From Afterthought to Powerhouse – How It’s Done

How is a national football team the poster child for successful project management? The answer will surprise you – and teach you how to be a better project manager!

Belgium is a small country of less than 12 million people. Yet there are three official languages in Belgium, four community regions, and six regional governments. In spite of the seeming confusion and differences, Belgium has one of the world’s top national football teams. The Red Devils will feature world famous players Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibault Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, and Dries Martens. Belgium is so stacked with talent that midfielder Radja Nainggolan was left off the World Cup squad. They set the record for goals scored on the way to World Cup Qualification, too.

How does such a small country develop such world class talent?

The short answer is it made it a national project and managed it to perfection, utilizing data backed processes and emphasizing player empowerment from the ground up.

The long answer starts with a man named Michel Sablon, who had a vision and implemented it to incredible success.

Michael Sablon

Belgium appointed Sablon as technical director of the national team after a humbling defeat in the Euro 2000 group stages. Sablon started from the ground up – literally. The first thing Sablon did was funnel the proceeds Belgium received in hosting Euro 2000 to build eight new training centers for youth football.

He worked with university researchers to identify the best tactical structure for a football team. They did this by attaching players to heart rate monitors, analyzing 1,500 hours of game film, and studying the passing interactions between players during the game. The data suggested a 4-3-3 formation, and that is what Sablon and his team chose.

The choice of preferred tactic was only the beginning. Sablon then tirelessly traveled around Belgium, meeting with coaching academies and youth team coaches, and convincing them to adopt the tactic for everything they do. He made over 100 of these presentations! This was not a simple matter of selling coaches a particular playing shape. Sablon had a method of coaching he wanted to implement that would encourage players to be more individualistic and well rounded in their play. Technical skills were more important than results – so much so that children’s leagues no longer kept track of wins and losses at all. Youth teams concentrated on technical skills like dribbling and passing, instead of the “win at all costs” mentality that usually pervades sports. Sablon marketed his vision successfully – the tactic was adopted nationwide.

The system was set up to be all about player development. Any player progressing to a new level was never allowed to play again at the previous level! Vincent Kompany moved into the national team at a young age, and never played again for the youth teams. Once he was at a level, it was to be all about improving at that level. The training centers that Sablon set up were a key part of this change, as they became magnet academies for talented players. When those players returned to their regular teams, they brought the ideas and concepts they learned with them and spread them around.

Results weren’t immediate, but by 2009 the Belgian youth teams were considered among the best in Europe. As the players progressed, Belgian players began to become household names across the Continent as they grew into stars. Players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku are the results of the system – technical masters who play at high speed, with incredible individual skills like dribbling and passing. De Bruyne was dropped back into the midfield at Manchester City by Pep Guardiola precisely because of his amazing passing ability, even though he already was a world class player on the wing. You can see his eclectic mix of ball handling and shooting skills in this video, as well as why he may be the best passer in football today.

 

The national team made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup 2014, finishing 6th of the 32 teams. This year, they hope to bring home the glory. They definitely have the skill. They also have one key advantage over other national teams – everyone is familiar with the tactic, and the style of play, thanks to being trained in it from an early age. Each player understands the tactic inside and out, both as a whole and their particular position. That’s a big advantage over teams with a few weeks to put together their tactic and teach their players what they want them to do. That advantage is the final success of the nation wide project Michel Sablon undertook more than fifteen years ago, and it’s an accomplishment that continues to pay dividends.

Summary

The lesson to any project manager, or change manager, is simple – analyze the data, implement your vision from the ground up, get everyone on board, move methodically, and empower your team along the way. Make sure everyone is familiar with the project and understands it, both in the big picture and their particular part of it. That’s how you do successful project management.