May the most culturally appropriate team win…
As 32 teams line up to compete in the Russia 2018 World Cup, we ask how big a role will culture play in determining the winner? In this light-hearted piece we discuss the implications of country difference on the performance of national football teams.
Warning; Do not put your hard earned savings betting on the findings of this article!
Are They Hungry Enough?
Have you ever wondered what the overarching cultural criteria for winning in football is? The obvious starter is hunger to win. Interestingly, competitiveness has been studied and country comparisons have been made. On a global scale the USA is the undisputed champion. With less than 5% of the world’s population they account for almost 24% of the worlds economy. That requires a high degree of competitiveness. BUT they are rubbish at soccer. Go figure.
Related to competitive behaviour and the drive to win rather than lose, aggression is a factor and, one of the fathers of culture, Geert Hofstede, measured masculinity of culture which can be seen to overlap with being macho (at a stretch.) So. Which is the most macho country? There is no obvious winner but the contenders would have to include Russia, Ukraine and Brazil (forget the man bags – look at the street life.)
If you believe that Russia 2018 has already been won on the training ground and the whiteboards of the classroom and in the feeder schools and the coaching academies you may be right. Cultures can be measured for planning, striving for perfection and a focus on task. When we reviewed the Brazilian World Cup of 2014 Germany surprised the whole of South America with their extraordinary long-term strategy of grooming young German footballers from the moment of conception through birth, youth and up till the final whistle.
This extraordinary dedication to process, preparation and pathway paid off as never before. So the planning champions of the World – Germany must be taken seriously. If organised cultures are in with a shout we must add Japan, Sweden and Iceland to the mix as well. (Who ever thought Iceland would be here?)
Conversely, is it the flamboyant individual flair of the boys upfront that wins matches? Culture studies provide a measure of risk taking, risk acceptance and active risk avoidance into account when comparing countries. Ironically, on this scale, Germany would be placed as highly risk avoidance. They actively plan to anticipate and eliminate uncertainty and prepare for all eventualities in extraordinary detail. If we look at the magical football of South America, we see the opposite where flare, superhuman talent and the theatrical make for a good game. The nearest contenders in the would have to be Spain, Portugal and France. It is interesting to note that there is a correlation between risk-taking and a fatalistic view of the world. In the examples we’ve mentioned here the Catholic faith provides the external input. “If God wishes it to be so, we will win the cup”. Never underestimate the motivating power of a vast external force. Religion has shaped the behavior, the economies and the politics of most of the world. Why should it not also play a part in football?
Zinedine Zidane’s head butting of Italy’s Marco Materazzi in extra time at the 2006 World Cup Final (in Zidane’s final professional game) is the classical example of rule breaking. It was an arbitrary, but an automatic reflex to an insult received about his mother. Sometimes principles and deep personal values trump the playing of the game and sticking within the rules.
It is fairly obvious that in a difficult close fought match you need to keep 11 players on the pitch. A red card will rob you of a full team and multiple yellow cards will reduce the talent available later on in the competition. Whilst rule breaking can provide individual flair, the cumulative effect is negative in any one competition, especially involving a knockout element. So, will we see the rule breaking countries making progress? England, Portugal and Russia. If one maintains a detached analytical view, this random and arbitrary adherence to the rules is a risk too far and sabotages a country’s chances.
Political, social and football power comes in two structural forms – vertical and horizontal. With the vertical structure, the boss is the boss and the player is the player. The power is kept by the captain, the coach, or the country manager. What they say goes. The players benefit from this set up because they gain certainty, direction and a clarity of the task in front of them. If the tactics and plan are good enough, horizontal power can be motivating and effective in execution on the pitch. The hierarchical countries are Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Japan, S. Korea and France.
The alternative structure is functional power, equality and democracy. Famously in, Swedish society, decisions are made collaboratively and in an inclusive fashion. Everybody is listened to, the quieter members are respected, and the collective direction is decided and followed. Off the pitch this can be powerful. On the pitch this can be disastrous. The democratic decision makers in Russia 2018 are Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and Iceland.
A third choice in this section is reserved to one special country – Belgium. The Belgian compromise is a unique cultural phenomenon where, when offered the choice between black-and-white, the Belgian chooses grey. Not famous for performing well in any football competitions at the national level, we all have a soft spot for this plucky little country.
What do you think is required on and off the pitch? Part of the spectator entertainment package in any big competition, is looking at the communication style of the national coach. Are they calm, controlled and well-dressed? Do they communicate with simple loud commands? Or do they gesticulate like a conductor leading the orchestra playing the rousing parts of the William Tell overture?
If a coach gives direct and obvious input, then the other team can hear it too. There is an argument for indirect verbal language and disguised non-verbal communication being of more use when deployed amongst a perceptive team. Who of our 32 bands of brothers has this combination of indirect communication and subtle context interpretation? The results may surprise you. If this is a contributing factor to winning silverware (goldware) we could be in for a good competition. The countries that stand out are England, Japan and Serbia.
If you don’t believe subtlety wins matches, then you’re likely to put your money on the low context obvious verbal communicator teams. They include France, Germany, Spain and Australia.
Team or individual?
The final contribution from the science of cultural measurement gives us mixed results. Do we think a collective and group spirit promotes a healthy distribution of motivation, a glorious division of responsibility and ownership, and an advanced level of cooperation, and will their coordinated efforts be good enough to win matches?
Don’t try this at home…
Or, do we remember individual flair and the exceptional solo physical effort of a standalone hero as providing the defining moments of many competitions? Certainly the latter is what endures. Famous interculturalist, George Simons would say, remember that the man of the moment, stands on the shoulders of others. The contrast in this last criterion could not be more stark. England’s history has been one of the extraordinary individual dynamism often let down by the rest of the team trotting along beside them. Germany has benefited from the even and consistent support of the team reducing the pressure on individual star to perform alone. And historically… They have done better.
An alternative ending.
Decades of study in the field of culture throw up strange and unexplained phenomena. We have not factored in the support of the crowd. This must be a major factor for the great successes of South American teams and Spanish football. And, let’s add another important question – What are the people drinking? There are three main alcohol groups in Russia 2018
The beer drinkers – in it for the long haul, slow and steady, emotionally balanced with an even workplace. (England, Germany, Denmark and Belgium.)
The wine drinkers – emotional, artistic and graceful they are poets, philosophers and performers. It is all about drama and can end in triumph or tragedy – nothing in between. (France, Switzerland, Serbia, Croatia, Spain and Portugal)
The spirits drinkers – Courage, soul and drama typify this group. Complete loyalty to each other, sacrifice for country and team, and, heroism also marks out the firewater teams. (Brazil, Russia, Poland and Ukraine)
Conclusion – so science and culture indicate stronger performances then you might imagine from Switzerland, Sweden and Iceland, great progress by France, Spain and Serbia, and heroic efforts by England and Germany. But never, ever discount Tunisia!
Warning – Matthew Hill does not know that much about football!