Red Devils: need for a cultural change

18 November 2022

Red devils

A few weeks ago, on the eve of the World Cup, I had the privilege of sitting at the table with national coach Roberto Martinez for an entire evening. The conversation was of course about the chances of the Red Devils, but also and especially about leadership style, the strength of a strong team and the need for a culture change. A real master class in modern management.

What follows is not a report of the meeting at the modern headquarters of the Belgian Football Association in Tubize. However, there are some important insights that were discussed in the 3-hour conversation that I would like to share, without binding the national coach.

First of all: football is first and foremost a team sport. Only the strongest team becomes world champion. A winning team consists of strong personalities and characters, sometimes with big egos. And there's nothing wrong with that. They can steer each other towards better performance. Only it is art to keep those egos in balance, and above all: not let them collide with each other. The totality of the team must ultimately be greater than the sum of the talents of the individual players. Therefore, the roles of each must be very clearly defined and clarified for everyone, without hidden agendas. It requires a large dose of social psychology (and sometimes some diplomacy).

It reminds me of the winged words of the late Steve Jobs who once compared Apple's success to that of The Beatles. The four group members, John, Paul, George and Ringo were each strong personalities with distinct styles of their own. But their manager at the time succeeded for a long time to manage the tensions and to lift the group as a whole to a higher level. When that no longer worked at a certain moment, because egos got the upper hand, the group broke up. In their individual solo careers afterwards, John, Paul, George and Ringo never again reached the musical and commercial peaks of The Beatles. Loosely translated to football: only when Martinez succeeds in getting Kevin, Romelu and other Edens to pull together, and to rise above themselves as real Red Devils, do we have a chance of success at the World Cup.

But what is success? A strong team alone is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to achieve success. Above all, there must be commitment and surrender (much more than involvement). Someone may feel involved but therefore not want to throw themselves 100 percent for the team. There is, more importantly, a need for a real cultural change in which everyone who wears the shirt of the Red Devils must want to win. The players can no longer be satisfied with 'being there'. Participating is not more important in football than winning.

A cultural change in other words where we are no longer satisfied with bronze, but want to resolutely go for gold. A bit like the Netherlands. There, national coach Louis Van Gaal was asked at a press conference by a journalist who will become world champion. 'The Netherlands', he replied, without mincing words. And actually he thought to himself: 'me'.

We are not there yet in Belgium. You don't just change a deep-rooted culture. The national coach also realizes that. This takes time, a lot of time. If it does not work out with this 'golden generation' then definitely with the next generation. See you in America in 2026?