“Insights, one week into South Africa’s World Cup”


Didier Marlier

June 20, 2010

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M.K. Gandhi used to say that “The only authentic religion is the universal fraternity amongst people”. I guess, if he were reincarnated today in South Africa, he may have added: “And these days football is the only thing which seems to connect people from the five continents, from all religions and beliefs for a too short month, every four years…”

One week into the World Cup (I am writing this on my flight to Toulouse on this very early Friday morning) some parallels with leadership come to my mind. I chose to comment on four coaches who I equally dislike: France’s Raymond Domenech for his aggressive stubbornness, Brazil’s Dunga for having betrayed the true spirit of Brazilian football, Switzerland’s Ottmar Hitzfeld for being so bloody stiff and apparently emotionless and Argentina’s Diego Armando Maradona who’s insult to religion and football is a trademark of shame (the infamous “Hand of God”). Mind you he now has his own church and cult in Buenos-Aires…

At the time I am writing, Domenech’s France has proven that it had nothing to do in South Africa (and should have let this honor to the Irish!) after a shameful display of inefficiency against lower seeded Mexico, Brazil definitely lost its status of most admired team by true football lovers after its pathetic display against the lowest seeded team of this Cup, North Korea. On the other side, Switzerland created the biggest shock into the competition so far by defeating ultra favorite Spain 1-0 and Argentina is practically qualified after crushing their 2nd opponent 4-1.

There is something interesting in comparing the styles of Domenech/Dunga on the one side and Hitzfeld/Maradona on the other. They radically diverge on three themes: creating the ideal conditions for their players to excel, dealing with prima donnas and other artists and their level of authenticity.

  • Creating conditions for others to do and be their best: The two “D’s” (Domenech and Dunga) seem to have chosen their organizational schemes and tactics far more in function of their own preference and “ideology” (Domenech was a solid defense player not too bothered about constructing meaningful play; His tagline in the 70’s was “Football is war”. Dunga has never been an artist himself and was once stripped from his captainship in the national squad and withdrawn for one match through the pressure of his peers for his offensive and destructive comments as well as attitude on the pitch, creating tension and division.) Their strategies reflect their own mental maps rather than build on the capacities, specificities and needs of their players. There is no surprise to see disoriented and disengaged players on the field. Hitzfeld and Maradona, on the contrary spent a long time to try and understand where their players came from and built a scheme which allows these to do and be their best. Hitzfeld is aware of the relatively limited technical and creative potential of the Swiss team but knows of their cohesion, abnegation and courage. He built a not very spectacular and highly defensive strategy totally fit to his player’s capacities. Maradona after several trials and attempts to understand which structure and strategy would best suit his players seems to have found now the right alchemy.
  • Dealing with strong egos: During his tenure, Domenech has been oscillating between an aggressive (insulting, attacking his players through “matamore” declarations to the press) and passive attitude (apparently giving up leadership to some of his “big mouths” in the crucial game against Mexico). Dunga found it easier to leave all the stars at home and embark only loyal and obedient although uncreative and limited players to a few exceptions. Maradona has invited all the best players Argentina can count on (to the exception of Riquelme who chose not to join for a matter of values and principles). But all the other stars are present. For having been an uneasy to coach prima donna himself, Diego Armando probably shows forgiveness when needed and an iron fist on a few non negotiable principles. Anyone who has followed the career of Ottmar Hitzfeld as a player (Basel) and highly praised coach of the Bayern Munchen knows that he is not a “softie”. But Hitzfeld has always shown respect towards his players, preferring to clean the air behind closed door. He chose to take on board some of the “enfants terribles” of the Swiss football whilst making the rules of the game extremely clear to them.
  • Authenticity: There is something surrealist in listening to Dunga and Domenech commenting the results and style of their teams, to the point of wondering if they are not on another planet during games. They seem to be in total denial claiming that “all is under control, the team played well, we are progressing” and (like a famous CEO last Summer criticizing the press and consumers for not liking his products) blame the media for their negative coverage… How can such coaches hope to get the respect from their followers and create a truly high performance culture? Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team (quoted in an earlier post) suggest that great results are first based on authenticity and transparency. So much for it when one thinks of Dunga or Domenech. They are very predictable and coherent in their ideas and denial of reality but that is a far call from authenticity. Suffices to see the highly secretive trainings during the World Cup to confirm that transparency isn’t their cup (!) of tea… Maradona and Hitzfeld through very different styles (explosive, exuberant, dramatic for one, highly guarded and reserved for the other who prefer to let his affable and press friendly second in command Michel Pont under the spotlight) are authentic leaders. When their teams don’t do well, they will openly admit it and avoid pointing individual failures: there is no “public execution”. They take responsibility and accountability for what happens under their command. This creates trust and respect from the players and is highly visible on the pitch.

Football is an art, not a science and there is always something unfair in commenting after the facts. Most probably Switzerland’s journey in the Cup will end before the finals, a miracle could still save the French, Brazilians might suddenly rebel against their coach (as their wonder team did in 1970) and choose to play as… true Brazilians and Argentina could hugely disappoint us. Others will come and explain why with very good observations.

I find the four-yearly World Cup though a fascinating moment of communion around the globe and thought it interesting to try and draw, hopefully appropriate comparisons between our corporate life and the world’s most played sport.

Finally a quieter week within Switzerland with several Board/Team meetings and the 100th anniversary of the high school which provided me with the chance to meet many of my still actual and hopefully future friends. Have a great week all!


  1. Jonathan Wilson

    Hi Didier,

    By Friday night we had another example of an appalling leader crushing his team. Quite why England deserves an Italian Fascist as its ‘manager’ says more about the Football association than about leadership.

