The more I read about Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque, or observe him at his press conferences during the recent European Nations Championship, the more I like the man and his style. He embodies characteristics that seem increasingly rare in the world of elite sports: humility, respect, and genuineness.
Throughout Euro 2012, there was much talk about the difficulty of getting players with enormous egos to blend together in a true spirit of teamwork. For example, the highly talented Dutch team exited early, scoring only two goals in the group stage and losing all three of its matches. The press in the Netherlands lamented the fact that its two top strikers—respectively the top goal scorers in the English and German leagues—could never seem to get along.
In France, as well, the national squad has been plagued by dissention and petty jealously among the players in the last three major international tournaments. Many of the French journalists and commentators seem quick to blame the system, asking questions such as: “Why should we be surprised that our players behave like spoiled children, when we treat our young prodigies like VIPs from a very early age?” With their enormous salaries and star-like egos, how can we expect them to be anything but self-centered? Getting such people to suppress their self-interest for the common good of a team looks like an increasingly difficult endeavor with today’s elite athletes.
So, why does the “big egos cannot work well together” argument not hold in the case of Spain? How has this national side been the most successful in the world since 2008, in spite of the fact that almost all of the players are high-salaried luminaries from two of the world’s most successful club sides—Real Madrid and Barcelona?
Part of the answer, and perhaps a significant part, resides in Del Bosque and his ability to create a shared culture, in an extremely difficult environment. In fact, the task of bringing a group together may be a thornier issue for Spain than for other nations. Many of my Spanish friends have told me repeatedly that their country has always been a patchwork of regional identities, with little sense of unity or national pride.
In the world of football, particularly, the antagonism between Madrid and Barcelona is legendary. But, Del Bosque has been able to write a new story, one that sees beyond the differences of the past. With his soft-spoken, unassuming demeanor, he simply asks the players to remain humble and respectful—with each other, with the press, and with the fans. He has created a culture of unity, where the story of the group is more important than individual interests and egos.
Most impressive to me is that his story for the team appears to be an authentic one. In any case, Del Bosque embodies the behavior he expects from his team. His low-key approach avoids confrontation with his players and with journalists. During the European championships, it was written in several sports newspapers that Del Bosque has never lost his calm in public. When he asks his team to be proud, respectful and understated, he gives the example himself. The Spanish press writes of his educación, a term that does not translate well into English but that connotes a certain politeness, respect and humility when dealing with people.
Del Bosque’s diplomatic and unpretentious style has not always served him well in the past. From 2000 to 2003, he managed Real Madrid to the most successful four-season spell in the club’s history, winning two UEFA Champions League titles, two domestic La Liga championships, and several prestigious Cup trophies. Surprisingly, Del Bosque was relieved of his duties in 2003, the day after winning Real Madrid’s 29th league title.
By that time, Real Madrid had entered into the era of Los Galacticos, a policy of signing big name players, as much for their “star power” and fan following as for their football ability. As such, Del Bosque, who never sought the spotlight for himself, did not have a big enough “name” to fit with Madrid’s strategy of a celebrity at every position. While I do not draw any conclusion from Real’s subsequent results, it is worthy of note that the club has never since achieved the consistent success of the Del Bosque years.
In any case, today as coach of Spain, Del Bosque seems to have found a job that fits his persona perfectly.