6 LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM 2014 WORLD CUP FOOTBALL
Maracanazo and Mineirazo are the terms Brazilians will never forget. On 8th July 2014, at Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil experienced Mineirazo, a national shame after losing to Germany 7-1 in the Semifinals of World Cup 2014. Carnage that bore equivalence to Maracanazo in 1950 World Cup when Brazil lost the round robin league to Uruguay 2-1 at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio in a decisive match. Brazil just needed a draw in this match to become the world champions.
The theatrical depth witnessed on 8th July 2014 in the Brazil vs. Germany match is inexplicable. Brazilians and football lovers world over are still convalescing from it. Brazilian media continue to spew vitriol. It invokes pain for one to reminisce through the strands of this match however let us gently stroll into the arena after anaesthetizing ourselves to football as a sport for a moment and instead focus on the leadership lessons that we can glean out of it.
BRAZIL’S FOOTBALLING HERITAGE
Football in Brazil is akin to religion. They have won the World Cup 5 times and in 1970 when they won the Jules Rimet trophy for the 3rd time, it was given to them permanently. A country referred as ‘o País do Futebol’ (the country of football), where kids play on the beach, sand and streets, where work is subservient on the day Brazil plays but most of all the style of playing football that endeared Brazil to the whole world. Pele, Socrates, Garrincha, Zico, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Jairzinho, Romario all these legends had one thing in common, their Samba style of play, a style that came from the streets. Called the Joga Bonito style (Portuguese for ‘play beautiful’) is all about highly skilled, fast paced passing, exciting and artistic football. Google and Nike inspired by this football concept and style established an online community Joga.com. Nike launched a series of videos in World Cup 2006 to accentuate the artistry of the game, its creativity, flair, professionalism, courage and team spirit, such has been the momentous influence Joga Bonito style had upon the collective psyche of football lovers. Win or lose, Brazil of yesteryears were entertainers.
People didn’t love Brazil because they won the World Cup five times, they loved Brazil due to their remarkable and skillful style of play, a kind of flow given to the game that was sheer delight to watch. It was undoubtedly pleasing to the eye. Unselfish play with the ball was the Brazilian footballing ethos and the players adhered to this approach even if it meant losing the ball at times to the opponents whilst attempting ambitious, intricate and creative passes. A quintessential intent to move the ball into the opponent’s half and scoring took precedence over a monochrome defensive style of play. It was a combination of individual skill, adept dribbling, mesmerizing step overs, slick back heels, delicate flicks, and ball sharing camaraderie that made their game distinctive and Brazilian football sensational. Well-conceptualized field goals was the style rather than scoring from dead balls, free kicks, corner kicks and serendipitous heading into the goalmouth.
LESSON 1 : DON’T ABANDON YOUR HERITAGE
What changed this? ‘The Culture of Winning‘ and the pressure to perform changed this. Sure, why not! Brazil hasn’t promised to the world that they will remain as footballing world’s entertainers. This is a tacit contract, which is ‘beautiful football’ that we always demanded from Brazil for our own satisfaction. Brazil was keen to win and Dunga, their coach was given the job for 2010 World Cup. With his conservative, defense oriented and pragmatic style he made a revolutionary departure from Joga Bonito style of play. Dunga himself was a robust defensive midfielder. It takes courage in Brazil to change style, as criticism was imminent upon any departure from the skillful play Brazil was used to. Brazilian coaches had this added pressure to preserve their artistic style but since 2002 they were hungry for another win hence gambled with a change of style. It bombed, Brazil lost 2010 cup and Dunga was given the boot in just 2 days. Scolari was appointed in 2012 to lead Brazil for 2014 cup on home soil. His style too branched off from Joga Bonito, made their game clinical and with no success either. Scolari was criticized much for his style of play but since he had won 2002 World Cup for Brazil, confidence was reposed in whatever he did. Winning became more important and winning at any cost since Brazil was the host nation this time. Somewhere after 2002 till date, under the reins of Dunga and Scolari, Brazilian football abandoned their artistic approach and attempted to become an efficient team. Hasn’t worked thus far barring the Confederation Cup win.
