Bernardo M. Villegas
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Rebalancing Strategy
published: Mar 31, 2017



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Lessons From a Football Club

         What else is new?  FC Barcelona (known popularly as Barca) won the most prestigious soccer title last May 28 for the second time in four years.   It beat Manchester United by a decisive 3 to 1 in the finals of the Champions League.  I have no doubt that Barca is the best club soccer team the world has ever seen.  Even those who disagree with this statement (especially my friends who are fans of Real Madrid) must admit that Barca is the finest team in the world right now.  It clobbered Real Madrid in the Spanish league.  It boasts of the best players in the world:  Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.  Just two years ago, it won all the possible soccer titles--all six of them--in Europe, where the best soccer is played. Even Alex Ferguson, the Manager of ManU paid tribute to Barca after the final match in Wembley, London:  "In my time as manager, it's the best team I've faced."  As an incorrigible forecaster, I dare to predict that Barca will win many more titles in the future, including helping Spain to retain its World Cup championship in 2014 by lending six or more of its best players to the Spanish team, as happened in the last World Cup in South Africa.

          Why am I cocksure about the long-term dominance of Barca in the world of soccer?  The answer is found in the slogan of FC Barcelona:  "More than a club."  Barca is really more than a club.  It is a school of human virtues.  It is a model for good management.  It is the epitome of team spirit.  It has introduced a new paradigm in the game of soccer. Besides, its best players, starting with Lionel Messi are only in their early twenties (as compared with Rooney or Giggs of ManU who are in their mid- or late thirties).   We have the words of some of the leading world soccer commentators to support these assertions.

          Take Gabriele Marcotti, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a regular broadcaster for the BBC.  In an article that appeared in The Times of London last January 23, 2011, Mr. Marcotti singled out the way Barca plays real football (unlike Real Madrid in the recent semifinal matches of the Champions League).  "...what sets this Barcelona apart from other dominant teams in recent history is the way it plays the game, which is, at once, breathtaking to watch and unlike any other top side in Europe.  In a single game, a top team beating up on a weaker opponent might typically control 60% of possession--65%, at most.  Barcelona has averaged 73% possession in La Liga and 72% in the Champions League...Barcelona's possession obsession is a way of maximizing the skill set of this squad, filled with creative, undersized players with a keen understanding of passing and movement.  It's a sterling example of the old truism:  Tactical systems and styles of play should suit the players at your disposal.  Put Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola in charge of, say, Manchester United or A.C. Milan and odds are that one of three things would happen:  He'd change his philosophy, he'd have to bring in a raft of new players or the team simply wouldn't be very good."  To its credit, ManU also played real football (instead of a purely defensive game) in the Champions League final last May 28.  That is why, it was worth waking up at 2:00 a.m. to watch the beautiful game on Channel 34 of Balls of Skycable.

          The words of Mr. Marcotti are echoed by The Economist in an article that appeared just nine days before the final match in Wembley Stadium: "How has a club that is based in one of Europe's unemployment blackspots turned itself into the ruling power in the worlds' most popular sport? An obvious answer is that Barca plays as a team in a sport that has far too many prima donnas.  It keeps the ball moving, dominates possession and keeps its opponents under constant pressure.  But there is a less obvious answer, too, and one that has implications beyond the football pitch.Barca has provided a distinctive solution to some of the most contentious problems in management theory.  What is the right balance between stars and the rest of mankind?  Should you buy talent or grow your own?  How can you harness the enthusiasm of consumers to promote your brand?  And how do you combine the advantages of local roots and global reach?"

          Asian managers should pay special attention to the answers to these questions.  If we are really going to convert the 21st Century into the Asian Century, we must run our enterprises the  way Barca runs its team:  "Barca puts more emphasis than any other major team on growing its own players.  Other football teams often resemble the United Nations--the Arsenal first eleven, for example, frequently includes just two native-born Britons.  Barca, by contrast, is still dominated by local players, and Catalan is often spoken in the dressing room.  Eight of the team's leading players are products of its football school, La Masia.  That includes Mr. Messi, an Argentine who moved to Barcelona as a boy, and the team's coach, Josep ('Pep') Guardiola.  La Masia is unique among football schools.  It is a boarding school that puts as much emphasis on character training as on footballing skills.  The students are relentlessly instructed on the importance of team spirit, self-sacrifice and perseverance.  They are also taught that Barca is 'more than a club':  it is the embodiment of Catalan pride that kept the region's spirit alive during the years when Spain groaned under the fascist Franco regime..."

           In a commentary that appeared on the day of the Barca-ManU match, the famous commentator on global soccer, Rob Hughes, wrote in the International Herald Tribune about "A championship worthy of the beautiful game."    He, too, opined that Barca thrives from an unbeatable team spirit:  "The pace of modern soccer is achieved in different ways.  In England, it can be physical pace.  In Spain, especially in Barcelona, it combines the speed of movement with speed of thought.  The ability to pass the ball and to make it look like a choreographed dance, shows that Barca is much, much more than a one-man show.  Messi is delightful, but above that he fits into the Barcelona team play because he went to the academy there, alongside seven of his team members.  United, with a squad drawn from 14 nationalities, has to break up a rhythm that is inculcated from childhood."

          Business people in Asia should learn from Barca about focusing on nurturing virtues and values among their workforce and investing in long-term manpower development, instead of "hiring stars rather than developing teams."  They should be reminded of what Jim Collins, author of the best-selling management book "Good to Great," advised corporate executives:  The secret of long-term corporate success lies in cultivating a distinctive set of values, a unique corporate culture.  As The Economist article remarked:  "For all the talk of diversity and globalisation, this usually means promoting from within and putting down deep local roots."  I sincerely hope that the Philippine conglomerates that are now aggressively expanding both their scale and scope of business will heed this very valuable advice.   Like Barca that is more than a club, they too should consider their operations as "more than a business."   For comments, my email address is bvillegas@uap.edu.ph.