I watched the European Soccer Championships recently with glee. It was a great tournament and historically significant for soccer. The Euros is arguably the best grouping of national soccer teams outside of the World Cup and is played every four years. On Sunday, Spain emphatically won the championship beating Italy 4-0. In doing so it is established itself as the greatest team of all time.
Because I was working on planning the Infusionsoft Leadership Academy during this tournament, I was thinking about the principles of Jim Collin’s book “Built to Last” and the principles that make a company lasting and great. I started to think about these principles in the context of the Euros and what Spain accomplished.
Spain was the expected winner of the Euro 2012 championship. They had dominated international play for the past eight years. But don’t take that at face value. Consistently winning at such a high level is rarely accomplished in any sport. It is even more rare at the national level in soccer. There are several reasons for this. For example, major championship tournaments happen every two years. A lot can happen in two years. Coaches, players, competition can all change. These are national teams and are comprised of players that may play most of the year in other parts of the world for various professional club teams. So while they compete professionally, they must come together in these tournaments. That makes keeping people unified and aligned very difficult. The long pro season before the tournaments results in injuries and physical and mental fatigue that also have an impact and in these tournaments are typically played in a neutral location.
Is Spain Built to Last? I think so and here is why.
Collins puts forth four criteria that determine a great company. I think this can apply to great teams and thus considered these factors relative to Spain’s futbol team.
Performance. Like a great company that dominates a market, a great team will win – and win when there is a lot at stake. Spain is the only team in history to win three major tournaments consecutively.
- Euros 2008
- World Cup 2010
- Euros 2012
Only one other team has ever won two European championships consecutively. Nearly a hundred years of history has proven this accomplishment as extraordinary. And like most sports, it is getting more and more difficult to sustain greatness for a long period of time. Spain’s streak ran more than six years of domination. They are the odds on favorite to win the World Cup in 2014.
People questioned Spain’s strategy to play without a recognized striker, wondering if they would score enough goals. But they have scored more goals and conceded less than any other team.
Impact. A great company and team will have an impact. Spain played an innovative formation absent of a striker. In other words, no one was designated as primarily offense. That meant ever team member had to think strategically and participate in offense and defense. Every player was an offensive threat. Indeed, the second goal in the championship game was produced by a defender who ran nearly the length of the field to score. Spain used this formation to maintain possession of the ball. This strategy resulted in only won goal being scored against them in the entire tournament. Each team that faced Spain tried to find an answer for their formation. None succeeded. There was criticism of their style. But they have played their game consistently for more than six years. Teams will study this strategy and team for years trying to find similar success. Rob Smyth, writer for the Guardian explained “Spain have evolved significantly over the last four years, although their game can still be explained in one phonetically pleasing phrase: tiki-taka. Few sides have had such a concise identity, with Holland’s Total Football in 1974 perhaps the only equivalent. Not since that team has football been so dramatically redefined.”
Reputation. A great company is admired and respected by people outside its walls, often being used as a role model. And so a great team is also admired and held up as a role model. Spain’s national team was the team to beat and going into the Euros had the opportunity to make history. Being the odds-on favorite means team gets up to try and de-throne the top team. Spain rose to the challenge. Spain’s success and dominance has caused the soccer world to rethink how the game is played. The conversation after the game was how the Spanish side compared to the greatest teams of all time. The Spain brand of soccer will be talked about and debated, copied and mimicked. Until something changes, they are expected to be ranked #1 and win the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
Longevity. A great company has staying power, remaining healthy for decades. This is perhaps the hallmark of Spain’s greatness. In its run of three championships, it has endured a coaching change, player retirements, injuries. It did not win by flashes of genius or inspiring moments. Rather, it played a disciplined and patient game that was merely unbeatable. It dominated other teams by ball possession not by overwhelming scoring. It consistently took care of the details and enlisted the entire team in scoring. You could not deploy a defensive strategy to shut its one or two top scorers down. You had to shut a team down.
Spain’s coach, Vicente del Bosque – the first coach to win a World Cup, a European Championship and a Champions League title – noted, “We played our own game. There were no real external influences – we were faithful to what we’ve done in recent years…..To win three titles is almost impossible. Congratulations to the players. I didn’t really want to be the coach who wins but the coach who educates. I want to keep preparing them for the future.”
Del Bosque is now targeting further progress in the years ahead, with Spain hoping to become the first European team to claim a World Cup in South America at Brazil 2014. “This success for Spanish football is something historic but now we have to look to the future,” said del Bosque. “There will be more challenges ahead, including qualifying for Brazil and the Confederations Cup next summer, where we’ll represent Europe. But we must go on. This is a great era for Spanish football and we are talking about a great generation of footballers.”
There may have been teams in history (Brazil 1970) that had greater individual players. In the end, it was not individual talent that made Spain the greatest and Built to Last. In fact it was the opposite of great individual talent. A Built to Last team will not be dependent on one or two individuals but rather rely on the alignment of all players to a vision. Spain was somehow able to enlist the commitment of highly paid superstars to their coach’s game plan. Everyone contributed and was focused on the purpose of winning. Highly paid individual superstars subjugated their egos to the vision of the team and to their nation. The result was effective, consistent and efficient performance that has had an impact on the game of futbol and will be remembered as one of the greatest teams in history of the game.