Contrast this with the business scenario. If the sole purpose of business is to make money and if one wants to embrace strategies that replicate other teams and abandon their heritage then one is in the business purely to make money. Whilst this may make economic sense, without a unique style, branding and joy of doing business, the journey becomes boring and anyone can come along and dislodge one’s positioning. Isn’t this precisely what Germany did? They brought a nice quick passing style and added breadth to their game with augmenting wingers. German game was no Tiki –Taka or Joga Bonitio but they combined so remarkably and played as a team that this style itself became unique. If the nation is endowed with a style of play, which brought them glory, 5 times in the past, and millions of fans loving them then why altogether abandon the heritage style of play instead trust it, improvise it, improve it, change tactics and re-strategize within the artistic framework. Winning with a pride of originality is indescribable.
From an organisation stand point it has always been debatable whether one should stick to one’s heritage or is it fine to abandon it if it doesn’t make sense. Due to growing distrust, fake/duplicate products, business inauthenticities and so on, consumers would love to get some information about organisations that exemplify core values, trust, legacy etc. and in this context a firm’s heritage and brand legacy engenders this trust through story telling. Strong heritage stories breathe life into the brand as well as connects the customer to the organisation’s past. BMW, Mercedes, Nike, are classic examples of brands that stand for trust, quality and engineering excellence. Here is an example from the other end of the spectrum. Nokia didn’t stick to their heritage. In 1865 they were in the wood business, in 1898 they were into rubber business. They dabbled in cable, forestry, electronics and power generation thereafter and in 1990 made telecommunications their core business. They threw out their heritage by divesting many other businesses. In spite of this Nokia became a respectable brand and market leader in mobile communications (till the iPhone & Android revolution began which sealed their doom). Business exigencies may require firms to abandon their heritage, brands, products, services, style of conducting business and there is no right or wrong here however it may be important to note that it may have been easier to do so earlier. These days when so much cost is associated with brand creation, sustenance and its embrace by customers, relinquishing one’s heritage and recreating a new one may take considerable time and with incisive competitors in every field, the entry barriers could be huge and gestation period before success protracted. Unless unsustainable, it may be prudent to preserve one’s heritage albeit with strategic directional changes.
LESSON 2 : RECENT SUCCESS IS NO YARDSTICK
Just before World Cup 2014, Brazil won the Confederation Cup in 2013 by defeating Spain but Brazil’s overall performance was nothing compared to the way they are used to playing football. Not a single match in 2014 cup did Brazil play with outright conviction. Brazil did beat Croatia and Cameron in the group qualification stages but without Neymar they were, on paper, a very average team. They were pale in comparison to their heritage way of playing football hence it was easier for other teams to offer resistance to Brazil in 2014 Cup. Brazil vs. Chile in 2nd round (1-1 draw) , Brazil was lucky to progress on penalties else this would have been their last match in 2014. The quarterfinals with Columbia was a well fought one too and Brazil won 2-1 though Colombia gave a spirited performance. And then the ego-exterminating semi-finals with Germany with a 7-1 loss!
Recent successes does boost confidence and the confederation cup win over the fancied Spain did provide the much needed vivacity however when you come to the World Cup, the team needs to have foundational strength and discipline to offer some kind of organization so that opponents don’t maraud past your central defense with consummate ease. 4 goals in 29 minutes is dismantling of Brazil’s defensive fortress. No team in a semi final stage in fact ever, must bring themselves to such an ignominious position. It is not losing the game, it is not even losing 7-1 that is consequential, it is the manner in which structural decimation happened in 29 minutes that will keep this match alive in terms of psychological analysis. 7-1 is just a metaphor that signifies that this Brazilian formation will be transgressed and violated again and again. Holland did so and defeated Brazil 3-0 for the 3rd place playoff.
Brazil will recover from this, how long can one keep sulking. Instead of incremental learning, accelerated learning will happen and hopefully this will invoke an absolute change in the way football is viewed in Brazil. The performance that gave them victory in 1970 doesn’t make a country churn out recurring performances. It has to be continuously nurtured at ground level. From a business parlance, constant re-invention, a little non-conformity, innovation and watching the continuum is needed to sustain the leadership position. We have examples of Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Blackberry all mobile companies who lost their competitive advantage. They rested on their past laurels and recent successes but could not anticipate terrain alteration. Apple and Samsung keep their innovative engines idling at all times and with periodic exciting product launches they attain1st, 2nd , 3rd, 4th 5th gears and momentum. These days daily application in business is needed, the arena changes much faster than one is used to.
