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The World Cup’s Leading Managers: What MBAs Can Learn From Football

The best football and business bosses are inspirational, make ruthless decisions and can identify weaknesses in competition. But who are the three greatest at this year's World Cup?

Fri Jun 27 2014

There are many a business leaders who can take tips from some of the greatest managers in the footballing world. You only have to look at Sir Alex Ferguson lecturing at Harvard Business School to see the two spheres are drawing ever closer. 

And what a World Cup we have on our hands. With goals galore, sending off’s, biting controversies (can’t believe I am writing that) and disappearing spray, this World Cup will certainly live long in the memory.

We have had some traditional footballing heavyweights taking an early plane home, whilst less fashionable nations have taken their place in the last-16.

Many factors determine whether a nation, or indeed a business, will succeed or fail, with one of the most notable differentiators being the manager at the top. The best football bosses are inspirational, know their own strengths, make ruthless decisions and can identify the weaknesses in the competition.

And in a similar vein, the men (and women) at the top of the world’s biggest companies will share the same traits of success.

This article will take a look at three of the managers that have impressed me most at the World Cup so far, and what, in my opinion, makes them stand out.

1. Louis Van Gaal (Holland)

When the World Cup groups were drawn, people looked at Group B and picked out Chile and Spain as the teams that would progress. After all, Spain were World and European Champions, and Chile were the up and coming force of South America.

It was generally accepted that the Dutch squad was the weakest for many years; Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben are the only stand-out names.

Louis Van Gaal (LVG), of course, also accepted this: he knew the strengths of the team and has been quick to set them out as a fast, counter-attacking side, clinical in front of goal. He looked at Spain and saw a weakness when they were closed down, and a lack of pace to harm the Dutch. With this knowledge he set up his team to press and counter fast, knowing they wouldn’t be caught once they broke.

His tactics have been spot on. He knows his team’s strengths and is great at identifying weakness. He clearly galvanises the nation and has the respect of the group. He is famous for knowing his own mind, much like Sir Alex Ferguson. Clearly, LVG has much strength as a manager, and as a leader.

2. Jorge Sampaoli (Chile)

The second manager also comes from Group B. Any team that can thoroughly dominate and humble Spain clearly have a fantastic manager at the helm. Much like Holland, Chile is all about the team, rather than the individual.

Chile arguably only have two star names – Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez. But what Sampaoli has done with these two is incredible.

Far too often you watch a star name prance around the pitch, letting the lesser names do his work, and then swooping in to grab the limelight. Not at Chile. Vidal and Sanchez work just as hard as the other names on the team-sheet. It can even be argued that Vidal works harder than everyone else.

For Sampaoli to encourage and get such teamwork really does make him an inspirational leader. Chile doesn’t just work hard; their style of play is easy on the eye, and they are all comfortable on the ball. Sampaoli clearly works hard with the team, and is able to effectively articulate his game plan – a key skill in leading a successful team.

3. Luiz Felipe Scolari (Brazil)

The third pick is not so obvious. The manager of Brazil should surely preside over a team that can win against any team. So why do I see him as an impressive manager?

Like Louis Van Gaal and Jorge Sampaoli, Scolari knows his team’s strengths and is bold enough to play to them. Brazil is synonymous with samba football, full of flair and style. This group of players is not really capable of that, though. It would be easy for a Brazilian manager to try and play the samba style, but with players who aren’t cut out for it, it is a recipe for disaster.

I have no doubt that the Brazilian press cries out for more sexy football, but Scolari know his own mind, he is his own man and will play to his team’s strengths.

This is a pragmatic Brazilian team, led by the poster-boy Neymar. Scolari gets the team to believe in the style he wants to play, whilst letting one of the truly world-class players in his team have the freedom he deserves. A nod to the samba style the crowd demands. A great mix and a clever balancing act by the manager.

A final thing to note has been Scolari’s man-management. Fred leads the attack for Brazil, and Scolari is on record as saying that he is the man he believes in, and will continue to play. He drew a blank in his first two games. The nation demanded he be dropped. Scolari stood by his man, showing his belief in him, motivating him, and he was repaid.

Fred got on the score-sheet in the final group game, and could well now go on a run, much like he did in the Confederations Cup a year ago. If he does, it will be down to the managerial skills of Scolari. And it could well lead to them becoming a danger in the latter stages of the World Cup.

So those are the three that have impressed me so far. They have shown leadership and man-management skills that would not be out of place in the world of business.

There is much we can take away from this World Cup, with new technologies, logistical management and not to mention great football being at the fore. But perhaps it is the man sat in the dugout or at the CEOs desk that can provide the greatest lesson, and have the greatest influence.