The Italian Azzurri Crashed, American Soccer Retreats, Alabama Crimson Tide Soars: Business Lessons

The Italian Azzurri Crashed, American Soccer Retreats, Alabama Crimson Tide Soars: Business Lessons

Italy, yes, the Azzurri, will not be playing in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That will be the first time that Italy would fail to qualify since 1958. In a match that decided its fate, the four-time world champions could not overcome Sweden. Sweden will be in Russia while the Italians will enjoy their coffee and pizzas as they watch the games on televisions and online video streams, at home.

Few weeks ago, U.S. Soccer team also failed to qualify: Trinidad and Tobago knocked out the U.S. team.

United States is a brilliant nation. It has the capacity to connect its citizens to a shared vision. From science to technology, literature to military, America has always set the global benchmarks. But in one specific sports, soccer (yes, football in anywhere else), America continues to struggle. This year, a very small country, Trinidad and Tobago, extinguished the U.S.’s plan to play in Russia 2018 World Cup. That is it: U.S. Men Soccer lost to Trinidad and Tobago and will not play in the next World Cup.

But my favorite sports team in America, the college football undisputed king, the Alabama Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa continues to perform. The Crimson Tide is so consistent that you know what you are getting when they march into the field against an opponent. As the Tide rolls, expect people living longer in Alabama (oh yes, football is a religion in Southern America!). With no top-four professional leagues (National Football League, Baseball, Hockey and Basketball) in that state, the Tide and the Tigers (The University of Auburn) are all that the citizens have as top-grade sports.

In all these occasions, there is a business lesson: legacies mean nothing, what matters is what is happening now. Yes, IBM was a storied tech juggernaut but today we have the likes of Google and Amazon eclipsing it. GE was iconic, but GE has since lost what made GE supremely legendary. Markets do not care about legacies, they care about results. When the results fizzle, markets move to the next great firms.

The Systems

There are three things in football (soccer for Americas) as you build teams: recruit, train (or prepare) and deploy. You have to have the talent, and you have to train them. Then, you need to deploy them to go and win games. The recruitment means that you must have a pipeline of talent from which you can assemble those that will work with the coach. Where you do not have that, a great coach may struggle.

In a scenario where you have the team, the next phase is preparation. That is where the coach leadership and capabilities come into play. Lastly, after you have done preparation, you must condition the team to go out and execute the strategy. They need to play, as you have prepared them.

U.S. Soccer: Soccer is a new game in America. It is not attractive and the finest sports people in U.S. have better options. Why join a soccer league to be paid $40,000 per year when you can play American football or basketball and command millions of dollars? The U.S. Soccer does not have the talent and that is the biggest challenge today. Without that talent pipeline, the training and deployment fail. The problem that stifle progress there is Recruitment.

Italy Football: The Serie A, the Italian league, has since lost its shine, and evidently diminished compared to the glory days legends like Maradona, Lothar Matthäus and George Weah played in it. Today, Serie A is a shadow of its past.  The best footballers do not see Serie A as the top destination. So, with a broken local league, Italy faces a challenge on building national teams. Yes, they still have Juventus but that will not be enough. The problem with Italy is not lack of talent, but preparation. If the league is not strong, even the best talent may not flourish. The problem in Italian football is at the phase of Preparation.

England has the same problem few years ago when it also failed to qualify for World Cup and then instituted that Premier League teams must commit to develop local football even if they are not playing English players. England was addressing the Recruit issue, at least to develop the talent pipeline. England has a good league but continues to struggle with local talent.

Alabama Football: The Alabama football team is the most successful college football program in the last ten years in America. Its recruitment is legendary with some of the reserves very capable of being starters in some other college programs. Also, the coach of the team, Nick Saban, has developed a process which makes it easy to build a consistent system. College football is inherently challenging because the average duration for players is about 2.5 years since most do not start on first year in college and within four years they have to graduate. The very best do not even wait to graduate; they abandon school and join the professional league. The implication is that a coach will have to recruit new students to develop, constantly. That process of finding them is not easy. There is nothing like contract as the students can also transfer to other schools. So, Nick Saban has recruited right, prepared the players, and then motivated them to go out and execute. The implication is evident: the team is winning.

The deployment phase is critical. In most African national football teams, we do have talent though we struggle with preparation. But even when we prepare right, the deployment could be an issue.  Imagine in cases where Nigeria’s Super Eagles or Elephants of Côte d’Ivoire say they would not play unless their allowances are paid. With that challenge, these players are not in the best conditions to go out and execute anything they have been prepared for.

Business Lessons

Largely, running a sports team mirror how companies function. We compete for talent. We train staff and we expect them to perform their duties right. They need to execute so that we can win in the market place. If you want to start an AI company in Nigeria, you may struggle with elite AI talent, and that immediately puts you at a huge disadvantage to Silicon Valley. Also, in some sectors where you have seen the talent, but the training apparatus to develop them severely lacking, you can still struggle. Besides, there is the issue of staff motivation in order to execute the corporate goal and mission. When you miss any of those phases, companies struggle.

We talk of legacy, but truthfully markets do not respect such. There are constant disruptions happening and those disruptions are based on these factors of recruit, train and deploy. If you pay very close attention to them, you can get to Alabama Football quality. The Crimson Tide has mastered how to manage all the phases, and yearly, it presents to America a strong football team with potentials to win championships. It has a process, and there is something to learn from a team that remains consistent despite losing more than 70% of its players to graduations, professional leagues, etc yearly. If a sports team can work with that, it means companies with longer staff tenures should even perform better.


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