When thinking about the FIFA World Cup, several things come to mind: the qualifying teams and their laser focus on the ultimate prize, the almost-religious fervour of their supporters, the noise, the heights of jubilation, and, of course, the depths of despair that can come with such a high-profile tournament. It also brings to mind hope, aspirations, and the life-lessons it can teach in ways regular bookwork cannot. So, what can we learn from World Cups, past and present?
1. Dream Big, Work Hard
The FIFA World Cup is constantly dominated by big names such as Germany, France, and England. These countries are not only football powerhouses but also have the resources to back up big dreams. Germany has won the World Cup four times in the tournament’s history (thrice as West Germany, once as unified Germany), France twice, and England once.
However, money and resources are not everything. Brazil, a developing nation, has won a whopping five times, making it the most successful 2022 World Cup aspirant to date. Undoubtedly, the Brazilian team’s hard work, strategy, and the time they put into each game have helped it attain its current status. But that’s not all. “The secret of Brazilian football is the favelas, with kids playing on the streets and on rough pitches,” says Ronaldo Faria, a Brazilian talent scout. Brazil credits its success to kids who have big dreams of playing for high-profile clubs and their country and putting in the punishing hours to make them come true.
2. It’s All in Leadership
Still, having a pool of talent is meaningless without proper leadership. Leadership is about several things: decision-making, the ability to motivate, being a visionary, and communicating well. It’s also about listening and commanding respect from one’s team, returning that respect, and having the skills to recognise and nurture individual talent.
Being able to make tough decisions and back yourself up is also a necessary trait of a leader, as was demonstrated by coach Didier Deschamps of France in 2018. He took the world by surprise when he decided to play forward Olivier Giroud despite his severe personal goal drought. Deschamps’ reasoning was simple: Giroud, a motivator, playmaker, and man of other talents, was an important asset who was not defined by his scoring skills or lack thereof. In Deschamps’ words: “It’s good if he scores, but Olivier Giroud is always very generous…the team needs him in each and every match for his game in the air and how he defends. He does many things, and it is the players around him who benefit.”
Deschamps noticed the other assets that Giroud had and went against the tide of putting in play a player who was not, technically speaking, performing in his role. The move paid off, and the rest is history.
3. Teamwork Matters
A team can only succeed if its members work as one cohesive unit. As France’s 2018 World Cup captain, Hugo Lloris, put it, “we try to find solutions together, we work together”. In their semi-final match, Belgium punished their opponents by successfully deploying quick strikes in the gaps they found. But France’s mid-fielders and defence formed an uncracked wall that denied the opponents any major success.
Working as a team, listening to one another, building each other up, building on strengths, and having that unifying bond are the ingredients needed to make a formidable team. No one knows it better than Pelé, widely considered one of the best football players of all time. He once emphasised the team-playing element of the sport by saying: “There are eleven players working together, and that’s why the original name of this sport is association soccer. The eleven players are like partners—they help each other with the aim of scoring more goals than the other team and, therefore, winning the game.”
4. Commit to Communication
Pelé also said: “In soccer, the pass is a form of communication, transmission, participation, a link or contact… The better the communication, the better are the chances of a successful team.” But communication goes beyond passing the ball. Being an effective communicator requires the ability to be a great listener, along with being good at delivering information and passing knowledge. It requires an understanding of verbal and non-verbal language.
In football, coaches take great pains to communicate their vision and strategy to their team. However, the best ones also invite feedback and keep communication channels open. Additionally, players go through rigorous team drills to ensure that they learn each other’s playing styles and non-verbal cues. They are also encouraged to call each other out and verbally communicate instructions and encouragement, even in the face of obstacles and disappointment.
5. Perseverance Is Key
When disappointment strikes, top-notch teams and players pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again. Michy Batshuayi, a Belgian striker in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, showed just what perseverance meant. Coming on for the Diables Rouges at the 68th minute, Batshuayi made several attempts at the goal, only to be repeatedly thwarted by the Tunisian opposition. But he was not one to be defeated. “My only option was just to keep my head up…I’d been studying their defence in the first half, and I knew that if I knuckled down, I’d eventually be rewarded,” he said. And rewarded he was, with a decisive goal in the dying minutes of the game.
Planning, hard work, communication, and perseverance are to nought if one has no idea where they are headed and what they aspire to. This is clear in football—the goals you score will take you over the line to victory. In life, we also need to know our ultimate destination, our aims, and what the prize is. These are our goals. And like football, getting to them will come by taking a series of actionable steps and setting micro-targets along the way. Besides providing a pathway for success, this will also allow us to track our progress, re-strategise if necessary, and celebrate our mini wins.
So, work hard, persevere, put in the effort, and accept encouragement. Hopefully, you, too, will have a reason to celebrate in the end. Goal!