Dunga

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.