LESSON 3 : COME WITH A TEAM
Contrary to the disquiet the world expressed after this match, there ought to be nothing shocking in the way Brazil lost to Germany (1-7). Any team with a little venture and composure was sufficient to upset Brazil’s rhythm, such was the mediocrity in Brazil’s play. It is like Roger Bannister completing the 1- mile run under 4 minutes. The world never believed it could be done but after Roger did it John Landy did it and so did many others thereafter. After Germany, Holland did it to Brazil 3-0 in the fight for 3rd place.
Coming back to the signature semifinals of 2014, Germany was a remarkably organized team, they had incredible understanding between various players and right from their very first game with Portugal they exhibited flair and intent in this World Cup. Nothing new about Germany. They are a force to reckon with always and a semifinal entry of theirs is the least the world can expect due to their past credentials, resoluteness and focus. Why, because Germany always comes with a team and not just individual stars? German counter attack was swift, incisive; they play high and defend with a high line, accurate passing and their high pressing midfielders destroyed Brazil in the first 29 minutes making the game irretrievable and the players staring into the ravines.
Brazilian players, fully soaked in host nation ebullience were all over the pitch showing physical zealousness. Whilst it is fine to be enthusiastic, after all it is home nation’s prerogative to inject that extra adrenaline as a boost prior to the match, it is also important to have some kind of organization, defensive observance and formation in the game in addition to attack prowess that makes each team distinctive. These first three disciplines were supremely sacrificed. Excited defensive players surged forward and played out of position. Yes Neymar their iconic striker and Thiago Silva their star defender was missing and one can keep debating about the outcome of this game, had these two been effective, but football is not about 11 players. Good teams at the World Cup need to have 22, a substitute for every position. Surely a nation of Brazil’s football caliber can muster up these players but for such a crucial semi-final they didn’t. Brazil didn’t have depth and received a wallop.
Fred was blunt, Hulk had flashes of brilliance, Oscar was surprisingly subdued, Dante couldn’t combine with David Luiz and Marcelo. For all his effervescence, David Luiz is an example of how defensive errors must be avoided hence there was a total eclipse from football resulting in the collapse as a team. Barring Thiago Silva, none of the other Brazilian defenders have a defender’s composition in their heads. Danny Alves, Marcelo and David Luiz loves to play midfield or up front. Yes with their overall goal scoring ability, these defensive players have done wonders in the past so perhaps we shouldn’t be criticizing them however collectively they are undone in one match, a match which was their citadel to the finals hence it is inexpiable. Besides you don’t play Germany with an out of position format. They deserve positional respect. Brazil came to this world cup with well-intentioned individual players with notable fervor but they couldn’t come to the tournament as a team. They were impervious to the Joga Bonito treasure it harboured all these years. It is merely stating the obvious that team work is important; organisations do understand this yet when it comes to a firm’s down fall, most often it is the fractured teamwork and communication aspects that stand out as attributing reasons.
Yes Maradona and Pele have singularly won it for their countries but the terrain and strategy of the game has changed much. Tackles are tougher, speed is matched, game demands endurance with players able to sustain 120 minutes, talented players await at the bench, marking is exasperating, physical capabilities such as height helps in aerial recovery of the ball, muscular framework helps shield the ball better and retain possession. All these aspects carry weightage. Messi has individual brilliance, dribbling, quick burst of run & control, Pirlo has passing vision and midfield dexterity, Ronaldo’s touches on the ball are deft, his control and finish is exemplary, Robben is fast, gives clever body feigns and is a remarkable finisher, Neymar is quick and artistic. All such players will certainly make an impact in any game but sheer reliance upon these players to keep producing magic can remain as an expectation but not as a functional tactic with which one can arrive at a World Cup. The country risking their stakes merely on their talisman players is not a good strategy. Argentina and Portugal have realized this. Algeria, USA, Ghana, Columbia, Costa Rica all of them put up such a remarkable team show in spite of being underdogs. Of course Holland and Argentina quality was very good too. Holland also played as a cohesive team. Football is incontrovertibly a team game. It has been, right from the Brazilian Joga Bonito style to the Spanish Tiki-Taka style of play (popularized by Barcelona and architected by Johan Cruyff when he was Barcelona manager). CEO’s, as soon as he/she takes office, first of all scrutinies and corrals a cast that constitute his/her team. Anything less than acknowledgement of this team’s potential and future influence is sub-optimal task.
