Leadership and Pro Soccer, Part 3: The Power of Unity

In the months leading up to the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament, which was held in the United States, the Brazilian national soccer team played a friendship game in Paris. After the game, all the players went to the hotel. At about 11 p.m., hotel staff served a late snack to the Brazilian players in a hotel hallway. (Watch highlights of the 1994 World Cup Final here. At :36 seconds into the video, you'll see Moraci Sant'Anna seated third from the left.)

As the players stood talking and eating, the team’s physical trainer, Moraci Sant’Anna, participated in a conversation with about five of the players who had played in the 1990 World Cup. Brazil’s performance in that tournament was lackluster. They were eliminated in the second round by arch rival Argentina and thus took a beating in the press. Sant’Anna told me that he would never forget that hallway conversation.

“You could sense the strong commitment of those players,” Sant’Anna told me in a 2009 interview. “They were talking in the corridor, saying ‘We’re not going to let what happened in the last World Cup happen this time. We’re not going to let the marketing guys into our team meetings. We’re not going to allow friends in. No journalists. We are going there to win the Cup.’ It was there that I began to see the inner strength of that team, the strong sense of purpose, the commitment to arrive in the U.S. and win."

About two months later, as training sessions started, Sant’Anna saw that same determined attitude spreading among the other team members. On their own accord, the team decided to seal off all practices and team meetings from the public. No one was allowed in, accept one or two photographers who did no interviewing. The team agreed that players could no longer negotiate marketing contracts with companies like Nike and Adidas. They even decided to limit the free-time allotted to them during the month-long tournament, even though that provision had been written into their contracts.

“Nothing was going to distract that team,” Sant’Anna said. “Nothing.”

And nothing did. Brazil went on to win the final game (by penalty shots) against Italy in the Rose Bowl. It was Brazil’s third World Cup title and the first in 24 years. That 1994 Brazilian team, he said, had something unique.

That “something” had more to do with leadership, character, and attitude than with soccer skills. Playing skill was important, of course. But Brazil has always put players with incredible athletic talent on the field. It was the leadership qualities and relational unity that made the 1994 victory possible, he said.

Sant’Anna cited several players who, because of their personality, character and experience, naturally became the team’s motivational force. No one appointed them as the leaders. One was Dunga, the team captain who later became coach of the Brazilian national team. Another was Taffarel, the team’s brilliant goalkeeper who played in 101 games and three World Cup tournaments before he retired in 2003. There was also Jorginho, who is was Dunga’s assistant coach for Brazil’s national team, and Leonardo, who after three World Cup appearances became the head coach of the Italian team A.C. Milan.

I asked Sant’Anna to describe the specific leadership qualities that these players brought to the 1994 team. One factor, he said, was that these players had already played in at least one World Cup tournament; they were highly experienced and excellent professionals. But there was still something more.

“They all had a strong personality,” said Sant’Anna. “But they used this quality to benefit the group as a whole. They were committed to win the Cup and they were able to lead the entire team toward that goal. The team was extremely united. It didn’t matter to them who would be among the starting 11 players and who would be among the reserves. Everyone had the same thing in mind, to help make an important victory happen.”

Humility was one of the primary character traits that Sant’Anna saw among that core group of leaders. They had the ability to lead without being arrogant. They were humble, but not weak. They showed inner strength and perseverance, focusing on the needs of the team more than their own desires. The most experienced players were able to instruct other players without humiliating them. In this way they earned respect rather than contempt.

It’s often the case, Sant’Anna said, that reserve players often become a problem for the team because they’re upset about not playing as much as they’d like. But that never happened with the 1994 team. The reserve players sat on the bench encouraging the starting team. Then, when they were called to action, the reserve players gave 100 percent on the field. It’s almost as if the team had no individual ego problems, he said.

This unity, commitment and dedication made the work of the coaching staff much easier, said Sant’Anna. Coaches and physical trainers typically worry about team relationships during high-level international tournaments. Individualism and ego can easily destroy unity. But these problems were almost non-existent in the 1994 tournament, he said.

“When Brazilian players pull together like this—considering the athletic quality of the Brazilian national team—I won’t say that they’ll always win, but it’s a huge step toward winning,” Sant’Anna said.

Positive attitude, humility, dedication, commitment, inner strength—these factors are often neglected in discussions about business and professional success. When was the last time you saw a job listing looking for those qualities in a professional? It’s easy to focus on the technical capacity of people and the mechanics of running a business. But if business is anything like soccer, Sant’Anna’s observations about the 1994 Brazilian World Cup team should be taken to heart.

