Tomorrow, Barcelona FC and Manchester United FC will square off in the eagerly awaited UEFA Champions League final. This pinnacle event of club soccer (aka football) will be aired by 113 broadcast stations, covering over 220 territories. In excess of 300 million people from across the globe – myself included – will tune in, making this the biggest final in Champions League history.
Each year, the crowned soccer champion of each European country plays in the UEFA Champions League tournament – the winner is hailed as the champion of Europe. Africa, South America and Asia also crown their own champions – and these continental winners eventually play each other to produce the true world soccer club champion. But nobody cares about the world soccer club champion – it’s as symbolic as the winner of the NFL’s Pro Bowl. What all soccer fans really care about is the European Champions League. The competition is fierce, the stakes are high, the quality of the game is special, and the following is passionate and truly global. At a club level, this is soccer’s “superbowl”.
Finals are often anti-climactic events. Rarely do the 2 best teams make it all the way to the final game – upsets and dramas are, after-all, an integral part of soccer. But this year, the 2 best teams on the planet did make it to the ultimate game.
Manchester United just wrapped up its season by winning the English league again. Alex Ferguson, the coach of Manchester United, won the “manager of the season” award for taking his club to an unprecedented 19th title – overtaking the legendary Liverpool team of the 80s. Nemanja Vidic, Manchester United’s captain was voted the best player in England. If Manchester United knows something well, it’s winning. Yet, nobody outside of the city of Manchester is giving them a chance. Such is the prowess of what stands before them: Barcelona FC.
Barcelona FC has capped their current season by winning the Spanish league for a third consecutive year. 14 players from this team were part of the Spanish squad that went on to win the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. Lionel Messi has won his second straight World Player of the Year award – he came ahead of Xavi and Iniesta, also from Barcelona FC. Messi became the first player to score over 50 goals a Spanish season. At 22, he’s already being touted as the greatest player of his generation – and he’s on track to become the greatest ever, ahead of this guy.
Barcelona FC has won the plaudits not only through their silverware but also through their unique style of play. They are the keep-ball kings of the world – averaging 73.4% possession in their league matches this season (the next highest is 57%), and a staggering 747 passes per game, over 200 more than any side in Europe’s top five leagues. It does not matter who their opposition is – no one has figured out how to take the ball from them. Many have studied their tactics and style of play – but no team has been able to replicate it. Some have tried a very aggressive approach with constant fouling and bullying – and still lost. Others have played ultra-defensive soccer by camping out in front of their goal – but Barcelona FC almost always eventually finds a way. The brave ones have attempted a free-flow attacking style of their own – only to be embarrassingly outscored in the end. This Barcelona FC team is on its way to become the greatest team in the history of mankind – eclipsing Pele’s 1970 Brazil World Cup team.
So the question becomes: how does a team become this prolific? Nowhere else is the concept of “team work” more vital than in sports. I, for one, love studying the mechanics of great teams – because this is directly relevant to building a company.
Here is my take on why Barcelona FC is a class above the rest – and it’s actually the perfect recipe for creating the best company in the world:
- They have talented players across the board. This is, of course, a no-brainer. No team has ever become successful without talented players. But everybody on the Barcelona FC team is a vital contributor on the pitch. There are no slackers, no “above average” performers – this is a squad of only top talent. That’s a mistake that most companies make – many are too keen to fill their open positions with “acceptable” talent, and are unwilling to seek the perfect fit. This ultimately created the chasm that divides the good and the great.
- They execute to perfection. On paper, every team in the world knows how to play like Barcelona FC – just watch all of their games in a loop, and you’ll start to see definite patterns in their tactics and style of play. It’s very easy to copy it. It’s one thing to have a great plan – but ultimately, it’s all about execution. Barcelona FC has players that can execute.
- They have a handful of exceptional team members in the mix. These players are inspirational, have magic in their feet, and raise the bar for the rest. When faced with a challenge, they provide the leadership needed for the team to overcome just about anything thrown at them. Messi, Xavi and Iniesta are the “Lennon and McCartney” of the team – and we all know what that can produce.
- Amazing organizational culture. None of the Barcelona FC players are the “in your face” fur-wearing egomaniacs that you see on other teams. This is a sharp contrast to arch-rivals Real Madrid – a team built around what they call “galacticos” (galaxy stars). Real Madrid is also built around exceptional players -but their culture is completely different. Jose Mourinho, Real Madrid’s coach, is arguably the best coach in the world – but he doubles as an egomaniac-in-chief. Christiano Ronaldo, Madrid’s Portuguese super star, is a phenomenal athlete with mesmerizing skills – but he sucks the air out of the team when he’s having a bad day. While Real Madrid tweaks its entire system to fit these larger-than-life characters, Barcelona FC does the opposite. The organization comes first, and every single person associated with it is only one part of the puzzle. This kind of culture creates a solid and unified team. It breeds loyalty – a key element of success. But success is one thing – to succeed while being admired by all around you is something special. It’s the difference between a “do no evil” Google and an arrogant Facebook. Culture starts from the top.
- A “do whatever it takes” attitude. This Barcelona FC team is the embodiment of “total football”, a style of play attributed to the fabulous Dutch team of the late 1970s. Total football turned the soccer world on its head – it’s a style where everybody attacks, and everybody defends. It’s fluid and beautiful to watch. It’s not uncommon, therefore, to see Barcelona FC’s central defender score a goal, and its main striker defending deep inside his own half. This style of play reminds me of small startups – where team members wear many hats, are competent in a wide array of skills, and have the same “roll up your sleeves” attitude to get the job done. When faced with adversity, everybody takes takes it on. Once companies get bigger, roles tend to become more structured. Responsibilities are governed by job descriptions. The magic dies – and with it, the overall productivity of the team. Those who are able to grow while maintaining that creative culture go on to change the world.
- The team means something to the players. The era of billionaire owners has finally arrived in the soccer world – some teams are now bankrolled by seemingly unlimited funds, creating an army of mercenary footballers chasing the next big paycheck. Very few teams, if any, command the loyalty that Barcelona FC players have for their organization. Reason: “Mes Que Un Club”, which is a saying they have in Catalan that translates as “More than a Club”. This goes back to the repression Catalonia (the region where Barcelona is) suffered during the Franco reign – where, for instance, they were not allowed to speak their own language. The one place they could possibly do it was in the Nou Camp, Barcelona’s football stadium. It’s harder for companies to have long traditions, especially in today’s ever changing world – but one company comes to mind: IBM. You see it in their TV ads – IBM ends most of its ads with a fellow team member proudly saying “I am IBM-er”. This is the embodiment of a tradition. Traditions and values are important to team members – people like to feel that they’re part of something special, that they’ve been handed the baton to preserve and continue a legacy, and that their work makes a difference. For Barcelona FC, this is about the identity of Catalonia. For companies to attract and retain exceptional talent, an attractive pay structure is not enough – you’ll attract competent mercenaries. Companies that make a difference or have deep (and respected) traditions will always get the best teams.
An interesting subplot to the Manchester United vs. Barcelona FC game on Saturday is their race to be the #1 sports team on the planet in terms of followers on Facebook. Back in February 2011, both teams had around 9 million followers each. Manchester United was ahead – which prompted Barcelona FC to react quickly by promoting a video of Lionel Messi urging fans to “like” them on Facebook. Barcelona FC’s goal was to be the first team to hit 10 million fans in all of sports – which they did. Since then, Barcelona FC has retained the first spot, with over 15 million “likes” on Facebook. The #2 team? Manchester United, with 14 million. This is how the outcome of Saturday’s game will turn out.