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The Germans play for the long term

May 26, 2013 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

Last night, the 2013 UEFA Champions League final was played. I have no idea who won, as this column’s copy deadline is long before Saturday. But I can safely predict that a German team took home Europe’s premier club football trophy.

This, of course, is not because I have particularly strong powers of prophecy; it is because both teams in the final were German.

Of the two, Bayern Munich have won the trophy four times already, and have been in three of the last four finals. They have also reached the semi-finals of this tournament an eye-popping 15 times. Their opponents last night, Borussia Dortmund, have reached the semi-finals four times.

What was interesting in 2013 was the manner in which the two German titans arrived in yesterday’s final. In the semi-finals, the teams regularly regarded as the world’s top two, Spanish giants FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, were comprehensively beaten by the German sides. Indeed, Barcelona’s dismembering was so thorough (they were beaten 7-0 over two legs) that one was left fearing for their ability to recover mentally from the humiliation.

People who hate soccer: please stay with me, I do have a general point to make.

How did Bayern pull off this unprecedented thrashing of the world’s pass-masters, Barcelona? Listening to their players was instructive. Bayern were in last year’s final too, but ended up losing that game despite having home stadium advantage. Several players told reporters of how that loss spurred them on to regroup and rethink.

Being German, they came up with a systematic comeback plan. They studied their Spanish opponents in great depth, and went with exactly the right game plan: high-speed, highly organized football with dramatically quick defence-attack transitions.

Looking beyond Europe, the German national team is just as committed to success: it has appeared in the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup a record 12 times. Win or lose, the Germans are always in contention.

This is true of their nation as well. Germany has lost two world wars – but bounces back every time. Today, which is the one economy that still stands strong in an otherwise fading and bedraggled Europe, propping up the Euro and bailing out the profligate? Germany’s. Of course.

I am a great admirer of German products, and I am not alone. Exports make up nearly half of Germany’s GDP. When it comes to motor vehicles, machinery and plant, electronic and electrical equipment, chemicals, pharmaceuticals or metals – German products are simply the best in the world.

What accounts for this success? Note first that the German word for borrowing is ‘schulden’, which is the same word for guilt. Germans hate borrowing, and do not live off credit. This refreshingly old-fashioned attitude saved them when the rest of Europe binged on cheap credit.

Note also that Germany’s education system emphasizes vocational training and apprenticeship, combining classroom instruction with practical workplace exposure. Again, old-fashioned and traditional – but creating a pipeline of relevant skills year after year, and allowing for a focus on technical quality that is unmatched.

And lastly, return to the football and note the national character: highly competitive, relentless, methodical and organized. Neither the German soccer team nor the German economy is the most exciting, innovative or attention-grabbing. But they both are always there, neither too high up nor too far down, grinding their way through while others come and go in unsustained flashes. And they will always bounce back from any reversal. You can count on that.

In a world full of flashy dilettantes seeking quick success, the German model shows a more robust way. Build deep competitive advantage, think long-term, analyze systematically. Be boring, in other words, but be resilient and dogged. There is much wisdom in that approach. Congratulations, Germany, for winning last night’s game.

Postscript: the game was won by FC Bayern in the dying minutes, and BVB Dortmund were gracious in defeat. A great final for football.

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