It was very frustrating watching yesterday’s game between Mexico and the United States. One team was playing to win and one team was playing not to lose. Mexico came out attacking and had several chances to put the match away. The US meanwhile showed up to defend, dropping as many as nine players in there half to contain the Mexican forwards.
After the first five minutes, it became apparent that the US was playing for the draw. They would do whatever it took to come away with the point, even if it meant playing an ugly and defensive football.
The US got they came for, a vital point at the difficult Azteca Stadium. Mexico on the other hand, now finds itself out of the qualification zone for Brazil 2014 with only three points from three matches.
My friend and co-worker Andy Ellwood joined me for the game. We discussed the strategy and style of play. Andy isn’t a soccer fan per say, but he is a hustler so he knows a thing or two about tactics and winning. Our conversation about soccer eventually tuned into a conversation about business, as the two sometimes parallel one another.
So I asked him about the US strategy of getting the point at any cost: Is winning the only thing that matters, in sport, business or life? Andy replied, “Yes. Winning is the only thing to keep score on. There are no style points.” From selling private jets to millionaires to helping build startups, Andy has had a very successful business career. And although we agree on many things like social media, Jay-Z’s awesomeness and the hustle, I had to disagree with his stance on winning.
Maybe it’s because I’m idealistic or maybe it’s because I’m at the beginning of my career but I would rather lose with my vision than to win at any cost.
I’m not saying that those who choose to win by any means lack morals or ethics because to win in any form requires both. But to me winning at any cost sacrifices the long-term benefits for the short-term reward.
Let’s look at the USMNT as an example. Instead playing an open game, one that challenged them to creatively and offensively, they closed down to not lose. They were so afraid of losing (and rightfully so) that they sacrificed the experience of growing and learning from playing a superior team.This defensive padlock may have worked now against Mexico. But what happens months from now when the US is playing England or Italy or Brazil? The strategy they used yesterday isn’t scalable because the competition will only get stronger.
Yesterday’s ugly match isn’t anything new. In fact you’d have to go back almost a year to the Euro 2012 Final to see an open ended, aggressive game from both sides. The tournament favorites Spain rolled over the Italians 4-0 en route to their second consecutive European title. Many expected the Italians to be Italian and stand back, defend, and get the counter attack that would lead to a goal.
But the Italians surprised everyone and came out attacking the Spaniards from the get go. The result was easily the most entertaining match of last summer’s tournament. The Italians may have lost the final, but the match proved a victory because it let the world know that the once aging and slow Italians were turning a new leaf behind their crop of young players, especially the mercurial Mario Balotelli. The statement the Italians sent out was “this is the new Italy, we’re not afraid to lose.”
Fast-forward 9 months later, and one can find the Italians sitting atop their qualifying group for Brazil 2014. The aforementioned Balotelli has netted three times in this phase and is playing alongside another young, promising talent, Stephan El Shaarawy.
No one likes to lose. Losing sucks. But in the words of the legendary Johan Cruyff, “it’s better to fail with your own vision, than to go down with someone else’s.” It wasn’t too long ago that the team Cruyff helped build, FC Barcelona was going through a rough losing patch of their own. Last month, Barça dropped three straight matches, losing twice to arch nemesis Real Madrid, and going down 2-0 in the first leg of their Champions League clash against AC Milan.
The Barcelona world was in disarray; they were calling for player changes and *gasp*managerial changes. But the loses were more motivational than anything, as the Cules stuck to their strategy of tiki-taka, possession football. In the return leg against Milan, they rebounded beautifully, netting four goals and advancing to the quarterfinals. They could have changed their strategy and ideals during their demoralizing losing streak. But instead, they stuck to their principles and came out to win THEIR way.
They lost, and then won with their vision.