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For those who know and love soccer, all eyes at next month’s World Cup in Russia will be on No. 10, Lionel Messi, considered one of the sport’s greatest players of all time, whose three-goal “hat trick” last fall singlehandedly kept his team, Argentina, out of elimination. Or if not him, there’s Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portugal star with a $12 million annual salary, not counting endorsements, or the player simply known as Neymar, whose 50-plus goals for Brazil has risen him to celebrity global soccer status, too.
But what about these names: Joachim Low, Tite or Didier Deschamps? Will most fans pay much attention to them?
Probably not—these are the coaches of Germany, Brazil and France, respectively. But these teams are favorites to win the World Cup, and it’s been the same teams for years. Indeed, those three have together won 10 World Cup titles, or 50 percent of the tournaments played heading into this year’s. In fact, though the World Cup tournament field is the largest of any major sporting event, only eight teams have been crowned champion in its entire history.
Clearly, these nations don’t have a monopoly on soccer-playing talent, but they apparently have key elements working into the mix. To find out what keeps the same teams at the top of the world soccer heap—and what all organization might learn from that—we turned to Jed Hughes, vice chairman and global sector leader for sports at Korn Ferry, and his colleague Andrew Montag to handicap the World Cup staffs. What emerges in varying degrees is a combination of culture, talent, leadership and alignment.
The last decade has arguably been the best era in German soccer history for two reasons: stable leadership and alignment across the whole organization. Joachim Low is in his 14th year as the team’s coach, an unusually long tenure for a coach in any sport. In terms of alignment, “Germany has developed a philosophy and identity for its national style of play that emphasizes the system and not necessarily individual talent,” Hughes says. That makes it a lot easier for players who normally play together to adapt to the system and gel quicker.
With five titles to its name, Brazil is the World Cup’s most successful nation. It is referred to as the “country of football,” and the sport is woven into its cultural fabric, with a strong grassroots youth program. Plus, the country is one of the most populous nations in South America, which coupled with the sport’s immense popularity gives it a huge talent pool relative to its competition. According to Montag, data supports the theory of a high correlation between population size and success in soccer in South America.
France is unique in that even though it is one of eight World Cup winners, it should arguably have more than one title to its credit. The country has one of the world’s biggest and best soccer talent pools, with solid youth academies and a strong national league. But France’s national team has been plagued by inconsistent leadership. Didier Deschamps is the team’s fourth coach since 2002. As a result, France’s national team has struggled to establish a vision and purpose. “The country’s talent pool takes them deep into every World Cup,” says Hughes. “Inconsistent leadership is what has stopped them from winning it more.”
In Spain, La Liga is everything. No other sport comes close to it in terms of popularity or participation, which means that there is less competition from other sports for the most talented athletes. More importantly, “Spanish players tend to stay in Spain, which makes them more familiar with each other’s playing style when World Cup time rolls around,” says Montag. That, in turn, makes the national team’s scheme of short passing, patience and ball possession, known as tika-taka, easier to translate. That alignment and purpose will be tested after the national team's coach was fired just days before the start of the tournament.
The success of Argentina’s national team is remarkable given the team’s leadership instability. Since 2004, the team has had eight different coaches—this year’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, has been in the position for less than a year. But, according to Hughes, “what the team lacks in leadership it makes up for in culture and alignment.” Like its neighbor Brazil, Argentina has a sophisticated youth program, which spreads talent over eight leagues and 450 teams. Its national team’s success is owed less to a system or identity and more to soccer’s role in the culture and heritage of the country and its investment in training and talent development.
The Premiere League is the most popular soccer league in the world, yet England boasts only one World Cup title, and its national team will be considered a dark horse. A key issue is the Premiere League imports players from other countries, so “the best talent leaves to play for its home countries come tournament time,” says Hughes. What’s more, instead of having one UK national team, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England all have their own teams. Couple that with the country’s other popular sports, and England has a smaller talent pool.