Here's an example of a traditional marketer proving with a smart Twitter campaign that social media and sports are a natural fit: Sony Ericsson, one of the long-term sponsors of the World Cup, has turned to Twitter to engage fans months before the World Cup begins. The Twittercup collects and counts fan tweets, creating a competition among attending nations. Since its launch in early December it has received over 43,000 tweets.
“Everything has symmetry when you just leave it where it is,” mathematician Marcus du Sautoy said in his talk at TEDGlobal in Oxford. Attending a TED conference is as asymmetrical an experience as you can imagine: Nothing is left where it is. The combination of riveting ideas and remarkable people you encounter is purportedly designed to disrupt your balance, routines of thinking, self-esteem, beliefs, values — even your sleep. After TED, you’re no longer congruent with your former self: You have seen things you have not seen before, you feel different, and you have been moved. Things have changed, and you know that only true passions cause real change.
After five days of delving into other people’s passions in Oxford, I felt that it was time to celebrate my own: football, a spectacle that combines archaic competition with sublime pleasure. In his scholarly essay “On the Alleged Dehumanization of the Sports Spectator,” Allan Guttmann describes football matches as cathartic events, “saturnalia-like occasions for the uninhibited.” So, on the first evening after TEDGlobal, I took the Jubilee line to London’s Wembley Stadium to see a rather meaningless preseason game between Tottenham Hotspur and a B-team of Europe’s current champions, FC Barcelona.
I’ve always thought — to paraphrase Pascal — that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not stay in a football stadium. A football arena is my refuge, my cave, my playing field, my “manspace.” After all the elevation, elusion, and enthrallment at TEDGlobal, I was craving a simple point of reference and a naive familiarity that only a football field can offer. Like a good pop song, it provides something archetypal that is immediately and permanently relevant, a way to look at life, a worldview. Football, like all sports, offers clear rules, and thus, comfort in a world of growing ambiguity. It satisfies the unfulfilled stories of our lives waiting to be resolved, catalyzed, and made sense of — by one single elegant sequence of interactions and passes that lead to the eruptive, collective, and yet so private celebration of a goal.
Football is like theater. It condenses all human emotions, all possible developments of a story onto one big stage that lies at the center of our attention for 90 minutes or more. Football gives its players the power to be the “authors of their own ambition,” as Alain de Botton suggested in Oxford, when he spoke about 21st-century career patterns. De Botton heralded tragedy as a more humane way to embrace failure and posited, “Hamlet lost, but he was not a loser.” Football possesses this appreciation for tragedy, too. Hearts will ache. Promises will be broken. Somebody will lose. But losers they will not be.
The football stadium is a space where the boundaries between player and spectator are still defined, but the distance from idea to implementation, the gap between unseen and seen, is negligible. A football game is a train of thought, a breathless stream of consciousness, but it is also the very act of acting itself. What you see is what you get. Football is “the head and hand united,” in the words of Richard Sennett, or better, the head and foot united. It is an accelerated microcosm of innovation, where the idea is the prototype is the product.
Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho once described it as follows: “What I do, always before a game — always, every night and every day — is try and think up things, imagine plays, which no one else will have thought of, and to do so always bearing in mind the particular strengths of each teammate to whom I am passing the ball. When I construct those plays in my mind, I take into account whether one teammate likes to receive the ball at his feet or ahead of him, if he’s good with his head and how he prefers to head the ball, if he’s stronger on his right or his left foot. That’s my job. That is what I do. I imagine the game.”
Players like Ronaldinho or the uniquely gifted Argentine Lionel Messi are artists, and like artists “they set up expectations of symmetry and break them,” as Marcus du Sautoy put it, “[because] in everything, uniformity is undesirable.” Innovation, which is needed to advance on the pitch, is asymmetrical by its very nature. The whole game of football is one big attempt to break symmetry through imagination and beauty.
At Wembley, my gaze traced the distinct white of the chalk marking the sidelines and penalty areas on the field, the calm before the storm, disturbingly quiet. I studied the goals, as they stood there, monolithic and self-absorbed, fully aware of their power to attract and fulfill that one simple desire. I admired their majestic symmetry that is only destroyed when man, goalie, enters the scene.
Below the main stands, I spotted Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s coach, who had won all possible trophies with his club last season. And I recalled what TEDGlobal speaker Itay Talgam had said in Oxford about great conductors: They create the “conditions for the process to take place.” This is true for great football coaches, too. They simply enjoy watching and letting go — gaining influence as they embrace the loss of control over time and space, as some of the great players have in rare moments.
