Euro 2016 What Business Can Learn from Soccer

At a time of economic and political uncertainty in Europe, the Continent's business leaders could learn a thing or two from the coaches at the Euro 2016 soccer tournament - especially when it comes to recruitment and motivation.
Germany's national soccer team is riding high at Euro 2016.

Like any group, the euro zone is driven by moods and feelings. From a purely psychological standpoint, then, it would be best if France won the Euro 2016 soccer tournament semi-final this Sunday and not neighboring Germany.

Not only did Germany win the 2014 World Cup, it also generates strong export surpluses that the other euro-zone members cannot touch – certainly not France, which could use a boost.

In the merciless world of soccer, however, feelings and psychology don't count as much. A host of other factors are more important, most notably the ability of the coach.

From a business standpoint, coaches are a bit like product managers who for a very short period are responsible for extremely sensitive, spoiled employees who earn more than they do. Although coaches are in a position that most business leaders would avoid at all costs, what can the latter learn from the former?

Whoever wins or loses on Sunday, the much praised Franco-German friendship will survive.

First, coaches have to master the art of imposing their system on their team in the shortest time possible, while maximizing motivation and steeling their players' nerves.

After all, soccer players have to be at the top of their game until the bitter end, particularly when a match goes into overtime and is decided in a high-pressure shootout.

Joachim Löw, who leads the German team, has already achieved this. But his real victory is not the 7-6 penalty shootout win against Italy or the 3-0 defeat of Slovakia. Rather, it's the successful mobilization of his current assets in the field – his players.

Thanks to Mr. Löw's leadership abilities, his team long ago became a brand that maximizes income from sponsors and minimizes the boredom that was once associated with German soccer.

And like every business executive, Mr. Löw is intelligent enough to delegate tasks among a large team that takes care of talent scouting, tracking the competition, dealing with the media and keeping players in shape.

In short, the power of the collective is what's most important in soccer, something the European Union wishes it could have mastered before its British team member decided to transfer.

A few other coaches in Euro 2016 have been astoundingly successful in harnessing this collective power. Antonio Conte, for example, has turned a group of players the press once insulted as "Italian grandpas" into an effective unit with a strong defense.

And then there's Portugal's coach, Fernando Santos. He transformed improvisation artists into a disciplined soccer army that waits until an opponent's weakest moment to attack.

For Mr. Santos, there's no such thing as ugly or beautiful soccer, just successful or unsuccessful. His philosophy is reminiscent of the approach to economic policy once taken by Gerhard Schröder, the Social Democratic chancellor who valued pragmatism over ideology.

Wales and Iceland, on the other hand, are benefiting from the attention that every underdog attracts after defeating a favorite – which doesn't diminish what they've achieved.

The second and third-tier teams have been the surprise hits of Euro 2016. They can teach the business world an important lesson: Sometimes passion is more important than sheer size.

Among the Euro 2016 coaches, Didier Deschamps is the authoritarian. When he lets the French players have a say, it's more to provide cover for his strict leadership style than anything else.

Mr. Deschamps is constantly switching up his team, which he justifies by pointing to the changes made by his Germans opponents. The French coach faces the added pressure of playing before a home audience that expects him to win.

Judging strictly by the leadership qualities of the coaches, the German national team should win the semi-final on Sunday. But as in every market, there are irrationalities.

Just as competition authorities at times make bad calls in the business world, so to do referees make mistakes in soccer. And crossbars on the pitch are bit like spontaneous strikes in the workplace.

But whoever wins or loses on Sunday, the much praised Franco-German friendship will survive.


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