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What Ronaldinho and soccer can teach you about innovation

On the occasion of the "clasico" between Barcelona and Madrid, I am wondering what can make the difference when two equally star-studded soccer teams compete. I think I have found the answer: innovation. The more innovative team won the past games, and th


It's been a lackluster soccer season so far, especially in my favorite league, the Spanish Primera Division. The performances of the two top teams, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona (Barca), have been inconsistent, and while both have displayed some exceptional skills in their best matches, the passion, the surprise, and the big drama, all of which crucial elements of soccer's unique appeal, have been largely missing.

There is hope that this will change on Sunday when the two archrivals battle each other for the first time this season, in the derby of derbies, "El Clásico," which is historically loaded with enourmous psychological, cultural, and political significance. This edition is a special of specials: Madrid is leading the table with four points ahead of second-placed Barca, and the upcoming clash, the last game of the first half of the season, can potentially give Real a comfortable seven point cushion over Barca during the winter break.

Innovation is rare

Looking back to the past Clásicos and looking forward to the encounter on Sunday, I have been wondering what can make the difference when two equally star-studded teams compete. I think I have found the answer: innovation. The more innovative team won the past games, and the more innovative team will win this time. This hypothesis is as simple as it is challenging. Soccer is often used as a metaphor to describe innovation in a business context ("meaningful innovation is like scoring a goal in soccer -- it doesn't happen often, but is always a hallmark that differentiates the winning team"). But what does innovation actually mean in soccer?

First of all, if you examine the history of soccer for groundbreaking, "game-changing" innovations, you realize they have been scarce; by and large the game hasn't changed much. Some innovations resulted from a changing of the rules (on the macro-innovation level, if you will). Most of them, however, were truly driven by either organizational or individual excellence: for example, the position of the "Libero," the "sweeper" before the goal-keeper, who, freed from marking a direct opponent, was mandated with opening a team's game from deep in its own territory (German legend Franz Beckenbauer perfected this role in the 70s); the allure of the "playmaker" (personified by the French Michel Platini in the 80s); the introduction of a three-man defense row in the 90s; the "Sweeper-Keeper" performing the defensive actions of a libero; the increased importance of the "6," the central defensive midfielder; and the Dutch "Total Football" concept with its fluid, attacking 4-5-1 and 3-2-5 formations.

Total Football

As in business and academia, innovation takes place in soccer on both the collective and individual levels. And it is deeply rooted in culture. Starting in their youth education, great teams establish a distinct style which sets them apart from mediocre ones. Almost always, these styles have been shaped by a city's, a region's, or a nation's history. Ajax Amsterdam and the Dutch school of "Total Football," considered by many to be the most sophisticated and most influential soccer philosophy in recent times, can be traced back to historical, geographical, and socio-cultural factors, as can the Dutch refusal to win the "big one" (the Netherlands' national team never won a final at any of the international championships). Total Football was the first multi-disciplinary approach to playing soccer and implied that all players can play in all positions and have comparable levels of fitness, technical ability, and awareness. It is focused on the creation of space on offense and the destruction of space on defense. The result is maximum flexibility, a strong element of surprise, and the ability to exert pressure on any of the opponent's moves, at any time during the game. Besides Ajax, a number of British clubs including Arsenal London and Manchester United have embraced and refined Total Football, and so has FC Barcelona, with its strong tradition of Dutch coaches and players.

In stark contrast, the so-called "catenaccio" (literally translated, "door-bolt"), a rather static, defensive-minded tactic, is the hallmark of most Italian clubs. Some contend this goes all the way back to the Roman Empire and its poise to defend its borders, but I'm not sure if I buy into this explanation: even the Roman Empire, in order to become an empire, had to conquer territory first, no? In any case, the point is that soccer tactics and styles, and herein lies one parallel to business innovation, are inexorably linked to culture (to learn more about the cultural -- and religious -- underpinnings of soccer, read "How Soccer Explains the World" by Franklin Foer).

Wanted: Entrepreneurs

And yet, only a few soccer pundits would dispute that the most critical innovation in soccer occurs on the individual level. While some herald the "star is the team" philosophy and praise the power of the collective, it is more plausible to uphold the "whole is more than the sum of its parts" argument precisely because some of the parts, that is, certain individuals, are better than others. Although there are attempts underway to "crowd-source" soccer, the difference between win and loss is still marked by the quality of individuals -- players, coaches, and, not to forget, referees.

Players and coaches are chased with tons of cash not merely because they are stars who are able to turn the game into a spectacle and thus add invaluable charisma and entertainment to a club's brand, but also because their individual decisions, be they strategic (coach) or opportunistic (player), decide over fortune and misfortune. Both coach and player are risk-taking entrepreneurs, and the more creativity they exhibit, the more freedom they're typically given. Ironically, buying risk-takers is a measure for clubs to minimize risk and manage the inherent volatility of their success. The impact of coach and player is significant but their tools of influence are somewhat different. In the long-term, the coach can create a competitive culture that propels creativity and innovation, build confidence and team spirit; on the immediate match level, he can alter the formation and line-up, and make adjustments and substitutions during the game. But can his genius or lucky hand re-invent a team or truly innovate the game?

Ultimately, the most visible and arguably most impactful innovation lies in the feet of the players. Notwithstanding the team's culture, strategic formation, and tactical fitness, innovation on a micro-level is still the biggest competitive advantage, and it is engrained in soccer's DNA: Paul B. Paulus and Bernard Arjan Nijstad argue in their book "Group Creativity: Innovation Through Collaboration" that soccer offers more opportunities for creativity and innovation than baseball and other U.S. sports because the team's task is more "hierarchical, less sequential, and less cyclical." Furthermore, soccer players can innovate their game in every game. Here's what Barcelona's Ronaldinho, FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005 and the most marketable player in the world, generating $57.8m annually, says: "The important thing is to keep on innovating and finding a way to surprise. You always look to surprise, with dribbling, a new move, a new pass. (...) As long as I believe I have the creativity for that, that's what I'll try and do. I'm never going to lose my characteristics because that's what I know how to do. I want to mix everything that is innovative with the same things as always. Perhaps the fans expect me to do all the tricks, the opponents as well. If you don't innovate, they all take the ball away from you. I believe it's important to innovate in order to avoid repetition."


When El Clásico kicks off, keep all that in mind. Admire the poetic and sometimes melancholic Total Football of Barca, and respect the prosaic, rather efficient style of Real Madrid. And watch how a few players will decide the game. Soccer can be researched, carefully planned, and strategically devised -- however, the most beautiful thing about this "beautiful game" is the fact that there is no lag between idea and implementation. Creativity can be immediately applied and has to be found on the pitch again and again. Every match is a blank slate. There is no history, only anticipation. Nothing is ever the same. This is what business leaders can learn from soccer: Innovation is, literally, a "play," and the best players will win.