What change-agents could learn from the football world cup?

So it has begun. The shrill whistle and the kick- off. Some of the most athletically blessed bodies on the planet adjusting their movements to how a spherical object rolls over the grass. And let’s not forget the crowd- the cheer, anger and tears of which add drama to what’s called the greatest show on earth.

The latest edition of the football world cup- though only a few days old- has already given us drama aplenty. Be it the hat trick by Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal’s opening match, the underdog miracle of Iceland tying with Argentina, the defending champions kneeling before the superior forces of Mexico- the fields of Russia are bringing stories to life which make the game’s fans froth from the mouth with excitement.

Of all the sporting events, football is among the most team-oriented

Enjoyable as the spectacle is, there are valuable business and leadership lessons to be garnered from the world cup format. A championship meant to determine the absolute best in the world. Surely, in such a container, lessons are to be gleaned about tough competition, overcoming challenges and strategy?

Here, we take a look at some of them.

Lesson #1: Change the myth, change the reality

Robin van Persie, who led the Netherlands squad

Underdog victories are always charming to see. But underdog victories require usurpation of myths. From the myth that “We are inferior to them”, the paradigm shift in mindset should be towards “We can and we will.”

Coming into the tournament of 2014, the Netherlands were far from a favorite to win the cup. But Spain were. In fact, they were the defending champions. However, when the two teams met in what turned out to be a shocker, Netherlands beat the supposedly superior team by a wide margin of 5-1. Change the myth, change the reality.

Lesson #2: Gain sight of Uniqueness

Juan Alberto Schaffino(L)- One of the key playmakers for Uruguay

Before Brazil’s streak of three championship wins in just five tournaments- thanks largely to Pele- came their campaign of 1950. They met Uruguay in the finals.

Owing to a difference in the format from today, Brazil needed only to tie with the opposing team to win the cup. During the first half, Uruguay found themselves unable to breach the Brazilian defence. The situation was the same for Brazil too. However, soon after the teams met head on for the second half of the battle, Brazil chipped one in to the opposition’s goal post. Time ticked by and Uruguay couldn’t find an equalizer. But then, they reinvented their game and managed to score two goals within the last twenty five minutes, thanks to Alcides Ghiggia and Juan Alberto Schiaffino.

This reinvention was possible largely because of the force of uniqueness which the Uruguayan team brought to the game. Uniqueness is the ability to see a container with a fresh pair of eyes, finding possibilities you may have missed before. By the last match in the tournament, running into the last minutes of the final match, Uruguay has created a particular viewpoint about approaching a game, and also their opponent’s prowess.

But the team displayed brilliant strategic strength when they decided to see things anew, and changed their game accordingly, becoming more focused on their forward movements, creating opportunities where there were none before.

Lesson #3: Find your Balance

The Italian, Gaetano Scirea- considered one of the greatest defenders of all time

Balance is a container’s tendency to retain a state of equilibrium. In footballing terms, it could be said as a team’s urge to retain possession of the ball as much as possible. After all, one who possesses the ball dictates the gameplay rather than just respond to it. And that’s exactly what Italy did in 1982 when they met Brazil, the cup favorites. Italy sent the other team home, winning the match, with the ball being played for the bulk of the time by them.

Lesson #4: Learn the Context, stay for long run

England’s legendary Bobby Moore in action

A key aspect that divides the truly superior team from the others in a tournament like the world cup is longevity. While it’s important to win individual matches, it’s also crucial to sustain stamina and team morale till the end match. To pull this off, the team should have a good idea about the context.

Context is made of multiple aspects- including the history and the current status of the container. In terms of the world cup, these would be factors like the place of the tournament(the altitude, weather etc.), which teams fall into your group, the strengths and weaknesses of the other teams you are playing etc. Understanding the context helps you strategize for the long term. This in turn helps you transform from a contender to a champion.

No team has exemplified this better than Brazil in the 1970 title. Boasting Pele in the lineup, Brazil played one of the crucial matches in the tournament against the defending champions, England. In what was one of the most memorable games of ‘70, Brazil beat a tough opposition by 1-0. Brazil’s victory, though by a small margin, came against one of the best defenses ever put up in the world football arena. After the match, Brazil went all the way to the finals where they beat Italy 4-0.

The match against England could have put a stopper to Brazil’s progress. However, understanding the context, and the particular strengths and weaknesses of England, Brazil surpassed them, and all other opponents that came afterwards.

Lesson #5: The power of Here and Now

Greg Muller(r), part of the squad, here lifting the cup in his campaign after 1970

Here and Now refers to the ability to be present in the current time and space. In a semi-final match of the 1970 title, known as the ‘game of the century’ you see this played out in style.

Italy scored first at the eighth minute while West Germany could score the equalizer only in the 90th minute. However, during a 13 minute interval in the extra-time, when the pressure on the players to perform was enormous, an astounding five goals shook the nets of either sides. The end result was an Italian victory by 4 against 3. If that’s not an example of terrific presence of mind, of the Here and Now, nothing is.

Lesson #6: Let the Pioneer show you the way

Diego Maradona- on his way to scoring the ‘goal of the century’

It’s practically heresy not to mention the infamous ‘hand of god’ when your are talking about the FIFA world cup. And we are not going to be heretic here, not when there is a valuable lesson to be learned from that match.

The lesson is not to handle the ball with your hand when the referee is not looking. Rather, the lesson comes from the goal that came four minutes after the notorious goal. This latter goal too came from the same player- Diego Maradona. Thankfully, this time the goal came from his boot and not his hand, and what a goal it was! It’s not for no reason that it’s called ‘The goal of the century.’

Maradona gained possession of the ball behind the half-line. And from there, he surged ahead, on his own, never forsaking possession of the ball, sidestepping(to put it lightly) not one or two, but five English opponents before kicking it past the goalkeeper to beat England 2-1.

There are only a handful of people in human history who could do that. In fact, scratch that. Only Maradona could have done that. And that makes him the archetype of pioneer- one who is diligent about doing something that’s never been done before. And when a pioneer is part of an organization, when s/he could lead a transformation(from a draw to a victory in Maradona’s case), it may very well approach magic.

Russia 2018 is sure to give us even more stories of inspiration and business lessons that could be applied across organizations. Meanwhile, we hope the ideas mentioned here would stand you in good stead. May the best team win!



The trailer for the film, 'Pele: Birth of a legend'

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