The Game Plan – Integrating Leadership Lessons From The World Cup

Jul 11, 2014 1 Min Read

Some say football is just a game. It may be just a game to some, but it really is so much more. Today, not only is football the most widely played sport on the planet, it also has the highest fan database compared to any other sport. When you talk about football, the next thing that comes to your mind is the World Cup.

As a hardcore football fan, I have been sacrificing my sleep lately to catch the World Cup games. What I can conclude is that this year’s World Cup is not short of goals, drama and bite marks, but it also offers plenty of leadership lessons to inspire your team. The idea of taking leadership lessons from sports is a common one, and football does not fall short.

Shoot for the goal and if you miss, you’ll land among your team

The greatest teams in football are always the one with great teamwork. Individuals can prove to be game changers, but unless chemistry is established between the players, the team cannot be a real winner. Portugal came into the World Cup as a one-man team. When Cristiano Ronaldo failed to reach the heights he is capable of, the team floundered and was shown an early exit.

The lesson here is not to build a team around just one individual, but to build a team around every individual. Countries such as Costa Rica have shown that you can still make it even without talented individual players, as long as you have a team that ‘speaks the same language’. When a team is built around players, it is understood that the strength of the team replaces the weakness of the individual.

Good leaders know how to crop the very best from talented individuals, whilst keeping a strong team intact.

Victory will not last without change

Spain arrived in Brazil as the reigning world champion; however, they were one of the very few first teams to be eliminated from the World Cup. It was outplayed and beaten by the Dutch, the same team Spain had beaten in the previous World Cup final.

This time, the Dutch had rebuilt its side and featured only three players from 2010 while Spain featured seven from the last World Cup. Spain’s resistance to change had led them down the path of complacency and failure.

A leader needs to learn to constantly rebuild and reinvent the wheel. In other words, to get out of one’s comfort zone and learn to adapt to new changes.

The game is not over until the final whistle is blown

In a game between the Netherlands and Mexico, the Dutch were 1-0 down with two minutes to go until the final whistle. In the 88th minute, Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneidjer scored, bringing the game to a tie. The 94th minute goal by Dutch striker Klass-Jan Hunterlaar confirmed a place for the Netherlands in the quarter-finals by beating Mexico in extra time.

Good leaders never give up and pace themselves to last for the full game. Until the final whistle was blown, the Dutch players never once let their spirit be shaken even when the odds were against them.

The challenge with today’s leaders is their lack of drive to finish what they started. The lesson here is to never lose sight of your focus and continue striving until the very end.

Games are not won in the field but in locker rooms

In the quarterfinal game between the Netherlands and Costa Rica, moments before the end of extra time, Dutch manager Louis van Gaal made a surprising substitution. The first choice goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen was substituted with a reserve goalie, Tim Krul just minutes before the game entered the penalty shootout.

The Dutch went on to win the penalty shootout with an amazing performance by Krul who made two crucial saves. Surprisingly Krul had a record of only two saves from the last 20 penalties. Why would van Gaal risk such a substitution?

Later on, it was learned that the majority of Costa Rican players were left-footed and Krul was a left-handed goalkeeper himself. Successful leaders always make early preparation and equip themselves with enough resources. In the case of van Gaal, studying his opponent well and having a concrete plan prepared him for anything. Many football games were won because of good planning and early preparations. Remember, those who failed to plan, plan to fail.

The name on the front of the jersey matters most, not the one on the back

Individuals, no matter how talented they are, can also be the team’s downfall. The shameful action of Luis Suarez biting the Italian player Giorgio Chiellini during the game brought the Uruguayan team into disrepute. Another incident includes the outburst of Ghana players, Kevin- Prince Boateng and teammate Sulley Muntari towards their coach and management staff. Both players were suspended from their national duty because of their immature actions.

Respected leaders never let their emotion take over their rationality at any cost. When leaders choose to ignore all procedures and act by their own will, what they are forgetting is that their actions can backfire on their organisations. That will lead to a lack of trust and jeopardises the reputation of the organisation.

Uruguay and Ghana were both knocked out of this year’s World Cup at a very early stage, compared to their performance in the 2010 World Cup. In the last World Cup, Uruguay reached the semi-finals, whereas Ghana went all the way to the quarter-finals.

A leader understands that every action from him leaves an impact and that good character and ethics always triumph.

Every round offers a chance to learn, be it is a win or a loss

Algeria, having never reached the knockout stage for the last three World Cups, had little expectations to reach it this time. Having drawn in the same group with Russia, Belgium and South Korea, Algeria was ruled out of any chances at the early stages. However, as the World Cup progressed, Algeria shocked everyone when it qualified for the first time into the World Cup knockout stage. It met Germany in the round of 16 where it shocked the world again.

Putting an amazing performance against the highly favoured Germany bringing the game into extra time, but it was unlucky as it lost to Germany 2-1. However, at the end of the day, Algeria’s journey in the World Cup was something to highlight. From the first game played against Belgium to the game against Germany, Algeria showed great improvements in the way it played. In every process the key to excel would be to learn and to ask: Was I better than yesterday?

A good leader never stops learning and always improves his/her game by practising what he/she had learned. They are the ones who make an impact in the long haul.

Avinash Kumar Manoharan, 21, is a chemical engineering student in Universiti Teknologi Petronas who is very passionate towards empowerment of youth leadership in society today. He was previously the local committee president of AIESEC in Universiti Teknologi Petronas, a student run organisation that provides students with leadership and exchange opportunities. Avinash is also a die-hard fan of the Arsenal Football Club and the national football team Harimau Malaya. You can send him an email at . Click here to read more leadership articles. 

Share This



This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 

You May Also Like

vector image of a black woman at work

Power Moms: Advice for Professional Women, Their Families, and Their Employers

By Jacob Morgan. Delve into workplace gender equality with Joann Lublin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 'Power Moms.' Discover how executive mothers navigate work and life, challenge stereotypes, and achieve success. Read the insightful conversation on work/life sway and breaking the motherhood penalty.

Feb 29, 2024 4 Min Read

Group of people running a race (finishing the race)

Finishing Our Race Well

Justin Ooi, Learning and Growth Partner at Leaderonomics, discuses why it is important not just to start well but also to finish well.

Dec 31, 2018 20 Min Podcast


Start From The Grassroots And Keep Trying

Roshan Thiran as he interviews former Everton, Liverpool and Aston Villa professional football player, Steve McMahon on his personal journey

Oct 06, 2016 30 Min Video

Be a Leader's Digest Reader