Leadership and Pro Soccer, Part 1: Thriving in Uncertainty

In this three-part GCN series, Glenn McMahan writes about the connections between international professional soccer and business. He interviewed Moraci Sant’Anna, the legendary physical trainer for four of Brazil’s World Cup soccer teams, including the winning team of 1994. These articles were first published in 2009. Today Sant'Anna is training a professional team in India with the famed Brazilian coach Zico.

Part 1: Thriving in Uncertain Times

If you are one of many who struggles with that terrible, lingering angst about becoming unemployed in today’s tumultuous times, you might find consolation from a man who in his career as a self-employed physical trainer for the world’s best soccer players has had zero job security in 40 years.

Over the course of his long career, Moraci Sant’Anna has been the physical trainer for many of the most renowned and highest-paid soccer players in the world. Sant’Anna is probably most highly regarded for his work as the physical trainer for four of Brazil’s World Cup soccer teams and for two World Cup teams in the Middle East. In 1994, he helped Brazil win the World Cup in California and received one of FIFA’s highest honors as the “Best Physical Trainer.”

But despite his stellar resume, he has never had job security. In fact, over the course of his 40-year career, Sant’Anna has had more than 22 different jobs (including his six World Cup contracts). These temporary, uncertain gigs have required him (and his family) to move all over the world on short notice. When a contract nears the end, he rarely knows what door—if any—will open next.

“Soccer has always been an unstable profession,” Sant’Anna said. “You depend a lot on your victories. And so each game, each competition, you are being tested. Independently of your capacity, of your experience, you have to 'kill a lion' every game. . . . If you’re winning, you’re considered to be the best, but if you begin to lose—and it doesn’t take many losses—you’re the worst and worth nothing. Unfortunately, this is our culture. We live on the basis of short-term results.”

I asked Sant’Anna how he has managed to cope with such intense uncertainty and change. What has helped him maintain such high international status over so many years?

I found his answers to be simple and refreshing. Sant’Anna says that the key is to build relational trust. The only way to win that trust in such a competitive environment is not by developing a slick Internet profile, but by the old-fashioned principles of hard work, perseverance, strong character, and professional dedication. There is no short-cut, he says.

“You really need to win the trust of people in order to stay in the profession," he said. "I have to study all the time, to really delve into everything that is happening in order to always be well-informed.”

Sant’Anna also says that “not being afraid to innovate” has been crucial to his successful career. It’s fair to say that his innovations over the past 40 years have helped revolutionize the game of soccer around the world. These innovations have given him a unique credibility among his peers and have revolutionized international soccer.

In the next article, I’ll look at how Sant’Anna and other physical trainers—even though they are less visible in the media than coaches and players—have dramatically changed the game of soccer. They are the ones who dedicate their lives to helping players become the best they can be. Ever wish you had a boss like that?

Leaders and Authentic Respect

In the film "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987), Robin Williams plays the role of military radio DJ, Adrian Cronauer, who is summoned to Saigon at the beginning of the Vietnam War to use his brilliant humor to cheer up American troops. Williams' humor is so fast and fluid that by the time you start laughing at one joke he's already moved on to the next. As the story unfolds, Cronauer immediately becomes popular among the American soldiers, but his unconventional and controversial style upsets the stoic military system within which he works. Upset by his "irreverence," two of his superiors do everything they can to remove Cronauer from the airwaves.

One of the sub-plots is about respect. An Army officer opposed to Cronauer in the film, Lt. Steven Hauk, has a higher rank than his other colleagues at the radio station. But he has zero respect. As a result, his verbally forceful orders are received with wisecracks and put-downs. People make fun of him behind his back. No one salutes him. Even though Lt. Hauk tries to use his rank to control people, he ends up looking like a fool.

The film does a brilliant job of showing the difference between authentic respect and positional respect. According to the rules and regulations of the military, Lt. Hauk was in a position of respect. But he didn't have the character he needed to win the authentic respect of his peers.

True leadership in the workplace is difficult without authentic respect. So how does a leader develop authentic respect? This type of respect is entirely dependent on one's character.

In our book More Than Me we describe four foundational character traits that build respect between people, and therefore pave the way for greater unity.

  1. Integrity: to have a strong commitment to moral truth, honesty, and justice.
  2. Love: to actively serve others and seek to benefit others even when it requires personal sacrifice.
  3. Humility: to  place others in a higher position than ourselves.
  4. Forgiveness: to set an offender free from the demand to repay what's been unfairly taken from us, a deliberate choice to set another person free from judgment.

If a person has these character traits and lives accordingly, one of the natural results will be the authentic respect of others. Quality of leadership depends entirely on who we are at the core of our character. There are no short cuts.