Football, the beautiful game, galvanizes people from young to old and North to South in a way that no other sport or entertainment can match. Last Sunday’s final was the most watched event in human history with an estimated 1 billion viewers (many of which, in South and East Asia, tuned in well into the night). What we experienced over the past four weeks has been described by some as the closest thing to a world religion: everybody watches it and worships it; everyone has an opinion and many believe that winning the World Cup is one of the greatest achievements a country can aspire to. No wonder that even the Popes seem to care. John-Paul II once pointedly said that “amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important.”
Football is fun, but I want to argue it’s also fundamentally educational. It combines the need for mind and muscle, concentration and fitness, individual skill and dynamic teamwork. It is also a lesson in humility: as the final exemplified, both teams could have prevailed with the outcome ultimately decided in a split second of magic and inspiration. That does not mean, far from it, that success in football boils down to luck. In fact there are many lessons to be drawn, for policy, from Germany’s determined and patient efforts to rebuild its team following the 2004 debacle at the European Championship.
A long-term perspective. It takes a good decade to reach perfection. Even a genius like Mozart spent ten years of hard work before he produced his first remarkable pieces of music. The current German football team, likewise, took a decade to compose. This long term effort began when Juergen Klinsmann took over as national head coach, in July 2004 following Germany’s early exit from the Euro. His first decision, in hindsight, proved to be the most important one. He selected Joachim Loew (affectionately called “Jogi” in Germany) as his deputy. Their main goal was to transform the traditional way of German football, sometimes described as rustic, into a dynamic fast game led by new talent. They did not seek quick fixes to deep structural problems but instead targeted long-term success which is slower to come to fruition but ultimately more sustainable. They took this gamble just ahead of a “World Cup at home” in 2006, where youngsters like Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Mertesacker and Podolski played their first big tournament. That team won over the hearts of many Germans and made it to the semis, though it lost against a more experienced Italy squad. Still, Germany’s new way of playing was established. After Klinsmann’s voluntary departure in 2006, Loew continued to patiently implement the new philosophy adding new players such as Mueller, Neuer, Kroos, Oezil, Schuerrle. The end of the story is known but on the path to ultimate success was a consistent buildup in experience and intermediate wins.
Successful Immigration and meritocracy. It’s hard to imagine Germany’s team without such key players as Boateng, Khedira, Oezil, Klose or Podolski. The defense has African blood, the mid-field Turkish and Arab influences, and the offense Polish roots. But the biggest success for a team once dubbed as too old and too white is that such diversity is now considered absolutely normal. Players are selected (and revered) based on merit not the color their skin or the language they grew up speaking at home. Germany has followed the successful model that France embraced in the 1990s, which led them win the trophy in 1998 with a “Black, Blanc Beurre” team of mixed origins. By contrast, Germany’s 1990 squad was made up only of white players.
Can this successful model be replicated beyond football for the economy as a whole? The most important starting point is to debunk the fallacy that immigrants are taking away jobs that “locals” could do. Of course there are many German-bred players that could occupy the posts of Boateng, Khedira and Oezil, but the team would certainly have been a weaker one. Moreover the soccer industry as a whole – which is expected to get a big boost from the World Cup triumph and currently pays remarkably high salaries even in the third division – would not be doing as well as it is today. In short: excellence at the top through the optimal allocation of talent creates broader opportunities for all.
A ruthless performance culture. Have you ever wondered why people adore super-wealthy football players who earn in just a few hours what a regular fan makes in weeks or months? By contrast politicians are often disliked, even clean and honest ones, even though many earn modest salaries (by comparison) and possibly work twice as much? The big difference between football and the public sector, sometimes even other businesses, is that there is extremely high accountability. If you don’t perform you are out, with millions of spectators watching you fall. People love to argue endlessly about the coach’s selection but these are arguments at the margin but one thing is for sure: you will never have a third-rate player on the pitch in a World Cup game. Politics is different. Some have big international jobs and don’t speak a word of English; some have blatantly faked their resumes and academic titles, others make devastating mistakes and still manage to smile into the cameras knowing that sanction is unlikely.
Germany’s triumph on the pitch should not lead to political and economic complacency. Instead it should trigger emulation and learning. A long-term vision, the successful integration of immigrants, and a continuous focus on performance have made the German football team strong. Now it is time for policy makers to do the same.
Note: World Bank Lead Economist Wolfgang Fengler is also a passionate coach and organizer of football tournaments. This blog was written at the Gothia Cup in Gothenberg, also called the World Youth Cup, where 36,000 children are competing for this big trophy. His son is playing for the team of the International School of Kenya.