The Meaning of Soccer: A Closer Look at German Arguelles’ Journey
Football, soccer, the beautiful game…take a moment and think about what it means to you. Is it time with friends kicking a ball in the park, nervous times in the stands as your team battles it out, or a dream to one day make it as a pro? To one entrepreneur in Madrid, discovering what soccer means to him has been a journey, both literally and metaphorically.
German Arguelles is Director of generation adidas international, a company that specializes in the logistics of international soccer experiences, connecting people’s football dreams to authentic football experiences. We took a moment to talk with German about the beginnings of his ‘fútbol’ dream, how he made it a reality, and his personal meaning of the game we so love.
The generation adidas international office in Madrid is a busy little hub. A room of sixteen people or so, the constant buzz of telephone conversations in a mix of Spanish, English, Dutch and Chinese gives a clue to the international nature of the business. Across the hallway from this humming room is a relatively quiet office, where German Arguelles talks to the football world from his laptop computer. On the morning of our interview, I wait for German as he finalizes an intense conversation, fires off a quick response to an urgent email, and keeps an eye on the clock for his next meeting.
We kick things off by talking about German’s first football memories, growing up in Gijón in the northern Spanish province of Asturias. From his family home he could hear the roars from the El Molinón Stadium, home to his beloved Real Sporting de Gijón. “I remember the excitement in the stadium and obviously I got hooked on soccer”. At that young age, the soccer roots already ran deep, setting the stage for an unexpected future.
Despite the passion for football in this tight-knit community, Asturias was not the safest place for a young person to grow up in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Heavily depressed mining and industries sectors choked the dreams of many young people. However, German was fortunate to have been raised in an entrepreneurial home. His grandfather established a cigar business in Cuba years earlier and his parents were hard-working and successful clothing retailers. Coming from this background, he knew he could choose to write his own script and that to do so, he needed to leave, turning to the one thing he knew could help him do so – soccer.
He didn’t know how to make it happen, but he had heard of U.S. colleges offering soccer scholarships to foreign students and through a twist of fate chanced upon meeting a Gijón local who had just returned from such an experience in the U.S. The meaning of ‘soccer’ had begun to change significantly for a young Arguelles and the concept of soccer as opportunity began to gain traction in a fertile mind. “It was a unique opportunity, it was a 180 degrees change in my life and it did impact me, not only from an academic perspective but also from a personal and professional perspective as well.”
Arguelles arrived in the U.S. at a time when soccer was in its infancy, however the ‘94 Soccer World Cup the year previous to his arrival had stirred up enough interest for a revitalized professional league. This formed the basis for today’s thriving soccer community in the U.S. where nowadays “it’s not an emerging market any more in the U.S. I wouldn’t say it’s mature like in Europe but it’s getting there, it’s closing the gap every day.” He played there with his Carson Newman College team in Tennessee, watching the passion for the game he loved in a new and exciting market. He connected with new friends and his definition of soccer took another twist – now he began to see the power of soccer to build empathy, breaking down cultural barriers via a shared love of the game.
The Return to Spain
Arguelles returned to Spain a different young man, with a new vision of what football could be and an empathy freshly sculpted from connecting with people through soccer. This internal shift made it “very easy for me to understand what [immigrants in Spain] would be experiencing and basically you change the way you see the world. Your mind opens a lot and you’re much more accessible to new information and new projects, ideas and connectedness.” Football has started to become not the ends, but the means to exist on a deeper spiritual level.
Despite returning with this new vision, Arguelles worked professionally in the corporate world for a number of years, an experience that both reinforced his desire to seek a different path and armed him with the skills to bring his ideas to reality. Sensing his discontent, a friend asked Arguelles what he wanted to do and he answered he needed to do something “related to sports, football in particular, it had to be in an international context, connected to youth and it needed to have a social impact”. German now reflects, “I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I just didn’t know if there were any companies existing that were doing that, or if there was an avenue for me to grow professionally”. Despite having such clarity, Arguelles didn’t set out on this path until the tragic bombing at Madrid’s Atocha Train Station in 2004, when he realized that life is too short to delay his dream any longer.
A New Start
Arguelles’ journey began and he set eSoccer in motion. He decided to join his passion for soccer with his love for travel, and decided to start a company that would provide international soccer experiences to young players. On one of the fledgling company’s first client soccer experiences, he reflected that he “was surrounded by nature, playing soccer in this beautiful facility right next to the [Mediterranean] coast, with beautiful weather. That day I realized ‘I can’t believe that I am getting paid for doing this!’, and…when I said I need to do this for the rest of my life. That was for sure a turning point. That’s when I realized that this can happen, that this could work”.
