Soccer Fever and the Little Country that Could

Somehow I didn’t think it would happen this year. I felt a little distracted. Didn’t even have time to think about World Cup Soccer. Didn’t figure it would kick in.

And then it did. Kick in. Again. The fever.

When you grow up in a soccer nation the fever runs deep.

I remember Mom, Dad, my brother

 Thomas and me getting up in the middle of the night to watch the 1970 World Cup soccer semi-final in Mexico on German television. 3 am. The Germans lost to Italy 3-4, in what is considered one of the great World Cup soccer matches of all times. Loss and all, the moment of hovering together in the living room, our eyes hypnotically glued to the action on the tv screen. The collective joy when Germany got a goal. The collective disappointment when our team missed a shot and the Italians didn’t. Experience amplified. Sacred family time.

The last World Cup, the one that Germany won. I watched the games from my home in Hollywood, Florida, my 89-year-old mom in her apartment in Bonn. Germany’s historic 7:1 thrashing of the host Brazil in the semi-final game. After each goal I picked up the phone and called mom. Did you see that! Mom would exclaim, her voice doing somersaults of joy.

And then, after the final whistle, when the enormity of the score settled in. Our boys did good, Mom jubilated. Our boys did good.

That’s what soccer does.

We align behind a team. We’re proud of this team, and we fervently want this team to win. We love rooting for the team that represents our deepest yearnings and desires – the unquenchable desire to belong.

In a world where political leadership is so out of whack and misaligned with deep-rooted values, this matters.

In work places where surveys consistently show that 80% of the workforce is disengaged, this matters.

What do you root for at work? Anything?

We want to care. Give us a reason to, please. Because a little part of us dies every time we’re given yet another reason to NOT care.

One more soccer story. Think of your place of work as you read on.

The nation of Iceland has been the biggest soccer story of the last two years. Iceland is participating in World Cup soccer for its very first time. It is the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup. 334,000 inhabitants. That’s as if the City of Hollywood where I live linked up with Ft. Lauderdale and Boca Raton and sent a team to the Soccer World Cup.

Insane. Implausible. Unimaginable.

Former World Cup champions like Italy and the Netherlands didn’t advance past the qualifying rounds this year, never made it to the World Cup. Neither did the US Team. Iceland did. And in its first game in Sochi last Saturday, Iceland tied soccer titan Argentina, the runner-up in the last World Cup, 1-1.

Unimaginable. Or perhaps not.

Iceland claimed its place on the world stage at the 2016 European Championships where it made a previously unimagined run to the Quarterfinals. To get there it tied powerhouse Portugal and defeated England, one of the most venerated soccer nations of all time.

I had thought, says Iceland’s head coach Helmir Hallgrimson, who still maintains his job as a dentist on a small volcanic island, everybody will hate us because we lost to France in the Quarterfinals.

100,000 people welcomed the Icelandic soccer team at the airport and in the streets when its plane touched down in Reykjavik after the European Championships. That’s one third of the country. That’s a lot of soccer fans performing Iceland’s wordless, primal Viking thunderclap chant that became an instant viral sensation.

We want to care. We all do.

We want to root for our team.

A sports team is not a perfect analogy for a beloved workplace. I get that. But what did Iceland do right? Because this is not an underdog-who-got-lucky story. Iceland has earned its place on the world stage. It has the skills to systematically beat the big boys.

  1. Get close to your fans

In 2013, Hallgrimson, then the assistant soccer coach, felt that the men’s soccer team had no true fan support. Sure, fans came to the games, but there was no fan culture. His experiment? He invited fans to join him in a pub the day before the next national game. In this pub meeting he unveiled the starting line-up for the game, before it was announced to the media. He discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team. And he showed folks a motivational video, the same that was shown the players.

No more than a dozen fans showed up for this initial pub meeting. Hallgrimson was undeterred. He maintained this tradition once he became head coach. Now hundreds of fans show up for these pre-game meetings. Iceland’s fan culture has become electric. I would like to give them ownership of what we are doing, Hallgrimson explains. It’s one of the benefits of being a small country that you can have that sort of closeness.

  1. Train your talent

Iceland has a way smaller talent pool to draw from than soccer super-powers like Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain. So the country’s soccer federation made sure to give every young player the best possible training from the youngest age by making sure he had access to as many coaches as possible. Iceland has 700 active, professionally licensed soccer coaches. That is roughly one elite coach for every 100 children under the age of 14.

To make sure talent doesn’t fall through the cracks, Iceland’s soccer federation also flipped the coaching hierarchy. Everyone gets the same service, Daguar Dagbjartsson, the federation’s coach education coordinator, explains. Some of Iceland’s best coaches work with its youngest players. The philosophy? If a child doesn’t have a quality coach early one, he won’t be prepared to reach his potential in his teens. Support everyone.

  1. Be a team. A true team

Argentina boasts multiple soccer rockstars like the legendary Lionel Messi on its team. These players are well-oiled attack machines and play for marquee pro soccer clubs in the European leagues. Iceland’s soccer players also play professionally in the European leagues – but Iceland does not have a defining icon in its midst. When the Argentinian rockstars play together, the team is often less than the sum of its parts. In a team without such stars, the singular and dogged devotion to executing a strategy elevates every member’s performance. Iceland becomes more than the sum of its parts. That’s the power of true teaming.

I fly to Germany in a week to visit my 93-year-old mom. Germany didn’t fare too well in its first World Cup game with Mexico. Mom now lives in a Senior Residence. My wish is that she and I will have one more of those moments, sitting in front of the television set in her room. Watching the World Cup. Rooting for our team.

I want to root for the Germans. I’ll be very happy to root for Iceland, as well. Because like all of you, I just want to have something to root for.