Spanish author Javier Marías’ story, “In Uncertain Time,” portrays Hungarian football player Szentkuthy, who, in the final minutes of a critical game rallies forward on his own, shakes off two defenders, and overcomes the goalkeeper. All that is then left to do is to slot the ball into the empty net, but even as the whole stadium rises to respond to the goal, he refuses to shoot. Instead, he advances, and stops the ball right on the goal line. Then, as the goalkeeper and the two defenders come running towards him, “Szentkuthy rolled the ball an inch or so forward and then stopped it again once it was over the goal line.” “He had thwarted imminence,” writes Marías, “and it was not so much that he had stopped time as that he had set a mark on it and made it uncertain, as if he were saying, ‘I am the instigator and it will happen when I say it will happen, not when you want it. If it does happen, it is because I have decided that it should.’” Szentkuthy’s action “pointed out the gulf between what is unavoidable and what has not been avoided, between what is still future and what is already past, between ‘might be’ and ‘was,’ a palpable transition which we only rarely witness.”
I was looking at the lush green of the football pitch that still allowed all possible mathematical configurations, all possible combinations of play. Seeing the unseen, I thought, means the ability to create multiple stories. Like dancers, football players interpret space, each in his own way. Everything is possible because anything is possible. Just as life, unfolding, is inevitable, so it goes with the referee’s first whistle: “It ain’t why, why, why, it just is” (Van Morrison). It simply happens — and afterwards, legions of commentators and analysts will attempt to reconstruct it, explain it, and demystify it, in vain.
As the teams entered the arena, 60,000 fans began chanting. The players occupied their positions — both teams lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, in perfect symmetry, anxious for the action to come. How I wished I could have held this moment of uncertainty a little longer, as Szentkuthy did when he stopped the ball on the goal line. I was thinking of my soon-to-be-born daughter and how her life and mine will be immediately and forever asymmetrical from the very minute she enters the world. I was thinking of the endless array of possibilities ahead of her.
Then the game began. I’d seen the substance of things not seen. Nothing would ever be the same again.
From the upcoming special TEDGlobal design mind issue "The Substance of Things Not Seen," available next week
I’m nervous, seriously nervous. In a few hours, in the Olympic stadium in Rome, FC Barcelona (or “Barca,” as its supporters call it) will face Manchester United, the other soccer superpower, in the game of all games, the final of the UEFA Champions League, the most important club competition in Europe (and the world, for that matter). Both teams have already won two trophies this season (their national leagues and national cups respectively), and a victory in Rome would see either one clinch the “treble.” For Barca, it would be a historic accomplishment – no other Spanish soccer team has ever won all three possible titles in one season. That’s not the only superlative in the lead-up to the game: Messi, Eto'o, and Henry – Barca’s offensive trio – have scored more goals together this year than the entire squad of any other European club.
I’ll be watching the game at a resort near Santa Barbara, and it’ll be the end of journey for me, in many ways: I have been following Barca’s triumphant season leading to today’s final in different cities all over the world on TV. I saw the team struggle against Lyon in an earlier round in a packed sports bar in Amsterdam; I bit my nails in a smelly pub in Austin when Barca remained goalless in the home tie against Chelsea; I took a day off from work in San Francisco to enjoy them trashing Bayern Munich 4-1; I was in Barcelona in a bar without any Euros but a kind bartender (the comfort of strangers) who even accepted a few lousy dollars for a beer that helped me make it through a dramatic away game; I followed games on the Internet live-ticker in Sonoma County in lack of TV; and I celebrated euphorically the decisive 1-1 goal in Chelsea in the semi-final with my best friend in Hamburg. After all these memorable moments, I realize that I am emotionally exhausted. There’s just enough sentiment left for today’s game. I will use it to cheer Barca to victory.
So I am a Barca fan, but you may wonder why in the world would an otherwise level-headed (I hope) German professional, living in San Francisco, be so crazy about a Catalan soccer team? Joan Laporta, FC Barcelona’s president, asked me exactly that question (more diplomatically phrased) when I met him briefly two years ago at an event at Stanford University, and I uttered something like “because Barca is more than a club.” I felt stupid and exposed as succumbing to the marketing formula the club had promoted for years: “Mes que un club.” But then I thought of that one remarkable moment in Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous” in which he tries to make fun of the actor who plays Jesus in a Christian theme park in Florida. Not a difficult task, it seems, until that very actor asks him back, with great sincerity and earnestness: “So you think this is all made up and crazy talk. I get it. But what if you're wrong?” There’s a short pause, and Maher, the cynic, has just been disarmed. That’s exactly how I feel about my passion for Barca. Not that Barca is like a religion to me, but it is a matter of faith. It is something to believe in – the why doesn’t matter.
