Footballing fail

Drawing the lessons from Germany's World Cup failure

Joachim Löw die deutsche Nationalmannschaft feiert den WM Sieg auf der Fanmeile vor dem Brandenburg
Better days – in 2014. Source: Imago

“We had enough opportunities.” That was the perfect description of Germany’s soccer team, as summed up by Mats Hummels, its star central defender, immediately after an embarrassing 0-2 defeat to South Korea that knocked the defending world champions out of the World Cup.

The team did not fail because it got too old, or had bad luck with injuries. Die Mannschaft simply failed. It did not take the opportunities it had.

That’s also why the implications of the team’s failure in Russia are far more complex than the instant reactions of millions of wannabe national coaches in Germany and elsewhere. But it also makes the search for answers all the more interesting, above all for managers of all stripes.

Since Wednesday’s defeat, the German national team’s core problem has become clear: complacency. It’s a trait that creeps in after many years of success. At first, this goes unnoticed, but eventually it will flare up in all its fury. Complacency is pure poison, for human beings, for teams, for companies and their managers.

German business, currently sunning itself in the warmth of a decade-long boom, is undoubtedly susceptible to it. The car industry is a particular example. As it piled up record profits in recent years, it failed to react early enough to the trend of electric cars. By the time it did, new challengers like Tesla and Geely were already off to the races.

This comes down largely to management. Before the World Cup, Jogi Löw, the German coach (pictured), did not succeed in driving out his players’ arrogance. He may even have failed to notice it. Not so long ago, the German team was known for high spirits and a happy clowning-about by some of its players. This year, by contrast, we read of players complaining about the ugliness of their hotel carpets.

Add to that Mr. Löw’s own arrogance, revealed in his decision to omit key players like Marco Reus from the starting line up in the World Cup’s first game against Mexico. The tournament has a long way to go, Mr. Löw said. We need to rest some of our stars.

Trainer Joachim Löw Mimik Einzelbild Freisteller Aktion Fußball Fussball FIFA WM Weltm
Worse times in 2018. Source: Imago

Don’t fall in love with your own image

Soccer players, like companies, need a good dose of modesty and humility. It prepares them better to deal with setbacks. Anyone who falls in love with their own image will react to problems with panic, followed by defeatism. Deutsche Bank knows all about this: It wanted to become the FC Hollywood of the financial sector, or maybe FC Wall Street. Now billion-dollar fines and ratings downgrades have plunged it in deep trouble. And yet its current marketing slogan is “Positive Contribution.” Contrition sounds different, more along the lines of a famous quote from German footballer Andreas Brehme: “If you have shit on your shoe…you have shit on your shoe.”

There are some known remedies against arrogance and complacency, but it’s up to the boss to administer them early on. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos uses his “Day 1” philosophy to remind staff to think of the company as a start-up, still looking to conquer worlds. The idea has certainly done Amazon no harm. In fact, it may well have been a driver for its creativity and innovation.

Jogi Löw has been in charge of the German team for 12 years, and until now had enjoyed great success. On the one hand, it is understandable that he kept faith with proven players like Thomas Müller and Sami Khedira, even after they started the tournament badly. But why omit a hotshot young goalscorer by the name of Leroy Sané from the squad entirely? That suggests Mr. Löw’s own philosophy of “never change a running system” had begun to damage the team.

Your wisdom? All wrong

Experience is hugely important to teams. But so are hungry youngsters who still have everything to prove, even if that makes them provocative. This is a difficult concept for many hierarchically-minded bosses to grasp. Many CEOs in Germany still hope to survive the digital revolution with a few buzzwords, an office in Berlin and a new pair of sneakers. This is often for selfish reasons: when a company radically reorients its processes, and makes customer feedback a key guideline, it undermines the power of established figures, since much of their wisdom will be revealed to be wrong. That includes the pearls of wisdom being handed down from the CEO’s office.

The failure of reigning world champions in the World Cup group phase nearly always leads to the coach’s dismissal. For Mr. Löw – and some senior players – stepping down now could help give the team new direction, and shake off some of their predictability. But it will take more than a new coach to inject players and staff with modesty and a willingness to change.

Here too, there are warnings from the business world. Former Volkswagen CEO Matthias Müller may have shouldered the blame for the company’s failure to implement real cultural change in the wake of the Dieselgate scandal. But it is beyond a joke at this point that VW Chairman Hans Dieter Pötsch is still overseeing an investigation into events which took place when he was the company’s CFO. The same goes for Deutsche Bank’s iron chairman, Paul Achleitner.

The good news is this: If they can be survived, crises can help organizations to find their groove again. In 1994, Germany’s defense of its World Cup title ended with defeat to outsiders Bulgaria and the retirement of many iconic senior players. Two years later, with players like Matthias Sammer and Andreas Möller, Germany went to the European championships in England. And came away as champions.

Alexander Demling is team leader for Handelsblatt’s reportage and portraits division. Brían Hanrahan adapted this story for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: demling@handelsblatt.com

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