Opinion

Is Germany’s World Cup Triumph a Triumph of Management?

Yale SOM’s David Bach finds five key factors behind Germany’s victory at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil—and they’re all about smart management.


"Portugal has Ronaldo, Brazil has Neymar, Argentina has Messi, but Germany has a team!" This tweet made the rounds after Germany's unprecedented 7:1 thrashing of host country Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semifinals. Indeed, the narrative that quickly gained hold-even more so after Germany beat Argentina 1-0 in the final and lifted the cup for the fourth time in the tournament's history-is that "Die Mannschaft" triumphed thanks to extraordinary team spirit, a triumph of the collective over individual stars.

Yet this narrative is wrong. Germany's squad was studded with stars. Granted, Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar are, respectively, the first-, second-, and sixth-best-paid soccer stars in the world, and Germany's top-ranked player on the list, Mesut Özil, ranks a relatively paltry 13th(1) but Germany had the world's best goal keeper, Manuel Neuer; eight players who played in the 2013 Champions League final; and four players who ended up among the 10 nominees for the tournament's best player award. All of them are multimillionaires and many anchor some of the world's most prestigious club lines.

Germany's win was instead a triumph of management. Sound management cultivated a deep and broad pool of stars. And sound management forged them into a team with a mission and a plan. Peter Drucker reminds us that the task of management is to "make people capable of joint performance.”(2) A key to this, according to Drucker, is a "commitment to common goals and shared values." "The mission of the organization," he explains, "has to be clear enough and big enough to provide common vision." Since "[e]very enterprise is composed of people with different skills and knowledge…[i]t must be built on communication and on individual responsibility…. All [members] have to think through what they owe to others-and make sure that others understand." Equally importantly, "management must also enable the enterprise and each of its members to grow and develop as needs and opportunities change. Every enterprise is a learning and teaching institution. Training and development must be built into it on all levels- training and development that never stops."

The mission-to become world champion-was certainly clear enough and big enough. But it was hardly unique. It motivated all teams, or at the very least the ones with a realistic shot at going all the way. For instance, no other team seemed more driven by the goal of winning the cup than Brazil. One might even say that it became an obsession that ultimately did the team in as the players crumbled under immense public pressure. Important as the mission was, it did not set Germany apart. What distinguished "Die Mannschaft" was a combination of five factors: long-term capability development, meticulous planning, an inclusive culture based on open communication and individual responsibility, competitive intelligence, and the confidence to deviate from the plan when circumstances required it.

Long-term capability development. The seeds for Germany's World Cup victory were planted a decade ago. In 2004, a mere two years after losing the World Cup final to Brazil, German soccer stared into an abyss when the team was eliminated during group stages of the Euro Cup, having scored only two goals and failed to win a single match. Two years later loomed the World Cup in Germany and the risk of humiliation at home. It was what change management scholars call a "burning platform" moment that enabled sweeping change. A new coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, and his assistant, Jogi Löw, brought in fresh players, modernized preparation methods to stress physical fitness and mental strength, and emphasized youth and skill over experience. "[Klinsmann] risked alienating fans and players alike by turning aside the more experienced players of generations past in exchange for going younger and faster in a competition with a large amount of pressure," noted one observer. (Incidentally, Klinsmann did the same in the 2014 World Cup as U.S. coach by leaving popular veteran Landon Donovan at home).(3) Löw stuck to this formula after taking over as German head coach in 2006. His 2010 squad was the third youngest of the competition at 25.0 years and this year's championship team came in at 26.31 years, making it the sixth youngest among the 32 teams-Argentina, incidentally, was the oldest at 28.92 years. The ability to repeatedly replenish and rejuvenate the team was made possible by systemic talent development across the country over the past decade led by the country's soccer federation. Six of Germany's starters against Brazil were part of the starting lineup that won the European under-21 championship in 2009 (another player on that team, incidentally, was Fabian Johnson, who played for Klinsmann's U.S. squad in the World Cup). Capability development has not been limited to players, however. Under Klinsmann's leadership, the team also developed a second-to-none scouting capability that provides competitive intelligence on opponents (see below), a coaching staff that includes several sports psychologists, and a separate management arm in charge of planning.

Meticulous Planning. Oliver Bierhoff assumed the newly created job of manager for the national team in 2004 as part of the Klinsmann revolution. A former German standout forward who scored the winning goal of the 1996 Euro Cup, Germany's last triumph prior to this World Cup, Bierhoff not only manages sponsorships and PR, but was also the source of perhaps the most visible manifestation of the team's ambition in Brazil: the team base, "Campo Bahia." Germany's soccer federation and private investors invested about $42 million to build a sports resort specifically for the use of Germany's national team during the World Cup, a facility that will now become a luxury holiday resort. "The Germans just came in and did their own thing," explained Guto Jones of the Bahia tourist board.(4) With a location chosen to be "within two hours flight of the team's group games to minimize travel" as well as to "allow acclimatization to the weather,(5) the resort has a soccer pitch with the exact 22 mm World Cup pitch grass length and within walking distance of the luxury villas that housed the players.(6) In contrast, "teams such as England simply checked themselves into a hotel in Rio-and then faced a daily battle through traffic for training.”(7)Fitting every stereotype about German meticulousness, the soccer federation "shipped 23 tons of luggage and equipment for Germany's stay in Brazil, including mountain bikes, billiards and table-tennis tables, and even dartboards."(8)

