It is the Swiss finishing school that has prepared hundreds of post-graduate students to lead, manage and litigate world sports.
Graduates have later headed campaigns to host soccer’s World Cup, run Olympic sports federations and prosecuted landmark cases in international sports law.
Known as the FIFA Master course, it has for 20 years been a discreet gift to sports organizations from soccer’s world body that has renewed multimillion dollar funding each year regardless of what turmoil it was in.
Photo: AP / the International Centre for Sports Studies
At a picturesque lakeside campus of the University of Neuchatel, 28 students from more than 20 nations this month completed their studies as the class of 2019.
Final projects included analyzing challenges of finding Olympic Games bidders, making women’s soccer more professional and the testosterone rules case that threatens Caster Semenya’s track career.
“I am always impressed,” said Denis Oswald, the course director, a Court of Arbitration for Sport judge and member of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) executive board. “It’s a pleasure because they are all passionate about the work.”
About 300 applicants compete for up to 30 places each year.
Past students include former South Korea and Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung (2017) and the sons of two players who scored in World Cup finals.
There is scholarship money from FIFA — last year it gave US$4.9 million to the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) in Neuchatel, which runs the course — and now the Asian Football Confederation.
Some students are self-funded, paying tuition fees of 25,000 francs (US$25,464) for the 10-month course. On top, there are living costs for one academic term each spent in England, Italy and Switzerland.
Before enrolling, Marie Shin often encountered FIFA Master alumni in her work in South Korea for last year’s Pyeongchang Olympics organizers and a soccer agency arranging games and training camps for national teams.
“I thought: ‘This program must be very impressive,’” she said, adding that course met her expectations. “The majority was beyond amazing and the people are very talented.”
The academic year starts with humanities and history at De Montfort University in Leicester, England; continues at the Bocconi School of Management in Milan; and ends with sports law in Neuchatel.
Guest lectures include Olympic sports federation leaders explaining how to organize a world championship. Project mentors include lawyers who work on cases for FIFA and UEFA.
The alumni group then links FIFA Masters who are lawyers, administrators and consultants at the heart of international sports.
The course owes its existence in part to former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who as its secretary-general in the 1990s helped create the CIES.
Blatter said that schools in Lausanne and Zurich passed up FIFA’s offer that “football should be elevated to university level.”
“We produced highly qualified people for the other sports organizations,” Blatter said in a telephone interview. “And so far they never had problems to find working places.”
Course director Oswald said that about 25 graduates work for the IOC and about 50 for FIFA.
Oswald, a law student when he won a 1968 Olympic bronze medal in rowing for Switzerland, said that he “would have loved to do” such a course before he ran his sport’s governing body.
“What they are learning in one year is what we have learned in 10 years in sport,” he said.
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