit who made 231 appearances for Dutch professional side Heracles Almelo whilst also a student at the University of Twente from where he graduated in 2010 with a PhD in Urban Planning and a thesis entitled “Safeguarding public interests in urban planning: A study on the impact of public-private partnerships on the public interest”. Thanks to Inge Boomkamp (@1ngeB) for that one.

But my favourite of all of these has to be Professor Laura McCallister, an academic at Cardiff University and highlighted to me by Mark Skippen (@mwspur78). Earlier on in her career Professor McAllister played for Millwall Lionesses (whilst studying at the LSE) and then turned out for 12 years at Cardiff City. She was one of those who lobbied the Welsh FA (successfully) in 1992 for the recognition of women’s football in Wales and then went on to win 24 caps for her country. She continues to play a prominent role in football administration in addition to her academic career. Hugely impressive.

Finally, as Knaak commented here, it might not be the best idea to draw attention to the higher degree when you are trying to score:

There were no “Dr. Sócrates”  jerseys at performances of the Seleção, and there will not be one for “Dr. Knaak”: “That would be quite funny, and we had also talked to the DFB about it,” said the 30-year-old striker, who wants to do without having his qualification on the back of his shirt.

Perhaps not, but it would certainly help the commentators come up with something interesting to say about a player with a Dr title on their shirt.

4 responses to “Doctor Soccer: Academia and the beautiful game

  1. I remember bumping into Paul Gascoigne in the gym at Warwick where he was on the management training programme – does that count!

  2. You missed this one who inevitably played for Oxford United in the 90’s and 50+ caps for New Zealand

    Ceri Evans MBChB MA MSc Dip ForMH MRCPsych PhD.: University of Otago MBChB
    As a ‘Rhodes’ scholar, gained first class honours in Experimental Psychology at Oxford University while playing for Oxford United – later awarded the Gaskell Gold Medal by the Royal College of Psychiatrists for work in forensic psychiatry.

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