NEUCHATEL, Switzerland (AP) — It’s 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 multi-million dollar funding each year regardless of what turmoil it was in.

At a picturesque lake-side campus of the University of Neuchâtel, 28 students from more than 20 countries this month completed their studies as the class of 2019.

Final-term projects included analyzing challenges of finding Olympic Games bidders, making women’s soccer more professional, and the testosterone rules case which 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 executive board. “It’s a pleasure because they are all passionate about the work.”

Around 300 applicants compete for up to 30 places each year. Past students include former South Korea and Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-Sung (a 2017 graduate), and the sons of two players who scored in World Cup finals.

There is scholarship money from FIFA — in 2018 it gave $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 Swiss francs ($25,400) 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 the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics organizers and a soccer agency arranging games and training camps for national teams.

“I thought, ‘This program must be very impressive,'” she told The Associated Press, 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 Neuchâtel.

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 European soccer body UEFA.

On graduating, the alumni group links FIFA Masters who are lawyers, administrators and consultants at the heart of international sports.

A 2002 graduate, Michael Gerlinger , is Bayern Munich’s legal director. Hicham El Amrani (2004) was general secretary of Africa’s soccer body and led Morocco’s bid that ran against the United States, Canada and Mexico for the 2026 World Cup. Ross Wenzel, a 2008 graduate, often represents the World Anti-Doping Agency and track and field’s IAAF, including in the Semenya appeal to Switzerland’s supreme court.

In an often troubled era for sports bodies, FIFA Master alumni did not escape attention.

Nicole Resch (2007) left as the International Biathlon Union’s secretary general last year after raids by Austrian police investigating alleged bribery linked to Russian doping. Samson Adamu (2009) was questioned for FIFA ethics prosecutor Michael Garcia’s investigation of the 2018-2022 World Cup bidding contests in which his father, Amos Adamu, was banned and barred from voting.

Still, 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 told the AP 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 around 25 graduates work for the IOC and about 50 for FIFA.

FIFA employees include Jair Bertoni (2005), the director for member federations in the Americas, whose dad Daniel scored Argentina’s third goal in the 1978 World Cup final . Henry Rummenigge, the son of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who scored for West Germany in the 1986 final , is a 2013 FIFA Master.

Oswald, a law student when he won a 1968 Olympic bronze medal in rowing for Switzerland, agreed he “would have loved to do” such a course before he ran his sport’s governing body.

“What they are learning in one year,” he said, “is what we have learned in 10 years in sport.”


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