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Morocco played long. So can you

Jan 08, 2023 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

Team Morocco were the sensation of the recent FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar, were they not? They not only made it out of a brutal group, but they took the successive scalps of some of the biggest European nations: Belgium, Spain, and Portugal. They became the first team from the African continent to make it to the semifinals of the world’s biggest sports event.

Many loved watching Morocco play: proper defensive organization combined with genuine fight and fervour; and a never-say-die spirit that was inspiring to see. But so many fans seem to think the Atlas Lions were a great surprise, or that they came out of nowhere. Far from it. This was Morocco’s sixth appearance in the World Cup finals; indeed they were the first African team to top a group and reach the knockout stages way back in 1986. They are also serial achievers in the Africa Cup of Nations, lifting the trophy as far back as 1976. The team now sits at number 11 in the latest FIFA rankings, but that is not their highest-ever ranking; they actually occupied the number 10 spot in 1998.

Morocco’s soccer team is not an overnight success; nor is it a flash-in-the-pan. It is the result of a systematic long-term strategy.

The Athletic spelled it out in a recent column by Amy Lawrence. The seeds of the current phase of success were planted fourteen years ago. Nasser Larguet was appointed by the King of Morocco to lead a mission to take the team places. Larguet had plenty of experience leading football academies in France, and he saw his key mission as being the creation of a pipeline of elite young Moroccan players.

Lawrence tells us that Larguet literally spent months travelling across the country, watching 15,000 children between the ages of 10-15, to select his first intake for Morocco’s new academy. Some of the players now starring in the national team had their beginnings in that institution.

Larguet’s work perhaps provides the blueprint for many emerging football nations. His philosophy is this simple: “To have very good players, you need very good coaches and very good educators.” That meant a big investment in talent at all levels. Current coach Walid Regragui emerged from the first group of coaches to get a professional license. Elite foreign players with family origins in Morocco were persuaded to represent their original home country.

In short, this achievement is part of a long-term project that involves investment in facilities and investment in talent. It requires a careful and methodical programme. And it requires a great deal of patience. When you play long, not much might happen for a long time.

Putting football to one side, playing long seems to be a forgotten discipline. Many are caught up in immediacy and short-termism. We must create a sensation, quickly, and we must achieve results, rapidly. In rushing around frantically, we forget that most things that matter—that deliver repeated, sustainable results—are a slow burn. You need to create a strong foundation for future success, and you need to be very patient.

This is as true in business, which is also these days afflicted by the quick-thrills bug. As I have written here before, Sam Walton, later in his life to become the world’s richest man, ran the same corner store for seven long years—before even opening a second one! Not because he was lacking in ambition; but because he knew that to excel in retail there’s a lot to learn: customer behaviour; supply logistics; cashflow patterns. Once you get the basics right, you can start scaling.

Sam Walton was always surprised to hear that people thought of Walmart as a single great idea that turned into an overnight success. Like most overnight successes, he went on to say, it was about twenty years in the making!

If we want great sports teams, great businesses, great nations, we must make patient investments and execute with great discipline and determination. We must also place the right people in the right roles, not recruit a collection of assorted dummies, political honchos, or family layabouts.

Indeed, I often exhort even big, successful organizations to stop the obsessive focus on the next one, two, or five years, and to occasionally try to craft a twenty-five-year strategy—a strategy that outlives them. There are few takers. As I wrote in my recent book, Up & Ahead, most people are caught up in the short-term game of quarterly targets and annual bonuses, of getting into corner offices and swanky cars quickly. They are incentivised to think and play short, not long.

If you want to be different, be tactical enough to survive in the short-term; but be strategic enough to thrive for an extended period. The best human achievements have always come intertwined with foresight, discipline, and patience. They are not blazing comets that die out as quickly as they arrive; they are slow burns that are passed on from one generation to the next.

(Sunday Nation, 8 January 2023)

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