By Richard Wanjohi
End of July and two World Cups down, what a year this is turning out to be! Starting with the more recent one, New Zealand men’s and ladies team both took home the butter by winning their respective titles at the Rugby Sevens’ World Cup held in San Francisco’s Bay Area in US.
Analysts had pinned hopes on Fiji or South Africa bringing their circuit experience but that didn’t count for anything. Add Kenya’s showing at the tournament and yes, dismal at its best – seeing as the Shujaa finishing 16th of the 24 teams.
The other more famous tournament is FIFA’s World Cup, this year played in Russia which saw European teams continue their dominance with a 4th win on the trot over the South American and other fancied teams.
This is with the French national team affectionately known as Les Bleus knocking Croatia 4-2 in one of the more entertaining Finals in recent history. Scores of fans across the world have christened this a win for Africa or indeed immigration…that’s not for us to say.
In the same period of the month, I was privileged to attend the third Rugby Conference which brings together stakeholders (sic) in the game of rugby within the country held at the Strathmore University. The theme of the sitting was aptly named ‘The Challenge of Winning’ – as christened by the host sports body Kenya Rugby Union.
This conference came on the back of a successful season 2017-18 for the Union which saw Kenya finish in the top 8 of the rugby series, the Kenyan women’s team win the Rugby Africa tournament, the 15-a-side team inching closer to a World Cup place in 2019 – all well and done for a sports association.
These 3 events got me thinking of what makes a winning combination. Does it come from a strong team riding roughshod over its opponents? Does it come from the scientific approach that have seen technology and other aspects of sports science come into play? Is it sheer luck or hunches by the respective team managers and team leaders?
Let’s take a deep dive:
Talent vs Team
In the now famous 2018 World Cup Final, football purists got their minds warped as the favoured teams started falling out as early as the first round. The Finals had a premiere appearance by the Croatian team. The tournament only one game which went goalless, missing out on the goals scored thanks to the exhausting extra-time games in the knock-out phases.
Many pundits attributed the fall of Argentina, Germany and even African teams on the lack of integration of the wealth of talent into the team structure. To paraphrase renowned management consultant Sunny Bindra in his weekly column, “…to win in football ( or any collective, team-based endeavor), four ingredients are necessary: first, a great ethos and shared sense of purpose; second, a ‘groove’ – a familiar and competent system of play (no matter what it is); third, some outstanding talent in key places; and lastly, great leadership, on and off the playing arena” – article titled Another World Cup; a Familiar Four-factor Theory We Can Apply – Sunday Nation, 22nd July 2018.
Does this sound like something our teams do often? Does it reflect even both at our team and individual sport (where the ‘larger’ team consists of the coach, physiologist, team manager et al)?
Pre-tournament favourites’ slowly become post-tournament laughing stock. Individuals’ talent becomes anathema as experienced teams fall on the way side.
Sports science and Core competencies
Still with the football World Cup, a case has been made as to why it may take African teams longer to ever play or even win the trophy. While we harp on the strength and stamina of many a footballer from Africa, beyond this is a mental and physiological game which is played both on and off the pitch.
In Kenyan rugby scene, we have heard beliefs and whispers of how the game cannot cross to ‘non-traditional players’ from communities without a certain DNA or body stature. It is not for us to determine that here. But if the game of rugby in Kenya is to have a brighter future and pool of talent, this cannot fly.
In today’s sporting world, while the natural talent and flair may count for much, sports science shows that investing in the right nutrition, right training regime, right core competencies and attitude – such investment can go a long way in nurturing and growing nascent talent.
Big Data and Sports
In 2014, when Germany won the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, data analysts and tech enthusiasts were harping on how the use of big data did help it secure the win. All fair and square. What happened in 2018, albeit with even more advancements and appreciated use of data?
Perhaps I should put a disclaimer here, I’m not in any way against the use of data but this cannot be done in a void and is one of the other components needed in a winning team. As part of a winning process, start the use of data to lay a foundation, build upon it and also track performances across all spheres of performance both on and off the pitch.
I’ll take us back to the Rugby Conference where one Paul Odera – head coach of the Under-20s rugby national team gave a thought-provoking presentation on ‘Towards the U-20 World (Championships) – Process then Individuals’. In one part of the presentation, he underscored the use of data to track junior rugby players from the hours of sleep they get, food and nutrition habits, training and conditioning regimes among others.
He indicated this helps his management team understand not just the physical preparedness of the player but also his/her mental and psychological state way before they touch the ball on the pitch. It is instructive that this happens from a very basic level to ensure the team members are able to develop this self-discipline early in their careers.
How many sports teams and individuals are willing to go minutiae for a winning formula?
Sheer hunch or sheer luck?
In the 2018 World Cup Final, a number of football pundits captured on TV went ham on the refereeing decisions made which led to the first and second goals for France. It may or may have contributed to changing the course of the game.
But I usually argue, the opposing team has at least 90 minutes to score any number of goals they may muster. Why do we look for excuses, reasons one or the other as to why teams lose games? What with the Video Assisted-Refereeing making its debut in a major tournament. This will indeed impact the game of football in a big way in the near future.
But then again, to what extent can we attribute the French win to a fortuitous header by a Croatian striker? An innocent spin of the hand by an experienced Croatian defender? We never know what luck the French may have on the day, but they sure did take full advantage of it.
As a sports association, FIFA and the host nation Russia have scored major points with a largely successful tournament. How does FIFA manage to hold us captive every four years? Scoring major sponsorship deals (or partnerships as it were) as well as secure top dollar with TV and media rights in the process.
Why can’t Football Kenya Federation learn a thing or two from the parent association? Having changed its structure and elected officials a few years ago, there is nothing much to write home about. We have had many start-stop attempts at qualifying for continental challenges at a national team level. The consolation is a win of the regional cup CECAFA. Other than that, Harambee Stars has no official sponsor – from shirt, apparel to major endorsements even when a number of players ply their trade in Europe.
In Asia, major countries including China, India and China have made very deliberate efforts to invest in sports. From infrastructure to engaging major sports associations as well as youth programmes to grow different sports disciplines. This goes beyond their traditional sports such as sumo and cricket to mainstream ones in athletics, basketball and football.
We have seen how they have exerted their influence has been with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA. In the just concluded World Cup, both Japan and South Korea challenged the top teams and while they may have lost by a goal or on a technicality, the future does look bright.
Major European football clubs have added Asia as a must-stop locale before the start of each season. Whether it is commercializing the various sports properties or bringing the individuals closer to their fans, this is bound to serve as an allure for local leagues and teams.
Add the media investment and audience reach – the Asian audiences have been growing in double digits in the last 5 years. Mix it up with the budding local league scenes and home-grown players and talent pools, it is bound to be a potent combination to a winning strategy.