A global stage for leadership lessons at the 2010 World Cup Final

By Karuna Kumar

The hearts of billions of football fans skipped a beat when Andres Iniesta kicked off the ball in Soccer City, Johannesburg and scored a half volleyed shot from a pass by Cesc Fabregas, defeating The Netherlands 1-0 and giving Spain their first World Cup title. What a moment it was in sports history!

The 30-day pageant had finally come to an end. The triumph of Spain was splashed across all media and loud fanfare and cheer filled the air. Spain relished the honour, giving coach Vicente del Bosque his winning moment.

From the football pitch to the boardroom

Looking at that triumphant win retrospectively, there was more than one lesson to be learnt; lessons that reflect on managerial and leadership skills that can be taken into the corporate space.

An interesting observation for the discerning manager would be the uniformity in the style of playing, the techniques used and the strategies adopted by the football teams throughout the 60-odd matches played during the World Cup. One could say with conformity that a certain level of standardization had been adopted into the game.

According to Permjot Valia, an angel investor and owner of the fund management business, Flight and Partners, “There is a global feel that has permeated into the game. Most of the players have travelled outside their home country and have played in foreign surroundings. For me, that is crucial. Talent should travel outside their home country as that makes them more adaptable and flexible.”

Today almost all football players are playing for clubs all across the world. They learn and adapt to the best playing techniques and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The tools to compete with have become more accessible which invites more competition, making it more fierce and strenuous.

So was Spain’s win expected?

”I always believe that teams that have too much talent do not do well. Superstars bring big egos onto the team, which are difficult to handle. But Spain proved me wrong,” Valia admits.

On a different note, Rob Sheldon, owner of the Kew Park Rangers Football Club, categorically states, “I always knew that Spain would win it. They are highly trained, levelheaded players and work well as a team.” Sheldon was so confident that he even put a bet on them.


Spain’s victory was a strong example of the importance of teamwork to reach a greater end.

“A great team is one where the players can hold the ball well, defend well and score good goals,” explains Sheldon.

The rules of the game are the same for sports and business; what is different is merely the stage where the players perform. As an attribute in business, teamwork must be given as much significance as other attributes of individual excellence.

“France (fell short) because they were not a team. There were many internal issues between players and a distinct backlash between the players and management,” Sheldon adds.

Valia says, “For me, teamwork is what synchronises the effort and gives it a direction to move forward. It is as much a crucial element for football teams as it is for management teams. Helping each other overcome mistakes and obstacles together is key to a winning team – whether it is sport or business.”


Along with teamwork comes collaboration. “The Spanish team may have had seasoned goalkeepers, great ball jugglers, sound dribblers and strikers, but if these individual talents had not blended into a team, they would not have been able to win the World Cup. Teamwork is the key to fine performances,” Sheldon points out.

Just as the country is bigger than the President, so is the team bigger than the individual. What differentiates a group from a team is the sense of interdependency. In a team, each one is dependent on the other to perform and build a level of trust with each other. That’s the word “team” in its essence.

“In business we need to ensure that everybody understands what they need to do and that they feel the same sense of responsibility towards the company goals. You need to make people realise how they fit into their organisations,” Valia explains.

Failure breeds success

A pertinent question here is, was failure the key to success for the Spaniards? More often than not we concentrate too much on the successes than the failures. Without the backbone of many wins, Spain had a modest start in the World Cup finals. A defeat at the hands of Switzerland in the first match was less than motivational.

“I consider the loss to Switzerland as a miracle in disguise for the Spanish team. A sense of loss unites people. It makes them take notice of their weaknesses and work on them. The presence of the external threat works well internally. They all understand that if the team doesn’t stand up together and fight, everybody is bound to lose,” Valia says.


Leadership plays a key role in any win. It is a leader who sets the tone for the success of the team.

The leadership style of del Bosque is evidence to true sportsmanship. He laid down essential lessons for the leaders of the corporate world. It is not just about passion, rivalry and emotion; it is all about bringing out the best in people. Having won five league titles himself, del Bosque had a measured approach towards the win. A conciliatory nature enabled him to deal with the star- studded dressing rooms and maintain the unity and performance levels through the game.

“I think what worked in his leadership style was that he kept his emotions at bay from the players. Unlike others like Maradona, whose emotions were all over the place, he held his calm throughout the game,” Sheldon notes.

Valia adds, “Vicente had an indispensable role to play here. He is a coach who draws on the knowledge and experience of the players to inform his decision-making. His cerebral nature and composure led the team players to a strategic win. He is a fine example of elegant, effective and collaborative leadership.”

Insurgents vs incumbents

The corporate world can be divided into two: incumbents and insurgents. Incumbents refer to companies dominating markets, while insurgents refer to those struggling to survive and aspiring to outbid incumbents.

The one lesson that stands out through the World Cup is of unknown insurgents having the capability to unseat incumbents, almost overnight. The win of the Spanish team, a team that has only two European championships and one Olympics to its name, has demonstrated this lesson quite illustratively through the various games.

Working right

Nurturing players from a very young age seems to be the mantra for successful teams. There are no shortcuts to developing talent and reaching the top. It is a process – a gradual one. Inculcating an environment of sound professional growth and learning and investing in the training of talent, is a wise decision on the part of managers.

“It is often thought that the more money that is spent, the better the outcome of the game will be. This is a faulty thought. Real Madrid Football club usually acquires a surfeit of expensive players, but most of the players in the Spanish team were from Barcelona, a club that has always taken a more academic approach to football,” Valia points out.

Sheldon, a devoted Arsenal fan, adds, “I think it is more about choosing the right players and training them right.”


Motivation is the magic that makes things work. An authentic relationship between team members encourages a positive environment and motivates players to walk that extra mile. A streak of passion with a few great talents is the perfect recipe for a winning team – on and off the football pitch.

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