And yet, I could cite very good reasons for why Barca ought to be the favorite club of anyone who loves the “beautiful game.” In fact, Albert Schweitzer must have had Barca in mind when he coined his famous aphorism: “Do something wonderful, people may imitate it.” Much has been written about Barca’s aesthical play and its underlying philosophy. Barca’s style is a showcase of sparkling creativity, but what one must not overlook is the enormous tactical discipline and the intelligent organization that serve as the platform for the magic moments of Messi, Eto’o, Henry et al. The Barca superstars wouldn’t be able to shine without the works of Xavi, Iniesta, and Toure in midfield, and what pundits have rightly dubbed an “efficient ballet” is a collective movement of great fluidity and elegance, and a unique series of human-ball, human-human interactions that are a true pleasure to watch. One must also credit the incredible discipline that coach and former Barca player Pep Guardiola has introduced to the club this year. When a few players showed up one(!) minute late to a training session last week after winning the Spanish cup the night before, Guardiola reprimanded them and fined them – a symbolic act, of course, but one that reinforced the high standards of professionalism.
One of the other key elements of Barca’s supremacy is anticipation – the ability to predict the opponents’ moves and be just one crucial tick faster than them. This ability is based on the philosophy of “Total Football” that the Dutchmen Johann Cruyff and Luis van Gaal brought to Barcelona, and that Barca still cherishes. Total Football requires every player on the pitch to master any position at any time and to “read” the whole game from any angle. In this fluid system no player is fixed in their intended outfield role; anyone can be successively an attacker, a midfielder, and a defender. Total Football depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team to succeed.
Barcelona embodies Total Football and is yet so much more than just football. To learn more about the genuine element of drama that no other club embraces in the way Barca does, I recommend you read Javier Marias' “All Our Past Battles,” a wonderful collection of stories around the “el classicos” between Barca and arch rival Real Madrid. You’ll understand the melodramatic quality of Barca’s defeats (and wins!), and the great poetry that surrounds all of its appearances, on the pitch and off. More than just once, Barca squandered opportunities to close in on a victory that was thought secure because the team’s abundantly talented players gave in to a seemingly insatiable quest for inspiration, artistry, and class rather than scoring a simple goal. The simple way is never the easiest for Barca. Barca’s striving for excellence feels nostalgic but at the same time very relevant and timely.
Franklin Foer also dedicates a whole chapter to the “Blaugrana” (Catalan for blue/red) club and its political undercurrents in his excellent “How Soccer Explains the World.” FC Barcelona was one of the first soccer clubs to be founded in Spain, and it became a haven for Catalan sentiment when Catalan self-government and culture were proscribed during Franco’s dictatorship. The club emerged as the playful manifesto of Catalonia’s spiritual independence, and since then, nowhere has soccer been more fundamental to the sense of identity than in Barcelona. Former Barca full back Oleguer even published a book which was about politics as much as his own career. Barca supporters joke that he only played when he was not on a protest march.
It is ironic that a club rooted deeply in Catalan nationalism has such an international following. But Barca’s appeal is so global precisely because its roots are so local. Barca represents the Catalan people while at the same time creating a sense of \belonging to “beauty and quality.” The meaning of Barca transcends the boundaries of sports and nations, and embodies the universal values of sportsmanship and integrity.
Every brand can take a page from Barca’s “magic ingredients”:
Aspiration: Barca has always set itself and its members daunting challenges to strive for and rally around. The latest one is “The Great Challenge” campaign which aims at growing the membership, fostering Barca as the biggest and greatest club in world soccer. Before the beginning of this season Barca also declared that its goal was to win all three competitions it participated in. Some may call this arrogance, but for Barca it's a brand driver. The “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” set by excellent teams always need to exceed the past ones. Motivation originates in the belief and opportunity to achieve the extraordinary – no matter what it takes. Under-promise and over-deliver is just good execution. Over-promise and over-deliver are the signs of a class act.
Only the best: Barca’s management and members are never satisfied with average, and they despise mediocrity. They understand top quality, tactically advanced soccer as a moral obligation. Only the best players make it to Barca where the competition is brutal. Analogous to GE's famous 10% rule, the lowest performing players in the team usually have to leave the club.
