Just for kicks: lessons in business tactics from the World Cup

A month is a long time in football. It can be an eternity in business. 

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In early June the pre-tournament favourites for the World Cup – currently reaching its zenith in Russia – were Brazil, Germany and Spain, at least according to the bookies. We hope you kept your money. 

"With chaos seemingly in charge, the unpredictability of football offers valuable insight into how to survive.” 

As each favourite fell a new one was crowned, across a tournament which confounded expectations, not least in the run of the lowest-ranked side in (and host) Russia to within a whisker of the semi-final.

These are after all, unpredictable times; particularly in a place such as Russia. The inexplicable – ok, perhaps a little bit explicable – trade war between the US and China has upended industries globally and technology continues to reshape the corporate landscape in ways which no one can predict.

So with chaos seemingly in charge, the unpredictability of football offers valuable insight into how to survive, particularly in what made the teams which went deep successful – and what the ones which failed were missing.

• Adapt or die

For many years Spain has swept all before it with a game style based around possession and rapid movement of the ball - referred to as ‘tiki taka’.

Sadly for Spain, as the World Cup showed teams have developed a new way of controlling games without the ball. The competition has become increasingly comfortable setting up multiple defensive lines when the opposition has the ball, seemingly happy to absorb pressure and counterattack at speed.

Despite racking up over 1000 passes against unfancied Russia and having 75 per cent of the possession, Spain could not find a way through, lacking penetration in attack and ultimately lost out on penalties.

The message is equally clear for business – the ability to adapt is important to keep ahead. In a world where technology is increasingly disruptive, change is key.

According to Credit Suisse the average age of an S&P 500 company now is under 20 years, down from 60 years in the 1950s. it’s a trend which is accelerating.

• Conduct matters

It was amazing to see Japanese fans cleaning the ground after each match earlier in July, including after a heart-breaking last minute defeat against Belgium. It was even more remarkable to read about the team cleaning its own dressing room and leaving a note for staff.

It might not be that surprising. In the corporate world, the ethos of rugby’s All Blacks is already well studied thanks for James Kerr’s book Legacy. The world’s most successful rugby team has a cultural mantra of ‘sweeping the shed’ – a tradition which says no individual is bigger than the team – something which fits well with Japanese protocols and behaviour.

It was perhaps no surprise then Japan turned in Asia’s most-successful performance since 2002.

• Resilience will get you far

In 1996 current England coach Gareth Southgate missed a crucial penalty against arch rival Germany in the semi-final shootout of the 1996 European Championships in front of his home fans.

It wasn’t an isolated incident for the English. In fact up until July the team had lost six out of the last seven shootouts it had contested in major tournaments.

Southgate has never shied away from his role in the defeat - even appearing in a humorous advert for a pizza chain in the aftermath.

“Missing my penalty [at Euro 96] will never be ‘off my back’, sadly,” he has said. However, as England proved against Colombia it is possible to bounce back.

Alongside a meticulous approach to the game Southgate has spoken to his players of “about writing their own stories.”  He has been widely praised for his empathetic approach and positive communication (including with the notoriously fickle English media).

Research backs his approach. Studies have repeatedly shown resilience can be learned. By reminding his players they have - at least to some degree - control over their response to a situation (if not the situation itself) England was able to end its penalty shootout hoodoo.

• Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork

All the pre-tournament talk was of the big stars – Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Neymar of Brazil. All of these players went home before the semi-finals. Many less-heralded players went through at their expense.

A team cannot rely on one player to go all the way – just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA. Taking a look at the four semi-finalists – France, Belgium, England and Croatia have all displayed strong teamwork.

In Belgium’s case, strong discipline and knowledge of its gameplan had been crucial. When at its best Belgium carved teams up with well-orchestrated counterattacks.

France may be a team of stars but to get through it has needed to pull together. The sum of all its parts has been vital to its success.

England may have wasted the generation which yielded world-class talent over the past two decades but this iteration of England - while lacking the same star power - has overcome its challenges by being a strong cohesive unit.

Croatia might feature arguably the best playmaker in the world in Luka Modric but the team around him has been the real story of the tournament so far. The side has shown diligence and the ability to grind its way through.

In business, especially scaled agile becoming an increasingly used business practices, ensuing a team and its capacity to deliver is crucial. As with football, the best teams use everyone’s strengths to deliver.

• Culture is everything

Belgium equalled its best-ever World Cup performance and came agonisingly close to a first ever world cup final appearance.

It wasn’t an easy ride. The players speak three different languages. Politically in Belgium the divide between dialects has threatened to bring parliament to a standstill. This hasn’t mattered on the field.

The Belgium team has been complemented by players such as Vincent Kompany's Congolese parentage, Fellaini's Moroccan background and Lukaku’s Zairean heritage (his father was a full international for Zaire).

"[The diverse playing list is] symbolic of unity in the country,” then-Belgian football secretary general Steven Martens told The New York Times in 2012.

“The players [whose families are] from Congo or Morocco are to the benefit of the team because it means that the dualistic French-Flemish speaking matter is less of an issue."

In business too, diversity is responsible for everything good such as greater innovation, customer understanding and better decision making.

Tomasz Ng is a certified football coach and ANZ employee

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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