Alas, England! How England’s World Cup loss and Croatia’s win teach two important teamwork lessons

For England, success and failure were separated by less than a second

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(Another post in my “high performing business teams as viewed by sports” series and perhaps tilted a little due to a good friend being from England.)

England has long been an afterthought at the World Cup since their one and only win in 1966. This year’s World Cup foretold different. This year, the England squad was stocked with talent and on a roll headed into the semi-final match with Croatia.

Croatia was coming off its second extra-time match in a row. England had scored early, in the fifth minute. Some might argue it was too early. England proceeded to dominate the rest of the half and into the 2nd half with several good chances at a crippling second goal. That second goal was elusive, however. Meanwhile, Croatia’s heart kept them hustling, competing and mentally focused.

Goal Croatia! (Perisic: 68′)

Ivan Perisic celebrates the game-tying goal. (Source: AP, Alastair Grant)

Suddenly, the game is tied. And Croatia is showing a bit more energy. More confidence. More belief. More heart. More grit.

The stadium and hundreds of millions of TV fans can almost feel that energy ooze out of the pitch and through the television. England’s talent, though, keeps them with mastery of the ball. The minutes are ticking away.

Extra time.

Croatia’s third in three games. How can they possibly muster another 30 minutes? Team members are dropping with cramps and other challenges. Surely they must have run out of steam.

In extra time England continue to possess the ball, probe and have reasonable attempts. Croatia, miraculously, does too. It’s as if they haven’t even played those other extra-time games. They’re focused. Committed.

Extra time is winding down. Both teams know where this game is headed: penalty kicks. It happens so frequently many teams are on cruise-control in a mostly-defensive posture with opportunistic attempts at the other’s goal. “Just don’t lose the game in the waning minutes of extra time — we’ve got excellent chances in the penalty kick.”

Then, the fateful second. Started by a common and innocuous error by a teammate who committed a foul near the England goal. No big deal; fouls happen all the time. Free kicks happen all the time. Defenders know what to do — head or clear the ball out, push up to catch the other team offside and possess the ball. Simple. No problem, right?

Nope.

Initially, the plan goes properly. England head the ball from deep in the box to outside. However, Stones has switched off his man to another man without communicating to his teammate. Pickford in goal is silent — also not communicating with his teammates and reminding them of their responsibility to clear the box. Exhausted defenders are casually strolling (at about a foot per second) away from the goal; not nearly fast enough to catch an opponent offsides. They’re not doing their jobs because they’ve succumbed to “being too tired.”

At the same time Croatia is laser focused because they’re deep in opponent territory. Mandzukic sees the soft English defense and also spies his teammate as the one to reach the clearing header first. At the same split second, his teammate is kicking the ball toward the goal and Mandzukic is turning to receive it. Surprised English defenders are too late to respond. Mandzukic receives the ball, and it’s then a simple matter of putting the ball into the goal at point blank range.

Goal Croatia!!!! (Mandzukic, 109′)

Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic after scoring the pivotal goal during the semifinal. (Sourcean Mullan / Getty Images via the Los Angeles Times)

Unbelievable (England and Croatia). Exhilarating (Croatia). Nauseating (England). Humiliating (England). Exulting (Croatia).

In less than 1 second one team went from a 50% chance of winning / losing the game to virtually no chance to win, due to the late minute in which the goal happened. And both teams teach us business people critical lessons in high performing teamwork:

  • England — the importance of constant, useful, constructive feedback and communication.
  • Croatia — the importance of belief, determination, and passion.

Had the England defenders simply communicated — when one player was switching off to another opponent, when each defender needed to push to the top of the box with greater urgency, when one player (the goalie) is also accountable for that communication — they might well be celebrating a World Cup finals victory as opposed to a dispiriting and demoralizing consolation game loss.

The true lesson from England, though, is the need for constant communication and feedback. England were communicating all game long. The English goalie exhorting and defenders switching effectively all game. They were (are) a good communicating football club. But they lapsed at one critical moment.

Business teams, similarly, communicate regularly (some more than others). They offer each other constructive feedback (some more than others), because they each and collectively want to have greater success than their opponents. England’s loss is a reminder to all of us that even slight or momentarily lapses in communication and feedback can result in equally devastating product quality losses, customer losses, market position losses, or financial losses.

And then there’s Croatia. Ahhh….Croatia.

What a magnificent display of passion, belief, and heart. In many championship settings it is often the team with passion, belief, and heart that wins.

Sure, there are mega-teams who are so over-talented that their skill is just completely superior to the other team’s (2018 Golden State Warriors, anyone?). But most sporting leagues go to reasonably great lengths to create “parity” within the league, with drafts, trade restrictions, salary caps, and other components designed so that one team can’t monopolize all of the talent and just steamroll all the time.

Rewind and review most of the interviews you see with winning teams, coaches, players, and commentators and my guess is that greater than 50% of the time you’ll hear these words — “belief”, “heart”, “passion”, “love of the game”, “love of my teammates” in the commentary from the successful.

Ask most VCs and startup CEOs whether the startups that lack belief, that lack passion, that lack heart become successes. Ask them whether those strictly-business teams are able to overcome both the occasional minor hurdle or the nearly-business-devastating challenge. The answer is likely “no”. Passion, belief, and heart are requirements.

Ask yourself, in your business, whether you want gigantic success (i.e. “championship sized”) or just moderate success (i.e. “quarterfinals winner”). That will give you some gauge for the level of heart, passion, and belief required amongst every member of your team. It’s hard to achieve such a high level of belief and commitment — but definitely possible if your recruiting, management, and leadership efforts line up. I’ve personally not yet won a championship — but even the level of belief and heart required to win a semi-final (selling a company to Google) was a magical experience.

I can only imagine how magical Croatia’s experience was, to be competing for that championship after beating England. I wish all of you ample heart, passion, and belief, whether you’re competing in the field of business or on a field of dreams.

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