Luck is the residue of design—even in football

July 9, 2010


Isaac Getz is a professor at ESCP Europe Business School and co-author of Freedom, Inc. (Crown Business, 2009). The opinions expressed are his own. –

This Sunday will decide the World Cup champion. Yet, most nations will ask themselves again what’s needed to build a world-class national team?

The majority will go for the easy answers: great players, great coach. England had both. Some nations, though, might search for more complex answers—as Germany did.

After the French won both the 1998 World and 2000 European championships, the German World Cup winning player and coach Franz Beckenbauer said: “France is a model with its school tracks [combining] sports and studies and its [soccer clubs’] training centers. We are trying to copy… but we will need ten years to catch up with them.”

And Germany did. Its football federation completely redesigned the German football system. Its most important new component became the mandatory academy for every professional club which trains future great players beginning from the age of 12.

Like earlier in France, it assured the constant supply of top candidates to the national team. The current German team’s young players are its products.

And concerning the “great coach,” Aimé Jacquet, the coach of the French 1998 team said: “The clubs start by relying on their training centers… In the club, the most important person is the head of training. The coach of the first team is just a passing technician.”

And that is about the coach of the professional club who has an opportunity and obligation to work with his players every day. In comparison, the national coach working with his players several times per year for periods no longer than weeks looks even less significant.

Yet, his role—beyond the obvious selection of the candidates—is critical: it’s that of a leader. From a group of talented individuals he needs to create a team. That’s not easy.

It may even require refusing the selection of the most talented player if he may ruin the team’s cohesion.

Jacquet did it by rejecting then top European player before the 1998, Eric Cantona.

For that, the coach has to know each candidate not as a player but as a human being, sharing time and meals not only with him but also with his family, as Jacquet did. But there is more.

Once 20-something players are assembled, building a team means treating everyone with the same attention, care, and fairness.

As John Wooden, ESPN Coach of the Century and of NCAA 10-time champion UCLA team said: “It’s hard for second-class citizens to do a first-rate job—to take pride in their work or the organization that treats them poorly. This is not their fault. It’s your fault.”

This involves not only treating the starters and the subs equally—and paying even more attention to the second because their motivation may go down by not playing.

This also requires the constant vigilance as to the emergence of the “cast system” among the players that some—stars in the best clubs—might be willing to impose.

That’s what happened to the French team in this World Cup and it was the coach’s fault—and not some players’—for allowing that. True teams share common values and common language.

It’s a coach’s role to establish them because players who don’t talk to each other don’t trust each other, including with passing the ball and covering one’s back.

Such a group never becomes a team and it breaks down rather sooner than later.

The initiative of designing a football system lies with the national federation. Its president needs to behave as a business owner. He needs to insure that there is a constant supply of the key “raw materials”—highly prepared candidate players.

Further on, like the owner hiring a CEO capable of leadership, he has to hire a coach who beyond technical skills is a great leader capable of building a team.

Finally, he needs to design the great football, medical and nutritional facilities and staff so that the team will have no excuse for not delivering the best possible performance.

It’s the Brazilian federation president’s fault that on the eve of the 1998 World Cup final the top Brazilian player Ronaldo poisoned himself by eating something on the Parisian streets.

If the nutritionists’ subsystem was present there, this would never have happened.

Such national football system’s design may even be possible for the poorer countries. For example, many African nations unwillingly “outsourced” the development of their best players to the European countries.

They can hence concentrate all their resources on designing the remaining—and less expensive—parts of their national football systems.

To summarize, building a national football system capable of delivering a national team with constant world-class performance is not simple and takes years.

But it is similarly difficult to build world-class performance business. Research shows that only 2 to 5 percent of large companies significantly outperform their competitors during the span of a decade.

Of course, all this painful design of the national football system may not suffice for its team to become a champion.

One wrong whistle, “God hands,” weak nerves during the penalty kicks, or simple luck may let the game slip off and with it chances for the title.

Yet, as the Major League baseball systems’ innovator Branch Rickey said: “Luck is the residue of design.”

Picture Credit: An England football fan reacts after a 2010 World Cup second round soccer match against Germany at Free State stadium in Bloemfontein June 27, 2010. REUTERS/Christian Charisius

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In the U.S., the club system for youth focuses almost entirely on each team’s few stars, consigning the parents of the rest of the team to pay the cost of developing these stars. Neglected players soon lose interest, and good talent is lost by this oversight. Watching German World Cup play in the new manner shows the efficacy of the practice of treating all team members as if they make substantial contributions, even when sitting on the bench. What England and the U.S. may learn about all this between now and 2016 will show us how well this French/German message is reaching through to the rest of the world.

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