Is Soccer Innovative?

What business can learn from the greatest game on earth.

If you look at the history of soccer for groundbreaking, "game-changing" innovations, you realize they have been scarce; by and large the game hasn't evolved much. Some innovations resulted from a changing of the rules. Most of them, however, were driven by either organizational or individual excellence. For example, there is the position of the "libero," the "sweeper" before the goal-keeper who, freed from marking a direct opponent, was mandated with opening a team's game from deep in its own territory; the allure of the "playmaker"; the introduction of a three-man defense row in the 1990s; the "Sweeper-Keeper" performing the defensive actions of a libero; the increased importance of the "six," the defensive holding midfielder; and the Dutch "Total Football" concept, with its fluid, attacking 4-5-1 and 3-2-5 formations.

As in business, soccer innovation is deeply rooted in its culture. Starting in their youth education, great teams establish a distinct style that sets them apart from mediocre ones. Almost always, these styles have been shaped by a city, a region, or a nation. Ajax Amsterdam and the Dutch school of "Total Football"—considered by many to be the most sophisticated and most influential soccer philosophy in recent times—can be traced back to historical, geographical, and socio-cultural factors. To see how innovation happens, let's look at some examples.

Total Football was the first multidisciplinary approach to playing soccer. It implied that all players can play in all positions and should have comparable levels of fitness, technical ability, and awareness. It is focused on the creation of space on offense and the destruction of space on defense. The result is maximum flexibility, a strong element of surprise, and the ability to exert pressure on any of the opponent's moves, at any time during the game. Besides Ajax, a number of British clubs including Arsenal London and Manchester United have embraced and refined Total Football, and so has FC Barcelona, with its strong tradition of Dutch coaches and players.

In stark contrast, the so-called "catenaccio" (literally translated, "door-bolt"), a rather static, defensive-minded tactic, is the hallmark of most Italian clubs. Some contend this goes all the way back to the Roman Empire and its poise to defend its borders, but I'm not sure if I buy into this explanation: Even the Roman Empire, in order to become an empire, had to conquer territory first, no? In any case, the point is that soccer tactics and styles are linked to culture. (To learn more about the cultural and religious underpinnings of soccer, read How Football Explains the World, by Franklin Foer.)

And yet, only a few soccer pundits would dispute that the most critical innovation in football occurs on the individual level. While some herald the "star is the team" philosophy and praise the power of the collective, it is more plausible to uphold the "whole is more than the sum of its parts" argument precisely because some of the parts—that is, certain individuals—are better than others. Although there are attempts underway to crowdsource soccer, the difference between a win and a loss is still marked by the quality of individuals: players, coaches, and, not to forget, referees.

Players and coaches are chased with tons of cash not merely because they are stars who are able to turn the game into a spectacle, but also because their individual decisions, be they strategic (coach) or opportunistic (player), decide over fortune and misfortune. Both coach and player are risk-taking entrepreneurs, and the more creativity they exhibit, the more freedom they're typically given.

Ultimately, the most visible and arguably most impactful innovation lies in the feet of the players. Notwithstanding the team's culture, strategic formation, and tactical fitness, innovation on a micro-level is still the biggest competitive advantage, and it is ingrained in soccer's DNA: Paul B. Paulus and Bernard Arjan Nijstad argue in their book Group Creativity: Innovation Through Collaboration that soccer offers more opportunities for creativity and innovation than baseball and other U.S. sports because the team's task is more "hierarchical, less sequential, and less cyclical." Furthermore, soccer players can innovate their game in every game. Here's what ex-Barca player Ronaldinho once said:

The important thing is to keep on innovating and finding a way to surprise. You always look to surprise, with dribbling, a new move, a new pass. (...) If you don't innovate, they all take the ball away from you. I believe it's important to innovate in order to avoid repetition.


As the World Cup enters its final game on Sunday, be sure to admire the poetic and sometimes melancholic Total Football of the Netherlands and Spain—and compare it to the prosaic, rather efficient style of Germany in Saturday's third-place match. And don't forget about how a few players tried to decide (or failed to decide) the game—namely Lionel Messi, the 21-year old Argentinean superstar. Soccer can be researched, carefully planned, and strategically devised—however, the most beautiful thing about this beautiful game is the fact that there is no lag between idea and implementation. Creativity can be immediately applied and has to be found on the pitch again and again. Every match is a blank slate. This is what business leaders can learn from soccer: Innovation is, literally, a "play," and the best players will win.

This piece originally appeared on design mind’s Total Football blog in June.

Photo by Sportsmyriad

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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