LESSON 4 : PURSUE CONTINUOUS RE-INVENTION
Tiki-Taka is a geometric patterning of play with intricate short passes involving roaming movement and positional interplay amongst midfielders designed to form an impenetrable code. By the time the opponent charges at one player, the ball is passed on to the second and third player with lightening speed that makes it difficult to keep pressing making the opponents wonder about the futility of their runs. Spain had their reign with Tiki-Taka for a while and it secured victories in Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012. It was sheer delight to watch their game and what a golden era for Spain. But this code got deciphered, opponents understood the importance of stamina to keep running and pressing. Spain were rendered ineffective in 2013 Confederation Cup as well as 2014 World Cup (in fact they couldn’t even qualify beyond the group stages).
It is not merely about team effort, the team has to be agile, quick and have good stamina. Perhaps due to aging, Spanish players couldn’t retrieve the ball with as much sprightliness as much as they used to when they pressed high once. Perhaps the hot weather sapped them but Germany is also a European country hence out goes the weather excuse. Tiki-Taka may not be dead as a style but players adopting this style need to note that there has to be hunger and intent to score rather than incessant passing. Alan shearer said that in Tiki-Taka style of play, the players keep passing also to recover from the runs and bursts. Fair enough, but future football will demand a breed of players who can run for 120 minutes in a high pressing style. From a leadership perspective, Spain failed to re-invent their style or add variations to it. Similarly organizations unable to innovate and re-invent will find themselves relinquishing their competitive advantage as there is no other option available for competitors but to catch up and break the code. To guard against this natural anxiety induced competitor behaviour, one need to keep innovating and stay ahead.
LESSON 5: PRESERVE BASIC GROUND TACTICS
It only needed a decent team to put Brazil out of their miseries and Germany disdainfully dispatched them on 8th July 2014 in the first half itself. The difference in the way Brazil played in the past vs. how they played in 2014 was easily discernable to Brazilian crowd and it was more of faith and hope that fuelled 2014 World Cup euphoria for Brazil rather than the country’s firm belief that Brazil had something in them to win it. Not a single match of Brazil gave the world the confidence that Brazil had it in them to win the cup in 2014 hence the shock that the world expressed after this match was not for this team of Brazil rather it was the shock of how a mighty footballing nation has fallen. The shock was in reflection as to how could Brazil amongst all other countries be subjected to such mortification. Trace the anatomy of this shock a tad further and it will reveal that it is our love for Joga Bonito style of football that made us love Brazil and this 7-1 shock is in fact a symbolization of someone attacking our personal creative space. The loyalty towards and faith in Brazil’s artistry was the only factor that kept people hopeful and wanting Brazil to progress further so that we could enjoy football a bit longer.
To be respectful, this blog mustn’t begin with Brazil’s perspective after all this particular team wasn’t creative enough and relied on the brilliance of Neymar but such has been the impact of the Joga Bonito style of play in my mind that I just love Brazil in spite of all these fallibilities as they have the craftsmanship and finesse in their heritage to call upon. My personal frustration at Brazil & Spain having lost in this fashion is very high. They can rebuild their style and restore their game to its original splendor but with Dunga’s re-appointment as their national coach, it appears that they have stronger administration oriented intent of re-sculpting an efficient team. Too early to cast aspersions on Dunga as everyone needs a second chance. Whether it is Dunga or Scolari again, whether it is Tiki-Taka or Joga Bonita or any other efficient play, certain basic ground tactics have to be adhered to predominant amongst them being ‘However attacking a team is, gaping defensive voids have to be avoided.’
LESSON 6: CURATE FROM INCEPTION
Germany had 4 years of remarkable planning. When most nations checked into a hotel for 2014 World Cup, Germany built a sporting environment called Campo Bahia at Santo Andre, 682 miles away from Rio’s Maracana stadium. It was a resort with a close by beach and construction cost financed by private investors. 23 tons of luggage and equipment was shipped from Germany. This base was very vital for temperature acclimatisation, training, recreation (table tennis, billiards, dartboards, mountain biking, outdoor pool, spa, dining room, lounge) and team spirit as players see each other all the time. They also built a media centre, goal keeper training facility and a flood lit FIFA regulation football pitch. This was their level of clairvoyance and belief in their team’s ability. Off pitch strategies to make it terrific for the players.
