One Small Voice: No amount of money can buy a man’s heart and mind

2008-12-12 00:00

Everybody wants to win. That may be, as they used to say in Monty Python films, “stating the bleeding obvious”, but in modern professional sport, every owner, every shareholder, every coach and every player will confirm that whatever else may happen at a club, nothing is more important than winning.

The days when relaxed, blazered, beery post-match clubhouse conversations habitually included Corinthian adages about the “taking part” being more significant than the result have long since faded into sepia prints, and been replaced by a harsher era where the most popular mantra is former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s Glaswegian rant about football not being a matter of life and death because “it’s far more important than that”.

Everybody wants to win. The question is how.

Today, many experienced professional sports people will tell you frankly that the challenge of winning has become a business transaction. They will bluntly declare that if the shareholders are prepared to invest enough money in recruiting “world class” players and coaches, the team will win. Similarly, they say, if the club does not splash the cash, the team will lose.

This may be described as the Roman Abramovich mentality. During the past five years, the unshaven Russian billionaire has invested a little more than R9 billion in Chelsea FC and his return has been two Premier League titles, an FA Cup triumph, a League Cup win and a couple of near misses in the Uefa Champions League. He has spent, and won.

It is also the Barcelona philosophy, as espoused by current club president Joan Laporta. In 2003, he took charge of a club that was failing on the field and effectively bankrupt. Rather than seeking to stabilise the business by cutting costs, he opted to invest heavily, recruiting Dutch manager Frank Rijkaard and the Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho, around whom a new team was built. Laporta’s ROI was successive La Liga titles in 2004/05, and 2005/06 and a Uefa Champions League victory in 2006. Like Abramovich, he was seen to have spent, and won.

Coaches and players around the world, in every professional code, watched, took note and joined the chorus.

“Mate,” they now tell their owners and shareholders, “you have to spend the money if you want to be competitive … There is no other way. Look at the league: the teams that invest in their squads are the teams that win.”

Has sport become so straightforward? Has the game evolved into such a simple business that titles and trophies are effectively for sale to the highest bidder?

Of course not.

In fact, the recent history of professional sport is littered with stories of wealthy and successful businessmen who, setting aside the principles on which they built their wealth and business, have invested millions into their pet clubs, believing the consensus that their money would ultimately buy success … only for them to be left profoundly let down when titles do not materialise.

Yes, talented players in key positions will always be required for any team to win at the highest level, yet the challenge remains far more complex.

Lawrence Dallaglio, the leonine former England rugby player, was recently asked how Wasps, his club team, had managed to win so consistently in the last few seasons. His reply included not even a fleeting reference to player salaries or money.

“It’s quite simple,” he said. “We just hate losing. Ever since I arrived at the club as a 16-year-old, the place has been filled with people who, purely and simply, hate losing.”

The square-jawed totem understands the challenge of winning is much more than a financial deal.

It involves real spirit and soul, commitment and determination — and he knows there is no amount of money that can buy a man’s heart and mind.

In sport, as in business and many other areas of life, “winning” is most often achieved by defining a clear ambition and assembling a group of people who are unequivocally committed to the pursuit of that goal.

Of course, as in any professional arena, these people need to be properly compensated, but — more often than not — the victory is secured by the spirit and soul, not the chequebook.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby. www.onesmallvoice.co.za

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