It’s been said that nothing fails like success. Because success provides the fertile soil in which complacency and arrogance can take root. We become complacent when we extrapolate our present success into the future and assume we will always be successful. We become arrogant when we attribute success to our superiority and assume we will always be superior.
So it was with German soccer after the national team played in three consecutive World Cup finals, winning the ultimate prize in 1990 (as West Germany). When legendary former player and then coach Franz Beckenbauer was asked about the future prospects for German soccer given the impending unification with East Germany, he answered that the team would now be “unbeatable.”
The reality was different. Embarrassingly, Germany failed to get beyond the quarter-finals in the next two World Cups, something that had never happened before. As current national team general manager Oliver Bierhoff put it, “For 10 years we patted ourselves on the back without getting better and without acknowledging that others were passing us by.”
Success had led to failure.
The Germans realized they needed to change. So they did. The remaking of German football came to rest on four cornerstones: 1) humility, 2) investment, 3) learning, and 4) diligence. Humility was the easy one thanks to the early exits from multiple World Cups and European Championships.
Investment took a number of forms. Player development became a priority. The governing Deutscher Fussball-Bund (DFB) collaborated with domestic clubs – the clubs agreed to field developmental teams while the DFB invested in hundreds of new training centers. Investment in psychological training and development, and sport science in general, boomed.
Learning meant seeking out those they could learn from, and being open to trying things they had never tried. For example, the DFB partnered with the San Jose Earthquakes of the MLS – a mediocre club in a mediocre league – because they believed that sports technology is more advanced in the U.S., and that being connected with Silicon Valley would expose them to cutting edge ideas and cutting edge technology.
All this was applied with German industriousness – diligence. The outcome? German soccer was resurrected; they finished 3rd in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and took home the title in 2014.
That’s how success can lead to failure can lead to success.
Yet as San Jose general manager, Jesse Fioranelli, observed, “They won it all but they still speak with humility.” And they continue to invest. A $160 million sport science and training academy, slated for completion in 2020, will be the DFB’s largest ever infrastructure project.
Today, the Germans are among the favorites to win this summer’s World Cup in Russia. Yet if they don’t, it won’t be because of the twin poisons of complacency and arrogance. That’s because they’ve come to embody the spirit captured in the campaign Mercedes-Benz created for the World Cup: Best Never Rest.
Make it happen.
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