Former Bayer Leverkusen and Germany midfielder, Simon Rolfes, is now the Bayer Leverkusen Sporting Director. We spoke to Simon and learnt more about his career as a player, his experiences playing for Germany at Euro 2008 and the positives of the MIP Alumni course.
Tell us about your career on the pitch?
I played for five season at Werder Bremen, then I moved on to Alemnannia Aachen which allowed me to play in what was then known as the ‘UEFA Cup’. This tournament allowed me to develop and it was great to play as underdogs in the tournament and we qualified from the group stages and lost in the Round of 32 to AZ Alkmaar.
After Alemannia Aachen, I moved on to Leverkusen where I played for 10 years, ultimately retiring in 2015. I was fortunate to be captain for 7 years of those years and we were runners-up in the Bundesliga whilst I was there and I got my first cap for Germany in 2007.
What position did you play in?
I started as an offensive number 8, but as I rose up through the ranks I went further back on the pitch and settled to play as a defensive midfielder we call it a number 6 in Germany.
What was it about Bayer Leverkusen that drew you to it after playing for Werder Bremen and coming up through their academy?
I knew that Leverkusen were a very good technical team with lots of offensive quality. At the time, they had players such as Berbatov, Ramelow and Schneider – players whom I had admired a lot and they played very positively. I knew that Leverkusen would help me to develop and become a better footballer. Many Leverkusen players also played for Germany traditionally, and I knew that playing there would help me towards my dream of representing my country.
You played at Euro 2008 what was that like as an experience?
It was a very special experience particularly as we progressed to the quarters and semi-finals which were played in Basle which is 15-20 minutes from the German border. We felt that these matches were basically a ‘home’ game and Portugal were fantastic at the time. The quarter-final match was the game I participated in so that was extra special, especially as the Portuguese were the favourites to progress. Then when we moved on to the final in Vienna the atmosphere was amazing, half of the stadium was Spanish and the other half German.
After retiring you pursued quite a few ventures could you tell us about that?
I was studying for the UEFA MIP Masters, I worked as an agent with youth players and I was an entrepreneur working with a company that worked on goal-line technology. After that I moved to work at Leverkusen.
Simon, your first role at Leverkusen was Head of Youth and Development? What did you do in this role?
It was great, very interesting to develop players within a club as we have a philosophy and a style of play which we implemented across all age groups. It was very different to the first-team, as there is one team to work on in the first-team, which ranges across 10 coaches. I was working with these 10 coaches and 100 players, it was quite amazing. You have to think of all of the steps all the way from Under-10 to Under-19. I was only there for four months but it has given me a good overview of all of the players in the academy and the structure of the club from the bottom up.
What are the best pieces of advice you would give to those who seek a career in sports administration?
It is a job that has many different facets to the game you need football knowledge, understanding the profiles of playing and being able to assess their character. There are so many different areas so you must be interested in many different things and particularly an interest in humans as that is what the value of a club is the value and strength of the players so you must seek to develop them as they are so different.
You were in the first group of MIP graduates. How do you think MIP had helped you to develop and succeed in this role?
It helped massively the exchange of ideas between the players both during and after the course is fantastic. Many of us have experienced similar things so we can bounce ideas off each other. However, the personal development you gain on the course is second to none as you learn about your own style of leadership and how you manage people in a team or a group.
It has allowed us to create a relationship which I have not had before even when I was a player and you were in the locker room you wanted the best for each but you were still rivals in a way, rivals for the first team, or the bench or the starting eleven. MIP is different you meet on the same level and you aren’t competitors and you aren’t vying for the same spot or job and everyone has similar goals so we can help each other. We can help each, you reach your goal, I reach my goal it’s a much more friendly relationship.
What did the MIP course teach you?
You get an amazing overview of different topics involved in the world of football including third-party ownership to club management to how you build a stadium and financing of this stadium. You get an amazing knowledge base of these topics and then you can decide if you want to learn more about individual topics and the support is there if you choose you would like to go more in-depth about topics.
Do you speak to your fellow MIP graduates much?
I am close with Sebastian Kehl, who is working in a relatively similar role at Borussia Dortmund. I speak regularly with Keld Bordinggaard and Hannu Tihinen, whom are Danish and Finnish, respectively. However, I also speak to Eric Abidal and Pierre Issa too or some other participants, we call, or e-mail or message which is great. The most special thing is that we are really a team, I know that I could call any of the alumni and get help and they could call me and get help. We don’t see each other regularly, perhaps once a year for a meeting but help and friendship is always available.
What do you like about the alumni network?
As I mentioned it is the connections and relationships that I have been able to make being able to call people from all around the world with different points of view and thought processes is amazing. To be able to call people to ask for advice and information about different issues including players from around the world. Also the spirit of the group is fantastic everyone wants to succeed.
We are close to seeing the second cohort from the MIP graduate. How do you see MIP alumni developing?
I think it can be a very powerful group we will be nearly on 50 alumni, and after the MIP III group we could be close to 75-80. However, it will be a challenge to make sure that it stays personal and there are already a lot of people with powerful positions within football. We must make sure that the connections and relationships stay strong and stay close with each other and make sure we can all trust each other.
What would say to a retired footballer who is thinking about joining the MIP course? What recommendation would you make?
I would highly recommend it. It’s the perfect way to learn about football and the football business in such a small period of time much of it you can’t receive as a player. You can receive insights as a player but not such a great overview. This is why the MIP course is a perfect environment to learn so many top quality presentations, particularly if you want to work in football.
Which MIP lecture visit did you find the most interesting?
The USA lecture in New York, as the business market is so different to Europe. The business model is different but also with the player development and transfer system with the college draft system is so completely different. So it is a case of what can we learn from each other and how can we adapt. I am more likely to sign a player from the USA as I have a greater knowledge of the USA market that I wouldn’t have had without the MIP course.
How good is it to have close, personal relationships with senior administrators such as Technical Director of Barcelona and Director of Development for CONCACAF who may have a big impact upon global football moving forward?
It’s great to learn about new cultures, we spoke a lot on the course and gained different points of views and perspectives. I remember that at one time we had a discussion about third-party ownership and those from the bigger countries saw it a completely different light to those who were from the traditionally smaller footballing nations and so we were able to discuss and learn from each other and have different perspectives.
How do you feel about the impact that MIP alumni are having on the women’s game?
It is good, women’s football is growing internationally and it is great to have MIP alumni working in the women’s football industry. It is good we are having impact across the whole world of football, not just high-level football in large footballing countries or men’s football, we are having a big impact on women’s football too. We want to develop football both men’s and women’s, for the world!