Jul 022012

“Moneyball” is a brilliant film, based on a groundbreaking book.  It describes how a small baseball team found itself unable to compete with its richer competitors, and decided to use a system called sabermetrics to analyse with intelligence and data exactly what factors really won baseball matches.  This led to the team breaking an all-time record and winning twenty games on the trot.

The key was teamwork.  Instead of looking for big hitters, star players and expensive egos, the moneyball system looked to see how several cheaper players might contribute to the job that formerly belonged to just one or two.  Not only did the results not depend on the firepower and consistency of that individual – always liable to momentary failure at the worst possible time – but they also built a team spirit which allowed for greater resilience and longer-term results.

Yesterday, Spain won the Euro 2012 by beating Italy 4-0.  Iniesta was named man of the match and man of the tournament.  The squad of the tournament consisted of ten Spanish players.  Perhaps the most notable feature of this list was the exclusion on the one hand of Fernando Torres – Golden Boot for the tournament, a typically expensive big-hitter striker of yore – and the inclusion of Fábregas, the so-called false number 9, on the other.

It’s clear that something changed in last night’s game – and perhaps not just on the field of football.  Organisational structures are common to many areas of human endeavour: football is beautiful for many reasons, of course, but – in particular – for how it coordinates systems and individual brilliance.  And the lessons we take away with us from Spain’s victory this year are profounder than in the World Cup in 2010.

FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team have often been compared over the past few years: it’s hardly surprising as so many Barcelona players play for their country.  But the massive change between 2010 and 2012 – and the logical conclusion to which Spain/Barcelona arrived at in Kiev as they thundered past an otherwise highly effective Italian team – was the dispensing with the need for big-hitter game-changers such as Torres/Villa/Messi – and their substitution with a collegiate brilliance based not, as in the original moneyball, on cheaper players but – rather – on equally expensive players who score goals in organisational teams of movement of three, four or five individuals.  Or, indeed, a structure where six midfielders replace the need for any striker.

The advantages?  As already explained.  This season, Messi’s individual brilliance scored around eighty goals for Barcelona.  Even so, Barcelona lost the Spanish league to Ronaldo and Casillas’ individual brilliance and the Champions League to Chelsea’s gritty doggedness and Didier Drogba.  And so the playing-field was allowed to be more level than perhaps even Guardiola understood; even as Messi – selfless and humble to an extreme, it is also true – nevertheless stopped, through his very brilliance, the manager from going as far with his system as he might have.

This tournament, Portugal depended on Ronaldo and Nani’s brilliance – and yet lost to Spain under Del Bosque’s stubborn refusal to give up on his system and his instincts.

Last night, Italy were looking to Balotelli and Pirlo to provide the flashes of magic which, in the past, have overturned matches.

They didn’t – and it wasn’t.

A couple of TV commentators argued that Italy had been tired out by their match with Germany.

The truth of the matter is that Italy were deliberately worn down by their Spanish opposition’s collegiate and selfless passing game.

The truth of the matter is that when Torres was brought on in the dying minutes of the game, it was Del Bosque ruthlessly pulling out his estoca and administering the final death blows to an enormously disadvantaged Italy.

Messi and Ronaldo – the Torres of a couple of years ago – are the sorts of reasons we used to watch football.  Wait and see if they can pull it off; wait and see if they can show us how brilliant they are.  Against all the odds.  In the thick of it.  But Spain has done something utterly different in its composed game of cat and mouse: the cat is no longer the big-hitter striker playing against defences he is paid enormous amounts of money to destroy.  The cat is now a pack of wolves: all working with instinctive understanding; all working via an astonishing synchronicity.

I think it was Casillas who observed before the match – on the point of helping to achieve the footballing grandeur of three tournaments in a row (much as our discreet baseball team did all those years ago in “Moneyball” when it won those twenty games on the trot) – that the Spanish team had been “educated to win”.

And just think what that short phrase actually means – the implications of those few words: in the midst of huge achievement, a recognition of someone else’s legacy; a recognition of heritage; a recognition of one’s true place in a societal world; and an amazing humility which makes the team so much greater in its ability to work together than any individually brilliant players of the past.

Iniesta is better than Messi and Ronaldo because Alba, a Spanish defender, under the system which Spain uses, was able to score one of the most extraordinary goals of modern times.  And the goal that Silva scored – a goal whose lead-up simply disintegrated the compact Italian defence – belonged, in the short space of several seconds, to Fábregas and Iniesta too.

Moneyball applied to football in everything but the money.


Now compare all the above to England’s performance, both on the field – out in penalties at the quarter-final stage – and off (more here).

A little unfair, perhaps.  And some of you will point to the mess that Spain is in – both politically and financially.

But I’d like to extend the analogy a little, if you will permit me.  My thesis is that throughout most of its history the culture (or lack of it) of England’s football team has mirrored Anglo-Saxon corporate institutions.  In their individualism; in their top-down hierarchy; in their dependence on managerialist whizzkids who are relied upon by unseeing shareholders to pull the rabbit out of the hat time and time again.  The Ronaldos of the corporate world, if you like.  The very antithesis of the selfless and communicative collegiate Spanish.