Due credence also must be given to Germany’s reinvention of football style. A country that was known to use a robust and muscular stance towards football, a style of mechanization changed so cathartically. This young, talented German team was different from their predecessors; they didn’t have stars but played as a composite unit. Jürgen Klinsmann began this metamorphosis as Germany’s coach and this lineage was preserved by his successor Joachim Loew (present German coach). A movement was created across Germany, talent was picked up locally, fitness levels and standards raised, a football curriculum created that was institutionalized within Bundesliga clubs and players indoctrinated into an attacking style. Are matches won only by 10 year planning. Yes this is a basic requisite. A culture of excellence has to be built. Barcelona does it with single-mindedness. They scout for talent amidst kids aged 6yrs. Germany took their football defeat seriously a decade back. Reorganization, restructuring, re-sculpting process began and culminated in a well deserved World Cup win for them. Proctor and Gamble nurtures leadership talent from within and believes in long term grooming as well, to quote an organisational equivalent.
Germany showed character and maturity on the pitch and off the pitch. They were there to embrace the inconsolable Brazilians. And why did Brazilian players cry on the pitch after the match; surely it is not the shock of exiting the World Cup as with their own perception about their limitations as a team, they must have second guessed the outcome with Germany if not the first 29 minutes ought to set that straight. The crying was genuine and perhaps may have been triggered by the feeling that they let the nation down with the manner of their loss. Using expletives to describe their emotions is hurtful and not correct. The individual players were technically brilliant with great talent; it was merely a failure of configuration.
Is it attributable to the coach’s orchestration and formula that went awry? To some extent but not entirely. Scolari had a Cup win record. After 2002, Brazilian footballing association took its eyes off the ball. Scolari had just 2 years to build a team. He cannot be bereft of blame either, as he came to the cup with no striker of class other than Neymar. Fred, Adriano and Jo were average strikers which is indeed surprising as Brazil always produced strikers of class. Curation from inception was not practiced. To build a footballing style and culture, years of toil and diligence is needed. Ground level purposeful build up was missing. Scolari took the brunt of it and immediately after the match went to his players and made gestures that implied ‘I will take the responsibility’. Next day’s headline captions on Brazilian newspapers : Vergonha, Vexame, Humilhacao (Shame, Embarrassment, Humiliation) and Va Pro inferno voce Felipao (Go to hell Felipao).
After watching Brazil debacle, a slightly petrified Argentina did offer better defensive play in the finals to Germany. For all their aforementioned brilliance, Germany really doesn’t stand out in this match hence in some way it gives credence to the argument that Brazil invited the Germans with this succulent midfield and defensive crevice to penetrate. Germany perhaps played a little cautiously in the finals, as the stakes were high. Both sides had good chances however Germany was a superior team and deserved it a shade more than Argentina for the urgency they showed. Substitute Goetze’s goal in extra time was brilliant and resulted from a terrific field pass but had Higuain and Messi scored those mighty close ones they were presented with, it would have scripted the individual talent aspect to football. Have to be fair, Germany too got two terrific chances prior to Goetze’s decisive one. Seemed like a matter of endurance between both teams as to who would concede first finally. Scintillating play making and flowing moves were few and far between. The final match wasn’t half as brilliant as a few other games played in this tournament.
Curating a team is not about beefing up activity in the footballing arena alone. Look at their Chancellor Angela Merkel. They call her Germany’s 12th man. Cheering from the stands, clapping, walking to and fro in excitement practically a fully involved chancellor. Right from the topmost echelon, support for football existed. Imagine what it does to the morale of the players performing on the pitch.
We hope Joga-Bonito and Tiki-Taka style returns. A little mixture of artistry and efficiency is delightful to watch. German style of teamwork, precision, high pressing and agility will attain new subscribers but whatever style is being adopted a strong defense line cannot be compromised. The child can explore the world only if it has a secure base of the mother. The midfielders and forwards can take risks only if they are sure about the defense line. From a leadership parlance, strengthen the core and intersperse it with enterprising employees. Leadership style, tactics, models, approach etc. can be changed and must be changed to suit the dynamics of present context but totally dismantling one’s heritage be it football or business unbraids the psychological tapestry which was ardently woven in the preceding years.