    In the first England game the goalkeeper made one fumble that cost a goal, resulting in a 1:1 draw. He also saved an excellent shot that prevented a 1:2 loss. In three other games so far, goalkeepers have made similar blunders. It happens. Everyone of our previous national hero goalkeepers has made similar blunders. It happens. And then you should move on. A leader thinks of the team, of each player and of their personal and combined confidence and spirit.

    Green’s selection for the next game was vital to build his own confidence, to grow the teamness and to inspire the bounce-back. It did not happen and we saw the dispirited, disengaged, disintegrated effect.

    It is rare that a leader’s single action can have such an effect, but Capello has, after creating the conditions for potential failure (refusing to tell people if they are selected till two hours before a game, refusing to allow any contact with family, making it a miserable, lonely job rather than a fun exercise, and allowing a person to remain in the team who has affairs with team members’ partners), managed England into probable exit in the early stages.
    Football is to do with competitive teamwork and thus very much with leadership. Capello has demonstrated a difference between management and leadership – and which is more important.

  2. Didier Marlier

    Thank you Jonathan, I was totally unaware of this. Worrying and sad indeed. Food for thoughts for us all. Thank you for this!!!

  3. Dimitri Boisdet

    I get myself involved into football mainly during international tournaments (Euro and World Cup) as a french supporter, or for the pleasure of watching my favorite team, Barça. As you Didier, I like the good game, and also find specially appealing the parallel one can make with a country’s society or corporate life.
    I find interesting that you pair Maradona and Hitzfeld; two very opposite personalities, two very different teams at their disposal, but yes, you’re probably right, same capacity to create the right conditions for their players to express themselves with a strong team spirit no matter what, and same will to keep authenticity at the center. As for team spirit, despite a complicated début as Argentina’s coach, Maradona achieved it; look at Diego Milito: he won everything this year with Inter Milan but is still not a regular player in the squad, and despite of all he’s smiling and cheering like no one from the bench when his team mates score!…
    Not being able to judge Dunga’s work for not having seen his team playing yet (I’ll watch tonight the exciting game against the Ivory Coast), I’ll concentrate on Domenech issue. As a French fan I’m obviously very disappointed with him for pure sporting reasons, and amazed by the exact example of what a leader is not, and can never be. First of all, this guy seems to have no clue about his job and football; a firm accountant who can’t manage figures would have been sacked immediately, he’s always there… But most of all, he’s very far from being a leader driving and managing individuals to form a team capable of fighting and wining and be above its opponents. He can count on some of the best players in the world but managed to make a “team” that should be ranked outside the top 30. He is just a weak guy, with no strong hand; today he said that the incident with Anelka was no big deal and that he handled it fine until it came out in the press. In his next sentence he declares that what Anelka said was totally unacceptable and that it was the right move to throw him out; where does he stands, how can fans and players understand him?!! Those players don’t respect him, how can he lead them to victory? You’re a leader only if people follow you…
    Domenech is just totally outside the three themes your developing: no capacity to deal with prima donnas, unable to create the right conditions for a project (was there one anyway?), and obviously no authenticity whatsoever. Let’s remember Domenech is also an actor (a bad one): his through passion is theater. He just played a part for too many years as France head coach, and only had the luck to have some players to save his bottom, his job and some million euros: without Zidane, Makelele and Thuram, called in after they retired, France would have not reached the 2006 final. Without Henry’s hand, France wouldn’t be in South Africa. Between Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, as of today, France played five games, lost three, draw two and scored only twice, receiving eight goals… Any firm with such a leader and such result would have gone bankrupt since a very long time! Hopefully, next tuesday will be his last game and I sincerely hope South Africa will win (and eventually qualify for last sixteen).
    While I’m writing, new developments coming from South Africa and the squad refusing to train…
    The worst that comes to my mind is that this team doesn’t represent France, it’s a clear reflection of today’s France… I’d rather be Swiss or Mexican at this time!

  4. Michel Audoin

    in the case of Domenech, the leadership problem is somewhere else.
    As Dimitri explains, since 2006 at least it is clear that Domenech has neither the competencies nor the qualities to lead the french team.
    What is the reason why he is still there ? Who did not tackle this problem who should have done it ? I fear Domenech is only the surface of a much more complex issue named French Football Association.
    Just to say that a leadership problem could hide another one.

  5. Dimitri Boisdet

    Dear Michel, I obviously agree with you on Domenech incompetency, but since the start, not just from 2006 where he has been able to hide it behind some player’s great talent and leadership: no Zidane, no final… You’re right in pointing other’s incompetency and lack of leadership, in this case the board of the French Federation, where we can certainly point the origin of all this shameful mess. These past days events among the French team clearly showed they – starting with president Escalette – are totally overwhelmed by what’s happening, and displayed a unique management and leadership black hole. Their decision to keep Domenech after the Euro 2008 disaster was indeed a major error, an error they insisted with during a painful qualification campaign only saved by Henry’s hand. They are now trapped between what is not acceptable and the need to justify their original move in keeping this coach! Escalette mandate runs until 2012, and I’m pretty sure that despite of all, he and the board won’t resign! As a fan, I can only count on Laurent Blanc and his wisdom to change things with a bunch of new players, but the FFF will keep running on mafia style with a former president capable of adding a 5.000 euro bottle of wine on an expense account…

    PS: Are we all aware that in the worst case scenario (team not going through last 16), the players will still share a € 5 million bonus?!!…

  6. Michel Audoin


    now the situation is clear: the french team is not qualified, the Board of FFA does not want to resign and all the french football fans are ashamed by the behavior of the players.
    Is this information of a 5 million bonus reliable ?
    Sorry Didier, it has little to do with leadership but it is an interesting business and societal case



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