I begin to see a new ‘version’ of Arguelles emerging in our meeting. Up until now it seemed as though he was still thinking about his earlier Skype conversation, still focused on the nuts and bolts of the business. However, reflecting on this memory, I see him relive that moment back on the Mediterranean when he knew he was on his correct path.
But the business needed to grow in order to manage the sales focus of the business in the U.S., and the operations function in Madrid. The soccer community is a tight-knit one, and Arguelles smiles reflecting on the day he met his U.S. based partner Billy Hartman. Prior, “at least three different people came to me and said ‘you need to meet this guy!’” Billy was coincidentally also working in the business of soccer travel, taking American teams to train in Europe.
After working on a couple of groups together Arguelles and Hartman “realized that we basically were the perfect match, his strengths were our weaknesses and the other way around. He was having a hard time putting all of the operations together in Europe – he would travel back and forth all the time and spend quite some time in Europe to arrange all the logistics. On the other hand he was quite strong on the commercial side and for us it was the other way around.” This was over ten years ago, and they haven’t looked back since. Through a partnership with adidas, the brand of generation adidas international was born as part of adidas’s grassroots soccer generation adidas platform. Football as a connector would continue to be a key theme in Arguelles’ journey.
In a day and age in which the entrepreneur is rockstar, Arguelles humbly reflects on the seemingly rapid growth of the organization and breaks it down with a simple metaphor offered by his partner Hartman: “I completely disagree with the idea of an overnight success. Billy always says we are like ducks, underneath the water they are paddling like crazy to keep going but on the top they look like they have everything under control….. you want everything to work so perfectly, and sometimes you need to be able to adapt. So it’s a challenge.”
Perhaps one of the achievements of which Arguelles is most proud is having put together a diverse team of football tourism professionals from a range of backgrounds, disciplines and cultures in three different locations across the globe. He has watched a company culture develop that he believes is fundamental to the business “That’s why I believe that culture is key when developing a business such as ours. In our case it’s absolutely crucial – you basically need to cherish the brand, understand the brand and believe in the brand. Otherwise it’s not going to work.”
So what are the core values that form this singular identity at generation adidas international? According to German, “when I started eSoccer, the e stands for ‘education’, so for me the value of these trips, yes it is the soccer part, yes it is to compete, and yes you might become a professional player in the future or at the very least get a good soccer scholarship, but what you get really is the whole cultural experience around it. It’s more of how you are going to grow as a person off the field than what’s going to happen on the field, the friendships that you are going to build, the places you are going to see – that is to me the main value of our experiences.”
Our conversation shifts to new projects and Arguelles’ energy steps up a notch once again, discussing the company’s newest brand additions. In order to meet newly created demand from the explosion of interest in futsal, Arguelles and his team created Futsal X, offering the same type of experiences and opportunities for futsal. He enthuses that the growth in futsal has come from “the realization from most of the soccer industry that some of the best players grew up playing futsal”. This has drawn a lot of attention to futsal, and “some scientists have actually discovered that futsal has a big influence in how you develop as a player.” Futsal X has already developed relationships with futsal giants like S.L. Benfica, F.C. Barcelona and Inter Movistar, and the list is growing.
We move on to another new project, currently in its infancy, and clearly a favorite of Arguelles. Its name is the third half, and it is already creating an impact in the social tourism sphere, focusing on using soccer as a tool to address a diverse range of global social problems. the third half works with streetfootballworld, a network of 120 non-profit organizations working in more than 70 countries around the world, all using the power of soccer for good. Clients, whether they be soccer teams, students, young professionals, corporations, or individuals, are invited to visit these soccer for good NGOs to see the work they do firsthand. Profits from every program are given to the NGO to support their work with underprivileged children.
So what keeps Arguelles energized with so much happening? “Well, I think, first you need that flame that I was referring to, and it’s passion. But, I think it’s an overused term – passion on its own is not enough. A lot of people have passion in many different aspects. You can make passion your hobby, but not your professional career – you need to be able to distinguish between the two. If you don’t have passion with purpose you are not going to get anywhere. Purpose is what makes you stick to the project, it’s what helps you build that resilience.”
With both of these in place at generation adidas international, what does the future hold? Arguelles sees the next goal as “re-changing the football industry…the game is so important for so many people around the world. The game is making a lot of money for a handful of people, but there are millions of fans out there. I would like to see the professional clubs [and national federations] being a lot more engaged and committed long term. I would like to see [this from] the players themselves, the agents, the sports marketing agencies, basically the whole industry…If, through the game, we can make the world a better place – I am all about that!”
What does soccer mean to you?….where will you play?