So what can we learn from the Spanish experience – and can we apply it to 21st century banking?

I once worked as a language provider for a Spanish company.  This company had perhaps 3000 workers in the area where I lived and worked.  A relatively easy job to get contracts?  Well, no.  There were perhaps ten factories in the group, none with more than 250-300 workers.  No one worked at a factory in particular for more than two or three years; even managers got moved around to avoid stagnation, boredom and cliques building up.  We had to deal with ten training managers – each with similar criteria, for the company was very systematic in its common culture; and yet each also with a very clear knowledge of individual needs amongst their workforces.

A kind of set of Spanish football teams: small units which moved around; which did the work other companies assigned to humongous big-hitter factories; which shared common services such as management and sales – but where the hard work, the tackling of contracts, was done in an entirely collegiate manner.

Was done so that the many heads were released to do better and more sustainably over time what the highly paid geniuses did in other places.

A system, yes – but a system which also recognised everyone’s individual needs, abilities and rights to be heard and trained up.  To collaborate and convene bright ideas; to bring to the surface their occurrences too.  To become, in fact, collegiate geniuses in their own right.

Compare the above with the apparent corruption of British banking.  Twenty banks, they say.  Corporate behemoths where the higher up and more complex the job, the fewer people are involved.  Until right at the very top, on that privileged pinhead, we get a pinhead of a CEO running the show on behalf of his or her own.

And all with the excuse that such structures were necessary to preserve the integrity and governance of highly regulated industries.  When, in fact, such pinhead structures have allegedly led to an unashamed immorality and lawbreaking on a scale none of us who have worked at the bottom of the pile could ever have imagined.

Now compare British banking – even, more widely, British corporates of a certain kind (though I’m sure not all; not every single one) – and just see what we’ve achieved with this Anglo-Saxon model of “With one leap Jack is free!”.

An English football team which is run like a British bank perhaps?  A group of individuals which consistently misunderstands the meaning of teamwork.  For teamwork isn’t a question of subsuming the instincts of the many to the diktats of the few.  Rather, it’s a question of creating a system which “educates to win” … but not just win – also win honourably, win well, win for the benefit of the many.

So isn’t it time we not only followed the Spanish example in football – applying the principles of moneyballing to our very best players and not just the competent – but also in corporate organisation?

Humility, honour, belief in oneself; efficiency, honesty, simplicity; respect, hard work, truly common goals; and – above all – a humane philosophy which serves to release the abilities of all those “educated to win” …

Sounds a helluva lot better than this, anyhow.

Don’t you think?

Jul 022012

There’s been a bit of a competition on Twitter to think up #BobDiamondSongs.  The first half of the title of this post is my contribution.

But I’m not going to labour the point: all I can say, from my humble position as citizen and occasional voter, is that Vince Cable got it right when he called the City a massive cesspit.  In the meantime, all this talk of the financial services sector reminds me of a bar that once used to exist (may still do for all I know) in the northern Spanish city of Burgos.

I think it was called La Bolsa (the Stock Market) – and it had a most intriguing thesis: the prices of drinks varied according to demand.  So if, for example, you wanted a whisky and didn’t mind which brand, you looked up at the moving price list above the bar itself and chose the best-priced one at the time of asking; that is to say, the one fewest people were buying at the time.

Brilliant idea, eh?  The laws of supply and demand applied to drinking.

I do wonder now, however, if it wasn’t all fixed: they knew which stock they needed to shift and so priced the drinks not in terms of demand but in terms of supply.

Is this what happened at Barclays – and perhaps twenty other banks?  I don’t know – and am beginning to not care.  I can really truly understand why so many young people chose to drop out and create a counter-culture in the Sixties.  That’s exactly how I feel right now.  I spent almost seven years of my life working under the top-down heavy governance which my banking employer imposed on us: no social media access; no Skype or chat; no freedom to show initiative; no chance to imagine better worlds.  All in the name of the need to follow process and procedures.

And all the time we were being screwed down to our chairs, and were being told that we couldn’t do this or that because laws structured everything we were, the people at the top were screwing the customers and a wider society: fixing interest rates in their own interest; fiddling the books, in fact – whilst the rest of Western civilisation was burning.

All I can say is that I am glad the two football teams in yesterday’s Euro 2012 cup final were from the southern half of Europe.

Those most disastrously affected from what I assume will be an ever-growing cesspit of scandals – to paraphrase Cable – deserve some kind of space where they can remind us of the grand culture, intelligence and beauty they also represent.

So here’s to Italy and Spain – two countries which yesterday added so much to our store of footballing knowledge.

A massive olé from myself, my Spanish wife and my three Spanish children.


Further reading: a few days ago, I wrote on the subject of tiki-taka and bullfighting.  If you haven’t managed to read these two pieces, you can catch up here and here.

The mathematics of honour, indeed.  We need more of that.