The great-power G8 have been bickering about geopolitics, the economic G20 have been fretting about growth, and the aspiring G24 have been jostling for policy influence. But this summer’s ultimate contest in international relations has focused instead on the elite G32: the group of 32 countries that sent the world’s top-performing soccer teams to the final brackets of the World Cup tournament.
Global rivalries based on fine-tuned football finesse – not dominance in diplomacy or brute force on the battlefield – framed this summer’s highest-profile competition for international supremacy.
Amid the lengthening late-summer shadows that herald the final days before the September rentrée, thoughts of the midsummer marathon surely warm the memories of World Cup-watchers who recall the thrills of the June and July festivities before the JumboTron – with throngs packing city squares worldwide, as well as filling the World Bank Group's vast Atrium (and television hideaways all around the Bank) on game days.
By the time of the final match, even many committed fans of other national teams seemed to admit that, in the end, Germany deserved its hard-earned victory – winning 1-0 in overtime against resilient Argentina – thanks to the team's technical skills and tightly coordinated teamwork.
The tournament’s most dramatic highlights – the agility of goalkeepers Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico and Tim Howard of the United States; the spirited hustle of underdogs like Ghana and Croatia; the epic 7-1 shellacking suffered by humbled host-country Brazil; the heart-stopping offside call against Argentina that nullified an apparent final-match goal – will deservedly dominate fans’ conversations as they await the next World Cup spectacular. And videos of the overtime heroics of two substitute players – André Schürrle, who made a picture-perfect cross to Mario Götze, who seamlessly slid the ball from his chest-trap downward for a left-footed volley past Argentina’s goalie Sergio Romero – are destined to be replayed forever.
But before the fine details of Germany’s triumph recede in fans’ hazy memory, it’s worth recalling the long-range strategies it required for the new champions to envision winning the crown. The success of the Nationalmannschaft required even more than the midfield mastery of Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the exuberant playmaking of Sami Khedira, and the goal-scoring prowess of Thomas Müller. Along with disciplined precision on the field, Germany’s success was also driven by organizational skill on national planners’ drawing board.
A decade in the making, victory was patiently built through the Deutscher Fussball-Bund’s national plan that reportedly cost a billion euros or more – creating a coordinated national system of youth leagues, sports facilities, training regimens and individualized skill-building for players selected to advance toward the Bundesliga. Insightful long-range planning, born of adversity, paved the way to success: Germany’s football establishment realized that its system needed a sweeping overhaul after being soundly defeated in 2000, when Germany was knocked out of the European Championship without winning a single game. Germany had not won the World Cup since 1990, but the newly refocused German football system marshalled its long-term resources. After years of sharpening its competitive edge, Germany's hyper-efficient system has now earned the sport’s ultimate prize.
The German team's off-the-field experimentation, as well, helped win the day. Germany cleverly adopted a new technology – “Cooling Gloves” CoreControl mitts, which its players wore during halftimes. The glove, designed by scientists at Stanford University, pumps ice-cold water around the hand, helping players quickly reduce their body temperatures – thus preventing muscle cramps and rebuilding stamina. If such a technology made even a marginal difference in the players’ performance, it may have been enough to give Germany a winning edge.
Competitiveness doesn’t happen by accident – not in world-class football, not in economic policy, and not in any contested area of life. It requires the deliberate targeting of one’s areas of greatest strength; the shrewd selection of specific sectors in which to concentrate one’s limited resources; the continuous upgrading of talent and skills; and, on an ever-fluid playing field, the constant search for the next potential national champion.
What works for sports teams can work for economies, too. By focusing on sound organization and careful implementation – and by insisting on a coordinated approach that leveraged the full benefits of innovation – Germany built on all the essential pillars of competitiveness in the world of soccer. Germany showed that wise planning can achieve success in targeting and promoting competitive industries – just as Great Britain had done in advance of the 2012 summer Olympics in London. Years before those Summer Games started, government and the private sector teamed up to candidly pursue an explicit industrial policy (an approach that had long been somewhat of a taboo in the Anglo-American lexicon) that energized a competitive “Team GB,” helping it bring home far more than its predicted share of gold medals. That British triumph lifted the spirits of a recession-weary society long demoralized by the Thatcherite disdain for public-private cooperation.
The next time skeptics scoff at the supposed futility of “picking winners and losers,” remind them of how "Team GB" used activist strategies to earn troves of Olympic gold in 2012, or how Germany used far-sighted strategies to methodically rebuild its football system and win the World Cup in 2014. And remind them of the relentless rigor of global economic competition, as analyzed after Britain's 2012 Olympics success by one of the UK’s foremost economists, Robert Skidelsky (whose scholarship has now earned him a peerage in the House of Lords): “Nothing is more upsetting to the conventional wisdom than the thought of government ‘picking winners.’ Yet governments have been picking winners all over the world, notably in East Asia. What industrial policy does need, though, is clear focus and sustained commitment – such as was shown in plotting the success of Team GB.”
Laissez-faire fatalism – in sports or in economics – is an abdication, trusting to luck rather than relying on reasoned analysis. Even a decision deliberately not to “pick winners” and not to make strategic investments is, in itself, a consciously chosen type of competitiveness policy – a passive one, meekly accepting an economic outcome that will inevitably be shaped by outside forces rather than by intelligent initiative. Winning competitors, by contrast, are those who carefully calculate strategies – with policymakers and the private sector working in concert – to help optimize their performance in areas where they have the greatest chance of success.
For clubs competing for the Cup, and for countries determined to be contenders in global economic competition, it’s certainly difficult to design and execute a winning competitive strategy. Nobody ever said, after all, that survival or success in globalized capitalism was going to be easy. But the fact that planning wisely is difficult should not provoke the defeatism that pervades laissez-faire indolence. Shrewd decision-making, along with a constant sensing of the marketplace’s ever-changing direction, can help policymakers and business leaders decide where an economy (or a particular industry) should focus its resources to try to gain a competitive edge.
The race to gain even a slight comparative advantage over one’s rivals is a race worth winning – for any economy, large or small. Germany’s well-calculated, well-executed World Cup victory has shown how – in athletic rivalries as in every winner-take-all endeavor in life – coordinated public-private planning for world-class competitiveness can deliver the grandest of rewards.