An inclusive culture based on open communication and individual responsibility. The purpose-built facility not only provided ideal training conditions, it also cultivated the much-lauded team spirit. According to left-back Benedikt Höwedes, "[t]his village has been a major factor in building up the special team spirit in the group today.”(9) As a German soccer observer pointed out, "The idea of living together in this way has been very good for team spirit. You have your own space but the players are always bumping into each around the resort. It's different to a hotel where you just have a room.”(10) It was in this open environment, conducive to communication and exchange, that the team grew together. The team itself was of course already inclusive in many ways. It included players of Polish, Turkish, Moroccan, and Ghanaian origin and thereby reflected a modern and much more diverse Germany. The players' families and partners were part of the team and traveled to Brazil courtesy of the German soccer federation. And when the team learned that the Brazilian hosts would supply buses and drivers, the squad quickly made its longtime bus driver a member of the equipment staff so he could come along. However, all the emphasis on community never replaced individual responsibility and accountability. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer's post-game interview after the quarterfinal match with France was one visible manifestation. Congratulated by a reporter on a stunning save in stoppage time that prevented a goal that could have sent the game to overtime, Neuer first credited his defense with taking away Karim Benzema's passing options, adding that this forced the French striker to aim for the near post-"and if it goes in there it's a goalkeeper error," he concluded with a smile.

Competitive intelligence. Beginning with Klinsmann and especially under Löw, Germany transformed traditional scouting into sophisticated competitive intelligence. The scouting team, led since 2005 by Urs Siegenthaler, compiles detailed analyses of Germany's opponents, develops strategic options, and prepares materials to brief coaches and players ahead of every game. Even though Siegenthaler and his right-hand man Christopher Clemens traveled to São Paulo to watch the second semifinal between the Netherlands and Argentina, the team had long finished compiling detailed dossiers on both teams and how to beat them. According to Siegenthaler, it is a process that takes months and years; the trip to the stadium to watch future opponents live is mostly so people cannot later claim the scouts did not even bother to go function function function function function function function watch.(11)The raw material for Siegenthaler's analysis is supplied by 40 students at the Sports University of Cologne and consists of statistics, articles, and video footage of every player and every team the German squad might encounter. American sports fans are of course familiar with such sophisticated analysis and game planning since it is a pillar of American football in the NFL. And at least since Moneyball, the exploitation of large amounts of sports data to gain competitive edge has become an open secret. But in soccer, a game that only this year saw the introduction of goal-line technology and where a referee continues to decide how long 90 minutes actually is, Germany's embrace of data, analysis, and systematic game planning based on competitive intelligence is radical.
 
Confidence to deviate from the plan. One of Siegenthaler's pre-tournament conclusions was that the climatic conditions in Brazil would make it impossible for left- and right-backs to continuously sprint up and down the sideline, playing crosses on offense and then being back on time to thwart opposing wingers. This led to Löw's unusual and highly controversial strategy to play with four interior defenders in a line while moving Philipp Lahm, arguably the best right-back in the world, into the defensive midfield. After holding firm through the round of 16 despite tremendous criticism, Löw surprised many when he modified the plan and moved Lahm back to right-back for the match against France and the remainder of the tournament. "I am not immune to advice," he declared and thereby exemplified the role of management in fostering learning and adaptation that Drucker stressed.

Stars? Yes. Team? Also. But the discernible difference appears to have been superior management-developing talent and bringing it together around a shared mission, values, and a plan. After all, in Drucker's phrase, management "makes people capable of joint performance." This is precisely what Germany did, and the team's success could become a case study for the difference sound management can make in hypercompetitive settings.

1  "Top 10 Highest Paid Soccer Players 2014," Sporteology.com, 12 June 2014. Back
2  Peter F. Drucker, "Management as Social Function and Liberal Art," in Peter F. Drucker, The Essential Drucker (New York: Harper, 2001). Back
3  Matt Lichtenstadter, "How Jürgen Klinsmann's World Cup Squad Decisions Mirror Germany 2006," worldsoccertalk.com, 22 May 2014. Back
4  Simon Hart, "World Cup 2014: Germany's self-built home from home, The Independent, 20 June 2014. Back
5  "Campo Bahia," wikipedia.org (last accessed 14 July 2014). Back
6  Simon Hart, "World Cup 2014: Germany's self-built home from home, The Independent, 20 June 2014. Back
7  Jeremy Wilson, "Germany's purpose-built training camp has given them extra edge," The Telegraph, 12 July 2014.Back
8  Ibid. Back
9  Ibid. Back
10 Ibid. Back
11 "Urs Siegenthaler: Der Mann, der die deutschen Matchpläne vorbereitet," Lübecker Nachrichten, 13 July 2014. Back

Deputy Dean & Professor in the Practice of Management