The power of stories of identity in the context of sport

The power of stories of identity in the context of sport

It is surely not my intention to turn this into a blog about football. However, events and commentary around the European Nations cup piqued my interest last week, mostly because of the connection between sports teams and storytelling.

I have thought a lot in the past about successful groups and their stories of identity—in the context of business but also in the context of sport, the military, or any extraordinary unit for that matter. What role can the story of identity play in the success of any team? As such, I was interested to see the final of the European Nations Championship last Sunday and to read some of the stories around the match.

Last week, I wrote that the biggest challenge for French coach Laurent Blanc would be to see if he could mark the team with a new identity, to change the values and the mindset of the players. Of course, those who follow football even casually will know that Mr. Blanc has resigned as the national coach of France. Regardless of that event, I continue to believe that France’s next manager will need to take the team in a new direction and to give it a new culture and identity.

Change the story, change the culture, and change the outcome?

Of course, I would never argue that changing a story of identity is enough to change a culture or a result. It is never quite that simple. Nevertheless, I was particularly interested in the final match of the Euro Cup—between Italy and Spain–because both of the participants seem to have coaches who have managed to change the story of identity for their group. The achievements of these teams would appear to be grounded in the coach’s success at engaging players in a new narrative.

The case of Italy: In the Italian press, and in the commentary on French and English television, I followed the story of Italian coach Cesare Prandelli. From the start of his tenure, Prandelli told a new story, expressing his desire to completely change Italy’s style of the past 50 years. Traditionally, Italy had become famous for its “catenaccio” style, which emphasized an ironclad defense that shut down its opponents. Italian goals most often came from opportunistic counter-attacks.

In Italian, a catenaccio is a secure bolt for a door, an image evoking a highly organized and tenacious backline defense, focused on nullifying opponents’ attacks and preventing goal-scoring opportunities. The system was made famous by the Franco-Argentine trainer Helenio Herrera of club team Inter Milan in the 1960s. Inter used it to consistently grind out small-score wins, such as 1–0 or 2–1, over opponents in their games.

The success of Inter Milan in the Italian league led a series of national-side coaches to adopt the tactic in major international competitions. While highly effective, the catenaccio way of thinking led to a football that was increasingly considered static and boring, even by Italian fans, who often saw their teams as not very creative or fun to watch. Italy seemed to be playing more to avoid defeat than to innovate and score goals.

Then, Cesare Prandelli took over the team in 2010. As I mentioned above, from the very start, he told a new story. He expressed his desire to abandon catenaccio in favor of a more energetic, exciting, attacking style. He dreamed of creating a dynamic and spirited team that would win the hearts of a somewhat jaded Italian population.

Italy was not expected to reach the Final of the Euro Cup. A major factor in their unpredicted success was Prandelli’s ability to engage the players in a new adventure that became their shared story. Andrea Pirlo, the brightest of Italy’s stars throughout the tournament, expressed his admiration for the coach, and his desire to see him continue to craft this new narrative for his country’s football. When there was some question about Prandelli remaining as manager for the next World Cup, Pirlo stated: “We all knew that he wanted to create a new squad, with a new brand of football, and it would have been horrible to [see him] leave now.”

I have heard it said that all things are created twice, first in the mind and then in reality. To me, it may be more accurate to say that for a group they are created three times: first in someone’s mind, second as a shared story of identity, and only then in reality. Prandelli’s Italian squad is a good example of this three-part dynamic.

Next week, we will take a look at the story of the Spanish team.

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