Yesterday Russia celebrated an emphatic 3-1 victory over the Netherlands in a EURO 2008 quarterfinal. The Dutch were drifting from the first whistle on, and unable to "find into the game," as they say in soccer. In the end, the Netherlands' worst nightmare became a self-fulfilling curse. Because they were afraid of – once again – ultimately not being rewarded for their widely admired sophisticated and beautiful style of soccer, they chose not to play it.
That proved to be a fatal error. Marco van Basten, the Dutch coach, has to take the blame. He let his team play too conservatively, bent on maintaining the balance of power, which saw the Dutch as the technically and tactically superior team. But you can't protect the status quo if you're not willing to take a risk.
Russia, by contrast, took full advantage of the historic opportunity to impress as an emerging soccer nation on the world stage, and the Russian players, in particular the mesmerizing Arshavin (his performance will probably have raised his price by 10-15 million) have surely been added to the buying lists of many top European soccer clubs now. Russia won because they were the hungrier team and because their determination to surmount the insurmountable (that is, to eliminate a soccer powerhouse like the Netherlands from the tournament) was palpable throughout the match. They taught the Dutch that it is a thin line between confidence and arrogance, and that somewhere in between lies faith. The Russians had faith – in their own abilities but also in fortune, or whatever you prefer to call that "invisible hand" that directs the dramaturgy of a soccer game (and the world, for that matter).
But there was another force at work here. The Netherlands' defeat marks a larger trend. In all the EURO 2008 quarterfinals so far, the group runner-ups and alleged underdogs succeeded (Germany against Portugal, Turkey against Croatia, and now Russia against the Netherlands). This indicates that the most decisive action may take place before the game: the manipulation of public opinion, the "expectation management," and the narrative framing to the psychological advantage of the one side that looks weaker on paper. All the winning teams’ coaches bent over backwards to downplay their own team's chances and didn't waste a second in the public limelight to assume the underdog role – the David against the Goliath.
It's obviously good to be branded as the challenger. Challenger brands (i.e. Virgin America in civil aviation or salesforce.com in enterprise software) are born out of the quest to catch up with the established expert or leader, which keeps them on their toes and provides the extra-motivation needed for accomplishing tasks beyond routine. Challenger brands have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The opposite is true for the favorite: Research shows that in sports the pressure of being the favorite can lead to "shortened breathing on the sideline, slower reflexes and increased fatigue, a tangible physical effect as the panic of falling as favorites begins to set in."
Winners act like a champion but think like an underdog.