6 Business Lessons from the World Cup 2018

world cup russia
I spent 12 days in Russia, watching some football games and soaking up the carnival atmosphere of the World Cup. While there are many personal moments I will cherish, I’m also reflecting back on some professional and business lessons I took away from this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

(1) Clockwork Efficiency

Some 20 minutes before the World Cup final was due to start, Ronaldinho had just exited, there were performers on the pitch, the flags had to be unfurled, the anthems still had to be played, and there was mayhem all around. Yet the game started on the dot at 6 PM local time. This was true of almost every game – the last 30 minutes leading up to kick off looked chaotic, but on reflection were running like clockwork. Presumably because all the hundreds of people involved knew their cues, somebody was watching the clock, and they had practiced this to death. Kudos to FIFA and the organisers for this display of causal efficiency. Bottom line, you don’t have to go all military to retain operational efficiency. Most large events or businesses have a similar veneer of chaos, but you can always tell the ones that are operationally tightly run by the extent to which they keep to time.

Even getting close to a hundred thousand people in and out of stadiums, from and to metro stations was managed quite effectively with the help of hundreds of volunteers. Interestingly, there were a lot of police and uniformed, military or paramilitary personnel but the primary interaction with the spectators was through the volunteers. So people had a pleasant interaction with a bunch of young people, while being clear that any bad behaviour would be dealt with. The additional lesson here is to distinguish between the experience and the governance.

(2) The Impact of Willful Internal Strife

One of the stories of the world cup was the extent to which internal strife impacted the performance of the tournament favourites. The two examples here are the last two World Cup winners – Germany and Spain – and both provide interesting insights. On the eve of the World Cup, Spain hit a snag. Real Madrid announced Lopetegui, the Spain coach, as their next manager. The timing could not have been worse, and Madrid probably had their internal political issues to address. But it was done unilaterally and without consulting the Spanish FA. Consequently, the president of the FA removed Lopetegui from his post and appointed Fernando Hierro in his place. Hierro was already a part of the coaching set-up and no outsider, but it was a big ask at a critical juncture. When Spain played against Russia and passed the ball aimlessly for 120 minutes, you could question why he didn’t come up with a different tactical model or instructions. Why did he play with Koke, a defensive midfielder who was singularly unadventurous, rather than add to his goalscoring firepower? Perhaps he was adopting a safety-first approach, being a new manager? Perhaps he was out of his depth? Or the fact that Hierro was himself a defensive midfielder may have had something to do with his approach? You can question the set of decisions leading up to Hierro’s appointment, but it was made on principle, and Spain suffered.

Germany had the same manager – Loew – who has been at the helm for one of the most successful periods in their footballing history. But their split was more internal. Following an appearance with Erdogan, the Turkish president, there was a backlash against 2 players of Turkish descent, namely Ozil and Gundogan, and reports emerged of a split between the Bavarians and the others in the team. Again, Germany’s disjointed performance was obvious for people to see and we are still seeing the aftermath of this with the German football fraternity split over Ozil’s decision to leave the national football team.

The obvious lesson is that no organisation can perform if there are significant internal schisms or disruptions to the operating model at critical junctures. If either of these incidents had happened 6 months ago, you could argue that both these teams would have gotten over them by the time the cup came around. But the more interesting question here is about principles. The Spanish FA took a stand that on the surface was a principled one (though some called it an ego issue), and paid the price. The German players of immigrant origins were dealing with their own identity issues. The bigger lesson to be learnt here is how to deal with these kinds of issues without letting it impact performance. Any answers?

(3) Leadership Lessons

Ms. Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was a one-person leadership lesson through the late stages of the tournament. She stood with the fans in her team jersey, as one of the people. She visited the Croatian team after the games in their dressing room after their game with Denmark, with no pomp and ceremony, to congratulate them. And on the final, as the rain came down she stood in the rain hugging her own players, and the winning French team members in a heartwarming act of humanism. Vladimir Putin deserves credit for Russia delivering a wonderful World Cup, but on that stage, he was overshadowed significantly as he stood under the umbrella, while Macron and Grabar-Kitarovic shared the rain with their compatriots.

