The soccer team syndrome

Keith Hudson

Forgetting it was Saturday and not getting my favourite week-day tv programme this morning I found myself listening to an interview with Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal soccer team which is playing in the Cup Final today, an event . . . which even Sky TV have not been able to wrench away from the BBC.

Managing Arsenal since 1996, he is possibly the longest serving manager in English football (though I’m not sure) but surely one of the most consistently successful and without doubt one of the most intelligent.  He is not your usual rather strident soccer manager, but quietly spoken and worth listening to when he talks of his managerial philosophy.  As the leader of a group of 11 players with full responsibility for their success, he and the team are probably the nearest example we have in modern times of a typical hunter-gatherer group which, so most anthropologists would agree, is around that size.

By this, they mean a part of an overall group of about 120 individuals at the most in which its protective — and, when necessary, offensive — potential is carried mainly by about a dozen males, half of them mature adults and half being young adults.   As they grow older the younger adults will be acquiring the full skills of their parents and one or two of them will be contending to be the new leader soon enough as soon as the existing one becomes the slightest bit too weak to keep order internally or to lead the group vigorously into battle if faced with another group wanting to move into their territory.

Above about a dozen males, mature and younger ones combined, the political squabbles become much too disturbing and the group as a whole will split into two groups.  Immediately after then, each group, according to the personalities and skills within them, will develop its own distinctive culture.  Within a few generations they’ll be speaking different languages altogether.  Thus in New Guinea, a mountainous country with thousands of valleys — natural territories for hunter-gatherer groups — there were also thousands of mutually incomprehensible languages when first re-discovered by modern sailors.

Unlike cricket, which is very much an individual’s game — when one player, perhaps a bowler or a batsman can determine a win or a defeat single-handedly —  a soccer team always has to function as a whole,  just as a group does when hunting or is defending itself against attack.  Thus a soccer team is the best examplar of what actually happens today, say, when a country is under attack.  All previous differences become subsumed under a joint effort.  Or it might be a community through which a government intends to drive a road or a property group wants to build a housing estate next door.

The soccer team is also an examplar of what modern multinational corporations have learned to do.  They have thrown over the fashion of 50 or 100 years ago when chief executives exulted in huge fan-shaped organisation charts leading up to thensleves at the top and glorifying in the number of workers they employ on the bottom layer.   They have learned to lateralise their organisations so that, as much as possible, it is divided into units which are more like hunger-gatherer groups or football teams — more self-managing and self-responsible for results.

This is something that large advanced governments have not yet learned to do. They still have large pyramidal departments.  The National Health Service is this country, and the state education system are examples of this purely artificial mode of organsiation — a product of the hierarchy they inherited from the pre-industrial class system and the armies of 200 years ago.  As governments are now facing increasing competition from one another (such as intensively competing on the business taxes they impose) then they’ll have to learn the lessons of efficiency from the multinationals.

I rather think that George Osborne, our Chancellor, who is now pushing hard for more independence for the cities of the north and powerful mayors to govern them, so that they’re not so intensively controlled from London,  is learning lessons from business.  I’m hoping so anyway.  Perhaps even the present Conservative government will also learn to be gracious about Scotland’s wish to get away from the House of Commons and its antequated ways.  Perhaps even our backward government (that is politicians plus the civil service) will be infected with the Soccer Team Syndrome — a much more natural mode of human affairs.

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