Seven Pointers For Business Leaders From Brazil’s World Cup Humiliation

With apologies for perhaps stretching the sport-business metaphors too far, here’s a take on Brazil’s worst result in the nation’s World Cup history.

1. Put Your Trust In Young Talent

Joachim Low’s impressive German team members are not only young and talented; they have been given their head for more than four years and boast playing records belying their still young ages. Despite the presence of 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, the new all-time Word Cup top scorer, Germany’s team against Brazil still had an average age of 24.8. The players also have bags of international experience, with Kroos (24), Muller (25) and Ozil (25) all starting the World Cup campaign with more than 40 international caps. Many of Germany’s young stars in Brazil were blooded in the South African World Cup of 2010 when they were barely into their 20s. Germany’s team then was the second youngest in the tournament and Germany’s youngest since 1934. That’s not an easy thing to pull off for football managers who know that their next game may be their last. Promoting seriously young people to top-line positions is a good deal harder in business than in sport (see my post here for the reasons why). But it can pay off if you have the right training and support structures in place for fast-trackers.

2. Give Your Managers Time to Succeed

Low (54) is on his fourth tournament after eight years as Germany’s manager and has a solid record, taking his team to the positions of finalist, and semi-finalists respectively in the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and semi-finalist in the 2010 World Cup. Despite that track record, however, Germany has still not won a World Cup since 1990 and a European Championship since 1996. Low also hardly had job security, starting in 2006 on a mere two-year contract. Eight years is a long tenure for a manager without a tournament success and the German football authorities deserve credit for giving Low much more time than would typically be given to a chief executive who performed creditably but did not really excel.

3. Pay Attention To The Small Stuff

It’s easy to say it now with hindsight but just how costly was the yellow card that Brazil captain Thiago Silva picked up in the quarter-final match against Colombia for the easily-avoidable crime of blocking a goalkeeper’s clearance. That Silva had already scored the opening goal was of little atonement. Brazil’s defence wobbled badly without the team’s defensive linchpin and his absence could so easily have been avoided with better team discipline. There may be parallels here in business, for instance with high-performing sales people, who forget proper corporate discipline in their pursuit of ever greater achievements. And the fact that Silva is the team captain makes him all the more culpable.

4. Make Sure You Have Key Person Insurance

If Silva’s absence was significant, the unavailability for the Germany game of Neymar, Brazil’s 22-year-old super-striker, was a killer blow. Neymar had scored four goals in the World Cup and was rivalling Messi, Muller and Rodriguez for the Golden Boot award as the tournament’s top scorer. His back injury, sustained in the Colombia game, ruled him out of the rest of the World Cup and, without their potent strike weapon, Brazil looked limp in attack as well as utterly spineless in defence. It would be easy to opine here about a united team with a dedicated work ethic proving superior to a team inspired and led by a genius but football is not that simple, as Messi and others have demonstrated. In a business sense, the insight is about more than having a Plan B that could come into play when a talented executive is sidelined for whatever reason. A cadre of talent at the top is the answer and companies such as Tesco , Dixons and the former menswear group Burton have in the past shown how this can be achieved.

5. Do The Right Thing In A Crisis

Brazil’s players naturally wanted the earth to swallow them up after their humiliating 7-1 defeat. Yet Brazil’s manager Luis Felipe Scolari strode onto the pitch and ordered them to face their furious fans to applaud them for their support during the tournament. It hardly makes up for the disappointment on the pitch but does maintain a healthy respect and may even have helped prevent a more violent crowd reaction. Similarly, facing up to failure as executives, particularly when at quoted public companies, is never easy or pleasant. Communicating at all times, whatever the result, is nevertheless the best way to approach Kipling’s twin imposters of triumph and disaster.

6. Take Personal Responsibility

Scolari is a wealthy man and an experienced coach who will have no shortage of lucrative job offers. He has also won the World Cup with Brazil before in 2002 and taken Portugal to the final of the 2004 European Championships. So he could have shrugged off the defeat as a bad day in the office, though this would hardly have been tenable or popular. In admitting to the game being the worst moment of his life in post-match interviews, he aligned himself wholeheartedly with how the country’s fans were feeling and shared their pain. It may not alter very much but it is part of the job of a senior executive to take personal responsibility for corporate failure.

7. Manage Expectations

With Brazil hosting the World Cup for the first time since 1950 (when they lost to Uruguay in the final), the expectations were always going to be enormous. Winning was literally the very least that was acceptable to those who felt that Brazil’s time had finally come so the humiliation that has come with this crushing defeat will not be easily forgotten or forgiven. Could Scolari and Brazil have done anything to lessen such expectations? It’s almost an impossible task in a nation that is not only soccer mad but (unlike England) is blessed with the natural football skills that have won it the tournament on several occasions. Company bosses normally do not have the bar set quite so high, yet Tesco chief executive Phil Clarke has not found it easy to follow the legend that was Sir Terry Leahy and Mike Coupe may be about to face a similar challenges in taking over from the successful Justin Rose at Sainsbury’s. The trick is not to lower expectations but to successfully manage them. Like winning against the Germans in a World Cup, however, it is extremely difficult to achieve in practice.

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