The World Cup is unlike any other event in sport. Every four years the 32 most talented teams in the entire world compete for a chance to be champions. Even in the United States, where soccer’s popularity is minimal compared to other nations, the tournament still has a funny way of captivating audiences for a few weeks in the summer.
As I watched the US Men’s National Team compete in their four matches this year, I found myself trying to understand how strategy plays a role in the World Cup. The tournament is unlike any American sporting event so it was truly fascinating to examine this idea of strategy with a completely new lens. I’ll confess, I have a very limited knowledge of The Beautiful Game, but I certainly admire the skill and drama that’s made it the most popular sport in the world. Even with my lack of expertise, there are two strategic themes of the World Cup that jumped out at me more than anything else: 1) Just survive. Winning isn’t everything. If your team is able to weather the storm in the Group Stages, you’ll advance. 2) Capitalize on opportunity. Soccer has a frustrating way of giving teams minimal chances to make an impact on the outcome of the game. So you better make the best of every situation.
The Group Stage of the World Cup consists of four teams playing in a round robin against one another. A point system determines which two teams advance out of the group stage. You’re awarded 3 points for a tie, 1 point for a victory and 0 points for a loss. There is also tie-breakers implemented based on goal differential and head to head competition. The United States was actually able to advance this year with 1 loss, 1 tie and only 1 victory. This confirms the strategic theme of survival. Teams can make it out of the Group Stage despite losses and ties. If you stick to your team’s plan, you’ll make it out. This idea is a great metaphor for strategic planning in the business world. The strategic planning process is always volatile and evolving. With so many shifts and changes in the market place, it’s difficult to trust your strategy and execute on your business plan. But this buy-in is critical. Companies that are able to trust their strategic plan and keep an eye on their goals have a much better chance to succeed.
The second major strategic theme of the World Cup is the idea of capitalizing on opportunities. Soccer games are low scoring for a reason. It’s extremely difficult to get the ball between the posts with 10 defenders and 1 goalie in your way (Not to mention that I don’t think I could even score a Penalty Kick with no goalie). Taking advantage of the few chances teams have during the game separates the winners from the losers. Look at the United States. We had a chance to score a game winning goal against Belgium in the final minutes of regulation. We missed the shot and ended up losing the game in extra time… Once again, I’ve taken a page out of the World Cup’s book of strategy and applied it to my own business. Whether it’s the release of a new product, a marketing campaign, or even being the key-note speaker at a conference; it becomes critical to get the most out of these experiences. You won’t get many opportunities to capitalize, so make the most of every chance you get.
No matter what realm of competition and teamwork, these ideas can help any organization in their strategic planning process.
I certainly caught the World Cup fever this year and I hope you did too. I’m bummed the USMNT is out of the tournament but it was a great ride.