Social responsibility: Barca is fully owned by its members, unlike most other big soccer clubs - which are either in the hands of large corporations or American (Manchester United) and Russian (FC Chelsea) billionaires - and they possess significant voting power. This “power to the people” tradition reflects a distinct social conscience that is expressed in many ways. Sure, other clubs are using the power of their brands as well to do good, but no other club’s social responsibility is so deeply engrained in its DNA as Barca’s. Based on its spirit of independence, the club has always taken on broader social issues and played a pivotal role in promoting diversity, tolerance, and peace worldwide. Barca’s partnership with UNICEF is a statement of the club's continuing efforts to be at the forefront of solidarity projects with a global reach. Under the agreement, which bears the slogan “Barcelona, more than a club, a new global hope for vulnerable children,” Barca contributes to the financing of UNICEF humanitarian projects and endorses UNICEF on its shirts – as the only major European team not to wear an advertisement. Club president Joan Laporta rules out any type of commercial shirt sponsorship and instead seeks to promote a humanitarian message: "FC Barcelona is not only a football club, but a club with a soul.”
The real thing: To a European soccer fan living in the US who has grown accustomed to hyper-commercialized sports events, it is reassuring to see how purist the soccer experience still is in Barca’s stadium, the Camp Nou – a few pre-game commercials, no half-time show whatsoever, and all attention on the players, even during their warm-up exercises before the game. In Camp Nou, it is all about the “beautiful game.”
Charismatic reference point: Messi, arguably the world's best soccer player, serves as a reference point for team mates and fans alike. There is no one else like him, and he outshines all other soccer superstars with his playfulness.
Disruption: Powerful brands need an element of surprise. They should always take the freedom to ignore the quest for consistency and do what they want - irrationally, passionately, and with no regrets. Every three years or so, when a cycle ends, Barca’s management disrupts the existing team structure and builds a new squad. The rule is: Always change a winning team! By all standards of modern business, Barca is a professionally managed club but yet there is a sense that anything could happen anytime – almost like in a soccer match.
The Champions League final today will be another milestone in the saga of the Barca brand, regardless of who wins (2-1 for Barca, my prediction). Humility and hard work have been the traits of Barca's season so far, and in the end, dignity will matter more than titles and trophies at a club that is “more than a club.” And that exactly is the hallmark of a great brand: “Keep yourself clean and bright. You are the windows through which you must view the world,” the ancient proverb goes.
If you're a frequent reader of this blog, you might have noticed that I'm an avid soccer fan who doesn't let an opportunity pass to draw analogies between the "beautiful game" and the other big game: business. As such I was riveted by Clive Thompson's "Goalkeeper Science" piece in last week's New York Times Magazine's "Year in Ideas" issue. Based on research examining the behavior of soccer goalkeepers facing penalty kicks, Thompson concludes that "inaction may be the biggest form of action" (Jerry Brown).
The study, published by a team of Israeli scientists in the Journal of Economic Psychology earlier this year, analyzed 286 penalty kicks and found that 94 percent of the time the goalies dived to the right or the left, even though the chances of stopping the ball were highest when the goalie stayed in the center. "If that's true, why do goalies almost always dive off to one side?," Thompson wonders and provides the answer himself: "Because () the goalies are afraid of looking as if they're doing nothing and then missing the ball. Diving to one side, even if it decreases the chance of them catching the ball, makes them appear decisive."
At first sight, this finding seems to present an interesting lesson for business leaders who are confronted with the urge to make decisions amidst ambiguity and an overwhelming amount of (often contradictory) information. "Not moving" or sticking to the principles and the plan in place may be interpreted as indecision and thus drive them into an "action bias" that causes more harm than good. Thompson: "The same goes, of course, for presidents and politicians, who face enormous pressure to 'fix' the economy even if they haven't got a clue what to do. Perhaps our current economic crisis has been driven by precisely this dynamic: a global financial system that jumped the wrong way for the ball."
So far, so convincing. But then I read Brian Phillips' rebuttal in which he cites numerous methodological shortcomings to back his claim that the economists' theory may be "more Malcolm Gladwell-ish than originally thought." And that, just to be clear, is not meant as a compliment. Aside from the valid doubt over anything economists, of all people, assert these days (after being so dreadfully wrong on, well, the economy), Malcom Gladwell, the author of the bestselling Tipping Point, Blink, and most recently Outliers, is a delightful master of over-simplification, a populist who masters the art of translating science into a reader's digest franchise of easy "how to's" for business class readers. Not that that is despicable by any means, it may just be wrong. I saw Gladwell present the main thesis of his new book at this year's Pop!Tech conference. I left with the dizzying feeling of a lot of hot air in my stomach and the thought that explaining science via pop may be as dissatisfying as explaining pop via science.
