Soccer, Champions League & Business

I am a recent convert to football (soccer for my American friends) and Liverpool (a fine English football club!!!). There are so many life lessons from this wonderful sport (as it is from every sport). Last morning’s two Champions league quarterfinal matches (Liverpool vs Manchester City; Barcelona vs Roma) provided just that in addition to some very fine entertainment. The bigger the stage, the more intense the situation, the best it brings out in us. With Liverpool enjoying a 3-0 advantage from the first leg match at home, the chances for Manchester City (MC) -the dominant side from English Premier League in 2018, looked very slim. MC has an incredible team and many believe that they do have what it takes to pull through this one. The atmosphere in the stadium is a sea of Blue (Manchester City colors). They begin extremely well, scoring a goal within the first two minutes. This narrows the lead and MC now look dangerous. They are controlling ball possession completely. The Liverpool side is in tatters and is unable to retain possession of the ball even for very short periods of time.

Soccer is an amazing game. It’s so much driven by the state of the mind. The three goal advantage at the start of the game seems to have conditioned Liverpool to play a defensive game, very much into opposition hands. A great attempt by MC bounces off the goal post. Liverpool fans like me are looking at the watch every few minutes and hoping for the time to just fly by quickly. A few minutes later, an MC goal is disallowed due to a referring error. Liverpool fans are praying hard for lady luck to continue to be on their side. It’s finally half time and time to get the early morning coffee. MC coach Pep Guardiola loses his cool on the referee (for the disallowed goal) as the players are walking to the tunnel. He argues long enough to be barred from the pitch for the rest of the game.

The second half begins with Liverpool showing slightly better initiative in ball possession. Liverpool are a tough side when they counter attack. The moment of truth arrives shortly thereafter. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) makes a great attempt at the goal. He is brought down in the penalty box in one of the counter attacks. Mohammed Salah (star Liverpool striker) pounces on the loose ball and scores a glorious finish. Whilst many players would have stayed on to argue for a penalty, Salah’s presence of mind and composure is now the defining moment of the game. This away goal from Liverpool has for all practical purposes put the game out of MC’s reach. The rest of the game is routine and Liverpool go on to score another goal. It has been an exhilarating 90 minutes with many lessons for us in business and life.

1. The game is won in the mind before its won on the pitch. The second half saw a more determined Liverpool team and that changed the narrative of the game. Many of the long established companies in the world have adopted a very defensive stance towards the innovation onslaught from the startup companies and tech giants. This is very much like how Liverpool played in the first half. We need to win the game in our minds before we win on the battle field. We need to believe we can execute the digital story. DBS Bank in Singapore reflects a fine example of winning the digital story in the mind even before they started winning on the pitch.

2. You need to maintain your composure till the game is over. MC Coach Pep’s loss of composure at half time has had a telling effect on the team. They did not recover from the disallowed goal event. They were looking very menacing till then. Salah on the other hand maintained his composure. Whilst most players would have stopped to argue for a penalty for bringing down Mane in the box, Salah seized the opportunity and broke away to score the decisive goal. Business environments also provide similar opportunities. You have to stay calm long enough for these opportunities to present itself. While UBER and GRAB have joined forces in South East Asia, there is now such an incredible opportunity for a strong number two. Does ComfortDelgro (Singapore’s dominant taxi company) or any other company seize this opportunity and become a strong number two to GRAB in the region. This loose ball is available in the penalty box waiting for a Salah.

3. Look for those game changing opportunities, an away goal counts for so much more. It’s not just hard work, it is playing it right, playing it smart. Do invest in allowing some of these game changing events to happen to you, your business and your careers. The away goal from Salah sealed the game for Liverpool. The lack of an away goal resulted in the elimination of Barcelona. What is an away goal for business? You need to plan for some counter-attacks to give you the opportunity to have a shot at goal. Having a rigorous acquisition strategy is a possible counter-attack play.

4. You need to prepare for adverse situations. How do you respond when there is an element of surprise or adversity? Being a champion or leader is about how you play when the chips are down. Both Barcelona and MC did not do well in preparing for these scenarios in yesterday’s game. I see many parallels in business. Many of our world’s tech giants are incredible in fueling growth and driving innovation. I am not as sure if they are as prepared to handle tough situations. We have seen in recent months how Facebook was not prepared enough to own the responsibility and trust that comes with the title of being a social media leader.

We have an interesting season of sports lining up in coming months with the World Cup Soccer starting in June. I intend on using the excuse of learning to watch a fair bit of action. Do share your comments and feedback.

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