In a sporting event so dominated by men that no other woman has been anywhere close to centre-stage, it was also quite dramatic to see Grabar-Kitarovic be effectively the only woman who was celebrated over the course of the 5 weeks of the World Cup. It was a gilt-edged opportunity to stand out and Ms. Grabar-Kitarovic rose to the occasion in all her red-and-white-chequered glory.

(4) Smart Branding

As a fan, it has always bothered me that FIFA so tightly control the branding and use of the World Cup, in connection with their Corporate Sponsors. This time, being there, I felt the benefit of the strong branding. Right from after the 2014 event the branding for the 2018 event has been in force. The Dusha font was specifically developed to work across English and Cyrillic scripts, with Asian overtones, and has been consistently used everywhere. You may have seen this in all the FIFA World Cup images and events. And the control of the branding means that the colours, fonts, and logos are instantly recognisable as official. Whether they are signs painted on the floor of the metro stations, or they are on Television, the strong branding has played a role in the instant recognition of the World Cup event, locations, merchandise, and signage. I have to say that this significantly helped to identify signage and directions around the World Cup cities as well.

(5) Harnessing the Collective

The World Cup on the pitch was clearly a victory for the collective. The GOAT (Greatest of All Time) aspirants all went home early. Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar et all were back home before the semifinals. Croatia was the very embodiment of the collective over the individual. France too were a team where individuals were all able to put the team above themselves. Whether it was Mbappe, or Pogba, or Griezman, you could see they were all playing for the team, not for personal glory. While it was reassuring to note that teams still win over individuals, it begs the question of what great teams and managers do to instill the right culture. The France manager, Deschamps was himself a World Cup-winning player, but played in an unglamorous role, which was derided by Eric Cantona as a ‘water carrier’. The Croatia manager was largely unknown before the World Cup. If anything, this eschewing of the star culture was a real reassurance for those who have always believed in the team over the individual.

This isn’t a call for removing individualism. Great performers will always shine – as Modric, Mbappe, and Pogba all did, but great teams are built around overarching team ethics that both elevate and subsume the stars. That is the mark of great management.

(6) Technology Wins

One of the biggest talking points in the World Cup was the use of VAR. FIFA made a bold move to implement VAR (Video Analysis Replays) in the World Cup which allowed referees to use video replays where there was a reasonable doubt about the decision. A bank of assistant referees was continuously watching the replays and signaling to the on-field referee where there was a potential need for a replay.

In the main, the technology was a success. A number of decisions were given or reversed based on the video evidence. By and large, the right result was achieved. You would have to say this was a big step forward for football. The one notable case where people had doubts was the call in the final to award France a penalty. Still, you can say that the referee looked at this closely and from a number of angles, and made his best call. The rules in football still leave room for subjectivity and judgment, so this allows the referee to base that judgment on more data than ever before.

If anything, FIFA have erred in setting the expectations of this technology by announcing that only clear and obvious cases will be reviewed. Why? The only driver for the technology should be that the right decisions are reached every time, as best as possible. This idea of ‘clear and obvious’ has led to a lot of quibbling between pundits on panels. Whereas really, all we should be concerned with is that the technology enabled the right decisions to be achieved, and in 9 out of 10 cases was an unmitigated success.

One area where more work needs to be done, and a point I’ve argued before, is the ability of VAR to engage the audience, especially in the ground. The tv audience gets to see the replays, as do the referees. There’s no reason why the audience at the ground shouldn’t see the same replays in the way tennis and cricket audiences do. If anything this reflects on the organisers’ view of the maturity of the spectators to behave with decorum no matter what the final decision of the referee is.

Introducing technology is always fraught with risk, as most businesses know. The lesson here is to be clear about the value of technology and data on better decisions, and also focusing on the user experience of customers.

On a side note, the other big technology winner at the World Cup was Google Translate. A point already highlighted in the Guardian newspaper. Google translate was the saviour for the hundreds of thousands of people coming to Russia from across the world. A quarter of a million people just from South America alone, for example. Most of these people were communicating with shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and restaurant staff via Google Translate and doing so quite effectively. Our taxi driver from the airport to our apartment in Moscow had google translate set up so he would talk into it in Russian while driving and it would repeat the words in English. He even managed to point out some sights and tell us a couple of jokes, over the course of our half hour journey.

There are probably many more if you look hard enough, but these are the ones that stand out for me. What are yours?