By Prince Val Oji
The most perceptive Hollywood scriptwriter could not have envisioned what transpired over the weekend in the United Kingdom. With over 53,390 anxious, vuvuzela-blaring, and chanting spectators jampacked at the Etihad Stadium, according to Skysports.com, the final match of the 2021/22 English Premier League between leaders Manchester City and Aston Villa were expected to be a walk in the park. Well, so the bookmakers and pundits predicted.
But after 75 monstrous minutes deep inside the second half, against all expectations, Aston Villa led by two goals to nil. This is not according to the script. Meanwhile, Liverpool who were playing Wolves at their fortress, Anfield simultaneously, were leading by two goals to one and cruising towards snatching the title should proceedings end as it stood at both stadia. Etihad Stadium was dead except for hundreds of vociferous but heavily outnumbered Aston Villa fans and admirers of Liverpool. A loss or a draw for Manchester City means Liverpool win the Premier League trophy.
Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City boss, an outstanding strategist, and unassuming manager whose every nuance of his football is different; who had won three of the last five Premier League trophies, and is on the verge of a fourth title, made three ingenious changes. He brought in super-subs Ilkay Gundogan and Oleksandr Zinchenko, the Ukrainian football international; and Raheem Sterling. Guardiola also won 10 national titles in his last 13 competitions.
Despite playing what my friend who ‘sleeps, eats and walks football’ calls champagne football, despite dazzling everyone with deft, well-measured touches, mesmerizing moves, and intriguing plots, its unique brand of the signature-free-flowing style of football, and despite topping the table after 37 energy-sapping, grueling matches, Manchester City appeared to be headed for the most heroic failure. At 75 minutes, the league leaders were still trailing by two goals to nil. Aston Villa boss Steven Gerrard was ready to add to his Anfield legendary status if he defeated Manchester City.
With thousands of spectators in the stadium wearing long faces, despondent, and in blatant despair, hundreds of millions of supporters globally awash with disappointment and utter disbelief, the intense-driven 11 players of Manchester City snatched victory from the brink of despair, from the jaws of defeat. They scored three spectacular goals in five and a half minutes; yes, five and a half minutes. Consequently, the 2021/2022 Premier League title was won in a melodramatic fashion as City came from two goals down to win.
It took the fierce and highly competitive Manchester City collective of 11 extraordinary players just five and half minutes to turn the stadium upside down metaphorically and literally. Five-and-a-half minutes of magnificence, five-and-a-half inspirational minutes as one English football commentator aptly put it!
The euphoria, frenzy, and exhilaration were palpable.
As my bosom friend and I were screaming, jumping and hugging each other, and rejoicing like children at the end of the game, a game that elicited vastly contrasting emotions and near cataclysms, my 12-year-old daughter Neso, emerged from the bedroom and asked,
“Daddy, what is so special about football? Why do you enjoy it so much”?
Sweetheart, football isn’t just a game; it teaches many lessons about teamwork, leadership, strategy, perseverance, visioning, and positioning. I wanted to say that competitive football transcends religion but quickly realised it could ‘mess up her head.’ So, I continued on a different path. When I watch competitive football, I always pay attention to the way the coaches apply leadership and other soft skills so that their teams will stand out and win. In Marketing, it is called “competitive advantage”. Of course, you know Manchester City are my favorite club and the reasons are obvious. They play very entertaining, strategy-driven, and exhilarating football.
You remember in Athletics, in the 4 X 100 relay race in your school when you played the second leg, you had to hand over the baton to the third leg while ensuring you maintained the first position during your turn. All that cannot happen without good teamwork and cohesion. If you had mistakenly dropped your baton, your team would have lost. It’s the same in football; and even more stringent. The 11 players must ensure nobody drops the ball, and work together as a well-oiled and cohesive team to win games.
You also need a strategy to excel in modern football. The coaches work out the strategy or positioning – that is, what they need to do to play differently and achieve spectacular results more than the competition. This happens a lot in companies too. Companies must always position themselves differently to appeal to consumers and win their patronage.
There is also the factor of flexibility in your strategy. After playing 75 minutes and the expected results weren’t forthcoming, the Manchester City boss, having read and critically examined the game, decided to tweak his strategy. He brought in three accomplished players to carry it through. The result was instantaneous – one of the super subs Gundogan scored two goals: the first and winning goals. Eerily, two of his super-subs, Gundogan and Sterling combined beautifully to score the winning goal with Sterling providing the assist. Effective leaders are always scanning the environment where they operate, and competition and sometimes tweak their strategies to stay ahead of the competition and make a profit for shareholders.
Neso, another critical leadership attribute is self-belief or confidence. When you stand on the podium during the school’s cultural day celebrations to deliver your poem, you need to believe in your ability to do so effectively. You must demonstrate self-confidence to be able to deliver the poem successfully. It’s the same in competitive football. When things weren’t going well, especially for Manchester City players, they needed to inspire and believe in themselves and their ability to get the job done. This is not an easy thing to achieve when people around you are losing their heads. But this is where leadership within the pitch and outside comes in. The players dug deep within themselves, within their inner recesses disregarding the gloomy ambiance in the stadium, and found the appropriate response that outgunned and overwhelmed Aston Villa, even when it seemed impossible.
“Daddy, do you learn all these from watching football”?
Yes, my dear, we do; and even more. Neso, I have to see my friend off but before I do let me conclude on this thought. A famous Chinese war General, Sun Tzu, once said: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”. In whatever you do Neso, whether you are preparing for your examinations at school, going to deliver a poem, writing your tests, or even in your salsa dance practices, you must believe in yourself that you will excel; that you have everything it takes to succeed, otherwise you may not succeed. This life lesson cuts across every aspect of life; in leadership for instance, in your endeavors in school, and also in football.
Without self-belief, without supreme confidence, it is difficult if not impossible to achieve spectacular results. To be a champion, you must first believe in your mind that you are a champion.
Put simply, champions are champions long before they win.
As we close, harking back to the moment the centre referee, Michael Oliver blew the final whistle, you needed to have seen how thousands of spectators swarmed, ran, dived into, and dropped on the pitch in ecstasy, rapturous jubilation, and exhilaration. There were thousands on the field, celebratory, happy, and reminiscent of the kind of emotions football elicits. Manchester City once again proved they are beyond the reach of the best of the best in the English Premier League.
Football truly transcends religion.
Oji is a public relations consultant and non-fiction ghost writer