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The World Cup: Who will lead when the whole world is watching?

8 min read


You think you and your team know how to operate under pressure?  Imagine your every move captured by hundreds of cameras and scrutinized by billions of people. Success can bring a lifetime of glory, but one small misstep can tarnish your entire career. That is the pressure of the World Cup.  Do you think you have what it takes to lead in that kind of environment? SmartBrief’s Sean McMahon asked Fox soccer analyst Bobby McMahon (no relation) to share his insights.

What kind of players bring the best leadership to their teams at the World Cup?

First off, there is the issue of formal versus informal leadership. Traditionally, formal leadership has been assumed by the team captain. The team captain is normally selected by the coach and is a player who embodies the values and skills deemed critical by the coach, who will be accepted by the squad and whose play will not be adversely impacted by the responsibility.

The critical values and skills will vary from coach to coach, but the selection will also be influenced by the makeup of the squad. There will always be the informal leaders within a team — the players who by their nature will step forward to organize and inspire. Context is vitally
important, and there is no magic formula.

Some coaches may simply appoint the most highly skilled player on the team and/or the most experienced. Others might place a higher value on physical courage or organizational abilities.

A coach will also take into consideration how well the player can translate the nuances of his tactics in the heat of battle — or even the courage to change tactics on the fly given certain situations.

A relatively cool head in a crisis is usually looked for — after all, just as a team captain can provide inspiration, a captain who has just been sent off [ejected from the game] can have the opposite result.

Something that has become more important over the last decade or so has been media savvy. A player who is comfortable dealing with the press is going to have an advantage over a player who may get overly nervous or one who may not understand the need to provide quotes while not providing shark chum for the press gallery.

Which teams might exceed expectations at the World Cup because they have the right leadership chemistry?

You cannot separate the issue of leadership from that of experience. It is widely accepted that countries that have players who have played regularly in the UEFA Champions League hold a significant advantage because of the pressure and standard of play in that competition. (Conversely, it is worth noting that the Internazionale squad that just won the UEFA Champions League included six players who have captained their national teams.)

Lucio, the Brazil captain, stands out as someone who embodies physical courage, skill and great human qualities. After five years at Bayern Munich, Lucio moved to Inter last summer. In the Champions League final, he found himself playing against his former team and was a key contributor in a 2-0 Inter win over Bayern. That withstanding, during Inter’s post-game celebrations, he made a point of taking his three young children with him to the end of the Estadio [Santiago] Bernabeu — occupied by the Bayern supporters who had stayed behind to support their team even though all were hugely disappointed in the result.

He took time to acknowledge the Bayern supporters and took a Bayern scarf thrown from the crowd and tied it around the neck of his youngest child. This all happened while photographers were snapping picture of the victorious Inter team and the trophy at the other end of the park. A wonderful gesture.

Are there any coaches whose leadership skills — perhaps even more than their technical skills — boost their team’s chances at the World Cup?

Inspirational leadership skills will only take countries so far in the World Cup, and much of it has to do with expectations. If you are Ricki Herbert, the coach of New Zealand, you could be the greatest tactician who has ever set foot on the planet but it will make little difference — the Kiwis are not going to win the World Cup.

For New Zealand, someone who constructs a detailed tactical plan that it beyond the team’s capability to absorb and implement is as useful as screen doors on a submarine. New Zealand needs an inspirational leader because three gallant losses will be considered a huge success — the country is focused on not being embarrassed. If we were to look at the other end of the scale at a country such as Italy, gallant efforts mean nothing — the bottom line will be win=good, loss=disaster — even if they make it to the quarterfinals or beyond.

At the upper echelons, the full package of tactical nous, inspirational leadership, a cool head and a wee smattering of luck (ala Napoleon’s generals) will be required.  Sometimes we have seen a coach engage a team with charisma and other leadership skills before bringing technical skills and tactics into play. When German Otto Rehhagel took over a poorly performing Greece team in 2001, most thought it just another case of a coach looking to pick up an easy pay day after the modern game had passed him by.

Instead, Greece experienced something quite extraordinary. Rehhagel turned a demoralized squad into European champions within three years. Rehhagel had been a successful coach for many years in the German Bundesliga and understood how critical morale was to the squad. The players bought into his general philosophy as relatively minor changes brought about better performances and then results — the start of a reinforcing positive cycle.

What is more, rather than replicate modern tactics, Rehhagel had something much more daring up his sleeve. When the European Championships came around in the summer of 2004, Greece shocked everyone by turning the clock back. Tactics that had fallen by the wayside decades before were resurrected by Rehhagel and implemented perfectly by a Greece side that had become the consummate team. By the time the other teams had worked out how to negate Rehhagel’s tactics, the tournament was finished, and Greece had become Europe’s most unexpected champions.

Unfortunately for Greece, the element of surprise had faded by the time it came round for World Cup qualifying 2006, and they never made it to Germany. However, not to be discouraged, Rehhagel led Greece to the 2008 European Championships and to World Cup 2010. Another “back-to-the-future” approach is not as likely to work again, but at age 71, Rehhagel still has Greece punching above its weight.

Over the years, who are some of the former players who have been the most successful at translating the leadership skills they learned on the pitch into success in other areas?

Prior to the wages explosion over the past two decades, the ambition of players who had come to the end of their careers was limited to opening a small business (pub or corner shop) or staying in the game as a manager, coach or physio. Nowadays, many more players will make enough money during their playing days to keep them financially secure for life. This might open up the coaching and managerial opportunities to more who lacked the skills to play at the highest level but focused on becoming career coaches — Arrigo Sacchi and now Jose Mourinho are great examples of this.

There are also examples within the present and past coaching fraternity of men who would have been successful no matter their level of formal education and the industry they chose. Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United is commonly regarded as one of the most successful managers of his generation, but he was only a journeyman player. His early soccer career operated in tandem with an apprenticeship in the Clyde shipyards. The leadership qualities that became so obvious later in his life first showed when he was elected as a union shop steward. His phenomenal inner drive to pursue championships year after year, combined with his keen insight into personalities and his ability to get the best out of individuals and teams, would have marked him down as a captain of industry no matter his chosen career.

For more World Cup thoughts and analysis from Bobby McMahon, watch the Fox Soccer Report on Fox Soccer Channel throughout the tournament.  In addition to his work with Fox, Bobby offers his expertise in sports operations and business consulting via his firm McMahon Consulting.