Yesterday Spain won the Euro 2012 football championship, beating Italy 4-0 in the final. With that, they force a discussion on whether they are the greatest team ever. After all, they are the first nation to win three major tournaments in a row, having won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. While I find such discussions interesting and will engage in a lively debate with my son when he returns from camp, that’s not my point here.
Instead, I’m going to plant the seeds of a best-seller: ¡Viva Espana! Leadership Lessons from La Furia Roja: What the Spanish National Team Can Teach Us about Leadership and Winning Teams. (How do I trademark this?) Surely the blurbs will contain numerous puns involving the word goal. I think it’s a natural, given the subjects in this genre range from Jesus to Attila the Hun.
Humor aside, I do believe Spain’s reign reminds me of many of the qualities I try to both embody and foster. That’s very natural given my long association with soccer, and I often credit much of my success to lessons learned as a player and coach. They are not earthshaking or profound, but perhaps this puts them in a new light. Here goes:
· Teamwork—Create list of the top 100, or even 50, of the top players in the world, and numerous Spanish players would be on it. Iniesta, Xavi, Alonso, Silva, Fabregas, Casillas for sure. Sergio Ramos and Pique are world-class, Torres is fearsome when on his game, Juan Mata would start for many teams but is rooted to the bench, and Jordi Alba is a rising star. Yet Spain has a team concept unlike few others, based on the tiki-taka style. The origins of the term are unclear, but it’s said to refer to the precise ticking of a Swiss clock and the intricacies of how the pieces interact. In a gross oversimplification, the style is I-receive-the-ball, I-give-the-ball, I-move-to support. In a sense, teamwork is the core value.
· Hard Work—To make the tiki-taka style work, players must work incredibly hard, moving all the time into space. That takes not only physical stamina but also mental exertion to be reading myriad intricacies of the match as they unfold. People marvel at how Spain possesses the ball, but I’ve also noted another amazing facet of their play which is rooted in pure toil. When Spain does lose the ball, unlike most teams who retreat and get a bit of a break while setting up the defense, they immediately pounce into a defensive mindset and chase down the ball. They apply suffocating pressure. You also can’t develop the amazing skill these players have without having put in countless hours of mind-numbing ballwork.
· Simplicity—From when I could first understand soccer tactics, I have been taught it is a simple game, based on maintaining triangles. So often that becomes lost in more complicated strategies and the whirlwind of play. It’s a simple approach but maddeningly difficult to make happen. Yet Spain maintains this as their essential method of playing. Study them carefully, and you see that tiki-taka is really the constant reformation of triangles.
· Adaptability—Spain’s all-time leading scorer, David Villa, could not play because of a serious knee injury. His natural replacement, Torres, has been in a long slump. Legendary defender and spiritual leader Carlos Puyol also could not play because of injury. What does coach Vicente del Bosque do? He plays a striker-less formation, with a false nine who really was more of a midfielder. He takes his normal right back, Ramos, and moves him to play central defense. When the team took the field, it was simply a matter of sticking to the core elements above. The triangles just took on different measurements.
· Vision—The previous point also required vision in seeing how Spain could play the same way, just with some variations. But there is more to it than that. Frequently coaches try to force players into a certain, rigid system. del Bosque took the players he had for this tournament and figured out how to adapt the system to their gifts.
· Humility—Before the semi-final, German players declared themselves the team to beat. They lost to Italy. Before the final, some Italian players said they believed they had Spain’s number. Meanwhile, Spanish players were giving interviews in which they expressed how fortunate they felt to be in the tournament again, hoped they would have a chance, et cetera. Humility also helps one keep focus and drive after successes.
· Confidence—Perhaps we have become spoiled, but critics were saying that Spain had become “too boring” because of how much of their possession didn’t necessarily lead to clear chances. They did not consider that the possession is also defensive, based on the notion that the other team cannot score if it cannot get the ball. Other critics said that the striker-less formation would never work. del Bosque and Spain never wavered in their approach. After the opening match, they went a record 509 minutes without allowing a goal; and, ironically, the striker Torres ended up as top scorer despite playing only 189 of 570 minutes.
I’m not sure I actually have the makings of a book here; someone else might take that on. I know there will be dozens of clinics and videos on learning to play the Spanish way. They will have something in common with those leadership books and with how Spain plays soccer: making it seem so much easier than it really is.