There is a reason why football is called “the beautiful game”. Apart from the fact that a passion for the sport galvanises millions of fans from all corners of the world—of all races, religions, and socio-economic classes—the game itself resembles a 90 minutes-long lyrical ballet. Waves of attacks and counterattacks featuring the 22 players in the arena, and their intuitive understanding of where they need to be on the field, resembles poetry in motion.
Some of the most creative and successful proponents of the art of football have been the South Americans; Brazil and Argentina in particular. For decades, these two teams—with icons such as Pele and Diego Maradona in their fold—have enthralled football fans with their tic-tac-toe (also popularly known as tiki-taka in Spanish) style of playing, where a web of short, precise passes so very often lead to a spectacular goal.
But football isn’t just a sport that is a visual treat, but a valuable case study in management too. In the ongoing FIFA World Cup being held in Russia, Brazil’s campaign for the ultimate glory in world football is progressing as expected with the team having qualified for the quarterfinals. Football, like any other sport, isn’t just about the sum total of the individual capabilities of a team’s members. It is also about a team’s collective strengths and weaknesses, vis-à-vis the opposition. That’s why this edition of the World Cup has seen Brazil make modifications to its aggressively free-flowing style of attack, which has given way to a more measured approach and more thought being put into the on-field strategy of moving the ball along. The brand of football on display from Brazil in Russia is almost akin to that exhibited by some of its European counterparts, who not only rely on smart offence but stout defense as well.
But Argentina’s quest for glory, which was brutally ended by France, has been a spectacular disaster, raising into question the future of Argentinian football. Yet, the disappointment—Argentina has never failed to qualify for the quarterfinals of the tournament since 1994—may be the best thing to have happened to the South American nation’s football, which is an essential piece of their national identity. This will force them to re-look at their strategy, not only in terms of the kind of football they play, but also the off-field strategy of how they ensure the longevity of their footballing prowess at an association level. Sometimes, the more important studies in management don’t deal with what to do but what not to do.
Argentina’s 2018 World Cup campaign serves as a classic example. The biggest takeaway from the Albiceleste’s performance was that there is no substitute for a closely-knit team that supports each other. Not even the unearthly footballing skills of a single player like Lionel Messi. Football is, after all, a team game, and it takes 11 players on field to make a team.
Controversies and irreconcilable differences between members of a team can never be healthy for an organisation; just as they weren’t for Argentina. Much has been written about the rift within the Argentinian national side with team manager Jorge Sampaoli on one side and the players on the other. Sampaoli, who was handed the job just before the 2018 World Cup was to begin after his predecessor Edgardo Bauza was sacked, brought in his own strategy by tinkering with the squad formation and moving Messi—who prefers to attack the opponent’s goal post from the right side of the field—into a position that he doesn’t normally play in. Very often Messi was found playing deeper in the midfield, something that he doesn’t naturally do.
Sampaoli and Messi (who is also the team captain) are, in a way, like the top two executives of a company who play equally crucial roles in steering the enterprise forward. If the two heads of an organisation aren’t in sync with each other, it has a telling impact on the team’s performance, including the morale of other members. Players like Messi and Sergio Aguero haven’t exactly concealed their displeasure of Sampaoli during public interactions.
After a 1-1 draw with Iceland and a 3-0 drubbing from Croatia, Argentina was in dire straits and needed to win against Nigeria (which they did by scoring two goals to Nigeria’s one). But there was anarchy in the ranks by then. It has been reported that the team had stopped responding to Sampaoli and were calling the shots on on-field strategy, including substitutions, themselves. The discord was evident after the final whistle. Even as Argentinian players huddled together celebrating the win and their passage to the playoffs between the top 16 teams, Sampaoli left the pitch in a huff.
The other key lesson from Argentina’s World Cup nightmare was the importance of teamwork and having the right person for the right job. By nature and skills, Messi is an attacking forward. But by playing him deep in the midfield, he was underutilised, which was evident by the fact that he scored just one goal in the entire tournament (he also did miss a chance from the penalty spot). Moreover, the opposition teams quickly figured out Argentina’s disjointed attacking effort and channelised their defensive maneuvers towards blocking Messi, with as many as three defenders guarding him in some of the matches. This meant that even when he received the ball from his midfielders, Messi wasn’t able to do much. Sample this: Messi received only two passes in the box in the entire World Cup. That only a collective team can ensure success is reinforced by the fact that individuals such as Sampaoli and Messi are successful in their own right. Sampaoli managed the Chilean team before this, which went on to win the Copa America tournament, and Messi’s exploits with club team Barcelona are too well known. But when it came to working together, they failed to create magic.
In organisations, as in sports, teams need to have stability. Having the same set of colleagues work together on projects for an elongated period of time helps foster a sense of understanding that translates into efficiency. Sampaoli didn’t appear to agree with this philosophy since he did not begin any game with the same 11 players. In fact, in his first 10 games, Argentina has fielded as many as four dozen players.
Finally, Argentina’s tapering success on the global football scene has also been attributed to an ageing national team, with inadequate young blood rising to the top. According to Goal.com, only two players from Argentina’s three junior teams that won the under-20 World Cup in 2011, 2015 and 2017 made it to the 2018 World Cup squad in Russia. A constant challenge faced by organisations at present has to do with finding fresh talent, who come in with zeal and a fresh perspective towards things. Such talent needs to be identified, nurtured and groomed to become leaders of tomorrow. Much like what global consulting firm McKinsey or FMCG giant Unilever have done.