In the case of the goalkeeping study, Phillips contends that "there's some basis for hypothesizing that the aim here is to concoct a metaphor that can be franchised out across a variety of media topics rather than to advance our understanding of soccer or the human mind. Maybe that's too cynical, but that's such a common move in the sciences these days that I thought I'd jump at it, even if I'd be better off staying still." Kudos to Phillips. Action - and no goal!
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.
Frank Rijkaard, the Dutch coach of Catalan soccer outfit FC Barcelona (Barca), left the club after five years. He won two Spanish league titles as well as the Champions League, but he failed to get any silverware for the proud club in the past two years, which left Barca’s president Joan Laporta no other choice than to ax him. It was a long goodbye that had been on the horizon for a while. Not even titles may have changed things. Everyone knew that Rijkaard’s time in Barcelona was over.
He was sacked with style, though, and he himself showed remarkable consistency and humility throughout not only the overall very successful five years but also the past two months at the helm. It was “unbearable,” Rijkaard admitted after a humiliating 4-1 defeat against arch rival Real Madrid a few weeks ago, which marked the absolute low point of a tempestuous season. Yet the way he kept up his optimism and integrity in the face of the unfolding tragedy was impressive. Rijkaard always defended his players and never criticized them in public. He assumed full responsibility for disappointing performances, and never blamed the referee or the circumstances. Instead, he absorbed the anger and frustration of the fans with stoic calm and an unshakable work ethic that was always directed towards the next game.
In his last game for Barca, a romping 5-3 victory over Murcia, young striker Giovanni Dos Santos scored a hat-trick. Each time the teenager scored, each goal eclipsing the previous one for deftness and beauty, he turned towards Rijkaard. Highly unusual for him, the coach was on his feet, all smiles, lifting both hands in the air and cheering as if his team had just won the Champions League final. It was a remarkable moment, a moving outburst of joy in the overtime of his tenure. When nothing really matters anymore, everything matters – especially the small gestures that distinguish a man from a gentleman and a successful coach from a great one.
Rijkaard understood all too well that, in the end, dignity mattered more than titles and trophies at a club that is “more than a club.” That’s the hallmark of a great brand, a great vision: Never let the critics doubt it, and never let them destroy your spirit. “Keep yourself clean and bright. You are the windows through which you must view the world,” the ancient proverb goes. "Frank has been true to himself from beginning to end," Rijkaard’s assistant said in the last press conference. “It has been an honor to work for this club,” Frank Rijkaard added.
Soccer and innovation: I blogged about "what Ronaldinho and FC Barcelona can teach you about innovation" before "el clásico" on Sunday, and, well, there was a certain risk that my bold claim would backfire. Madrid slammed Barca in its own backyard 1-0, and while I'm flattered that my favorite Fox soccer analyst Bobby McMahon is linking to my post, his comment still stings a little....
Monarchy 2.0: Queen Elizabeth has launched a new channel on YouTube -- the Royal Channel -- which will broadcast her traditional Christmas address, at 3 p.m. (7 a.m. PST, 10 a.m. EST) on Tuesday. According to a YouTube spokesperson (via the New York Times), the channel has been a huge success so far, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers. The most popular clip is the 1957 broadcast of the Queen's Christmas address, with more than 400,000 viewers.
Trends of the trends: That time of the year again. Media out-forecast each other with predictions of trends for 2008. Here's a compilation: consumer trends, advertising and marketing trends, fashion trends, IT trends, security trends, marketing trends for small and medium-sized businesses, media trends, air travel trends, and there are much more....
Mobile: Speaking of trends, David Armano argues that 2007 was the year of social media and 2008 will be the year of mobile media. I've heard that one before, you may think, but perhaps he's right, and fueled by the "iPhone effect" this time companies will live up to the hype. There are indeed signs of real break-through innovation on the horizon: "Silicon Valley's first phone company," Ribbit, is all the talk right now in Silicon Valley; "viral" WiFi models like that of Fon will continue to thrive; more local businesses and chains will offer free Wi-Fi; and Google's Android platform will drive tons of new business for user interface designers and developers. And then there is the new Skypephone with its iSkoot software. And the Google phone...?
Conversation analytics: New metrics for new social media are in high demand. How, for example, do you track and analyze conversations on Twitter? Tweeterboard is an attempt to provide "conversation analytics," and one of the parameters it uses to gauge someone's influence on Twitter is the level of "giving and receiving love..."
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