In Soccer, as in Business, Innovation is Key

Soccer, and sport in general, is a metaphor, a microcosm, for life and the experiences we gather from our challenges, triumphs, and defeats.  This is also true with business, and evident in this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, a tale of goals, new beginnings, and empires ended.  Blame the unfamiliar humidity, and the inconvenient travel distances, both attributing factors to surprising results this summer, but don’t overlook the role of innovation, or lack thereof, among traditional powerhouses contributing to disappointing results and early exits.

Innovation is arguably the most overused cliché buzzwords in the business world today, perhaps because in its purest form and application, it’s a game changer.  Look no further than the likes of Apple and Google for proof, innovative thinking and products breed organizational success (and generally sends a stock price north).  The same is true of the contrary, where a lack of innovation in a competitive field or marketplace leaves an entity in a difficult spot, case in point: Spain in this summer’s World Cup.

Spain entered the tournament as defending World Cup champions, generally an unstoppable force in international competition for the past six years.  It’s been a golden era of sport for the Iberian country, with most of its success attributable to its Catalonian core that drove what some consider to be the best team ever in FC Barcelona of recent years.  The likes of Iniesta, Xavi, Piqué, and Busquets brought to the national side the same “tiki-taka” style that propelled Barcelona to new heights of dominance.


Photo Courtesy of Foot Basket

In a nutshell, Spain would keep the ball all game, better than anyone else in the world.  They’d score one goal, then continue to play keep-away while opponents scrambled for an equalizer.  For six years, the aforementioned players employed the tactic mentioned above, yielding three major consecutive trophies.  In failing to adapt to the competitive environment and successfully infuse new talent, Spain sealed their fate this summer with a forgettable first round exit.  They failed to innovate.

While Spain remained faithful to its ways, others improved, adapted and learned how to beat the champions.  Based on talent alone, few teams can compete with the Spanish; thus, opponents sought out more attainable competitive advantages like youth, speed, and sound tactics that reflected six years of learning and evolution.

Where Spain defied logic in selecting a team for the tournament, others cleaned house, scrapping big names and egos for promising unknowns hungry to make a name for themselves.  Competitors studied the Spanish and their ways, ultimately turning their characteristics, tendencies, and core competencies into opportunities.  Such is the case with the Netherlands, who compiled a squad of 19 players without previous World Cup experience, and employed an untraditional tactic against the Spanish.  They utilized a high defensive line, pushing their central players higher up the field to pressure and disrupt the opposing midfield, the Spanish nucleus and source of ingenuity.  Then they allowed the Spaniards a majority of possession while focusing on minimalistic but efficient passing.  Through Spain’s failure to innovate, the Dutch figured out a competitive advantage and saw an opportunity.  As a result, the Netherlands crushed Spain 5-1.

In cases where the Spanish tried to adapt, they did so poorly and greatly mismanaged their assets.  Such is the case for Diego Costa, a superstar in the Champions League for Atlético Madrid, naturally born Brazilian, but Spanish by choice and qualified citizenship.  The possession tactic employed by the Spanish failed to capitalize on the attacking power forward capabilities Costa displayed throughout the year.  Costa was hamstrung in Brazil, but with his implementation within the Spanish side, it’s uncertain if a healthier version of himself would’ve had a bigger impact.

Further holding back Spanish innovation were loyalties to players past their prime, players selected based on their contributions over the past six years instead of their current form.  Consider the Spanish selections of Fernando Torres and Iker Casillas; the former scored five goals for Chelsea in 29 games this past season, while the latter was ousted from his perennial starting spot at Real Madrid.  Interestingly, his replacement in Madrid was the Spanish Diego Lopez, mysteriously absent among three selected goalkeepers on the Spanish roster.  In Spain’s first two matches, Casillas appeared directly responsible for at least three of seven goals suffered, enough to knock the World Champs out with a game to spare.

Going forward, Spain need not necessarily reinvent the wheel or implement drastic changes – in theory, an efficient style focused on keeping the ball for the majority of a match should yield positive results.  They innovated in 2006 with their style of play on the international level – their innovation just needs an update.  They should look to infuse some promising younger players, like Koke, Thiago Alcântara, Isco, and David De Gea, with more to prove than their older, accomplished core cast.  Maintaining “tiki-taka” with a younger set of players, while figuring out a way to integrate and capitalize off of Diego Costa’s offensive capabilities would bring a more consistent volume of goals scored, while giving the Spanish a bigger margin of error if they concede.

To draw a parallel to the business world, imagine the Spanish side at the height of their dominance and reign in global soccer as Apple upon release of the iPhone.  They changed the game with their style and simplicity, and took the world by storm. Then imagine if Apple were to still be selling the same original iPhone for six years using the same hardware, operating system, shape, screen and design.  It’s essentially what happened this past month at the World Cup for Spain.

With an early exit in Brazil, the era of Spanish supremacy is over for now.  However with a talent pool overflowing with quality, and youth systems in place like that of FC Barcelona, the outlook is rightfully optimistic.  The lesson remains though, to which the likes of Apple, Google, and Samsung can attest: it pays to innovate.


What do you think about the state of the game with regard to innovation and how it impacts results? Let us know in the comments section below, or via Facebook or Twitter.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.