At the time of writing, I’m not alone in reflecting on England’s exit from the football World Cup – the papers, the internet, the broadcast media seem to be talking about nothing else.
But if you cast your mind back just a few days, one of the biggest talking points in South Africa was the near-universal disdain of the Jabulani football, introduced for the competition by FIFA, the governing body. This will no doubt become a footnote in the annals of what will, I’m sure, turn out to be a great tournament (despite England’s sorry demise), but it is interesting to look at this from the perspective of its apparent psychological impact on some teams.
The Jabulani ball is, apparently, 5% quicker in flight, softer to the touch and generally slicker than “normal” footballs. That may not sound like a big deal, but the ball is the tool of the footballers trade – if you changed a skilled secretary’s keyboard, or a carpenters hammer, to be 5% smaller, you’d certainly expect some misspellings or bruised thumbs (and maybe some colourful language), at least for a while.
The changes to the football, we’re told, are leading to over-hit passes, keepers missing saves and so on. Now I’m no Gary Lineker but there do seem to have been lots of passes and crosses going far too long, and one would imagine that (ex) England goalkeeper Robert Green will have nightmares about his “horror howler” for years (perhaps decades) to come.
Various of the teams’ coaches and managers have spoken out bitterly against the ball, including England’s Fabio Capello (who slammed it as “the worst ball I have ever seen”) and goalkeeper David James. Interestingly others who have added their complaints include the goalkeepers for Italy and South Africa (both eliminated).
A fascinating aspect of this affair is that it has also been clear from the outset of the tournament that FIFA cannot, and will not, change the ball. It is a factor which is not going to change, and is the same for everyone. Thus, it is outside of managers’ and players’ control, and a healthier response would be to get over it (“suck it up” as the Americans would say) and move on. Blaming something outside of your control, in this context, is rather like a politician blaming the weather for a low polling turnout, or BP blaming the geological conditions for their current predicament. It may be true, but it is not helpful in either dealing with an adverse situation, or indeed in creating a positive perception in the wider public eye.
History demonstrates that outstanding performances have been conjured from their teams by sporting leaders who were able to convince their athletes that adverse factors (poor pitch conditions, bad weather etc) would work in their favour. Dan Topolski famously inspired his mega-underdog Oxford boat race crew (in the Oxford mutiny race of 1987) by promising them that foul weather would help them triumph over Cambridge’s “fair weather” toffs – they duly destroyed them as the rain lashed down.
By moaning about it, England were (of course) unable to change the football for this years’ tournament. Capello seemingly created a siege mentality in his team, but this may have been more successful if it didn’t involve “whinging” about factors beyond their control. As Mohammed Ali said “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”
It is also interesting to note that there were no complaints about the ball from the German camp. They had been practicing with it for the six months in the run-up to the world cup.
Graeme Yell is Leadership Expert at Hay Group