In honor of the Soccer World Cup just on the way in Brazil, I thought to share with you an inspirational story from the sport’s history. It is a wonderful illustration of the power of defying conventional wisdom, with rich parallels to the world of business strategy.
The Hungarian national team of the 1950s is widely considered one of the most successful squads in the history of European football, by far the world’s most popular sport. In a six year span the team went undefeated (aside from the controversial World Cup Finals match against Germany in 1954), scoring over 4 goals a game, and recording the highest rating ever for a national team. They won the 1952 Olympics, and in 1953 decisively beat England 6-3 in the ‘Game of the Century’ in front of 105,000 people at Wembley Stadium. The English invented the game in the middle of the 19th century and had gone undefeated for nearly one hundred years before succumbing to the Hungarians. The torch was being passed.
What was their secret? To be sure the Hungarian team was made up of greatly talented players. But it was its groundbreaking strategy that enabled the team to reshape the very way the game was played and to leave the competition behind. Instead of playing strictly defined positions, the Hungarians introduced unparalleled flexibility and continuous rotation on the field that other teams simply had no answer to. Moreover, they invented the concept of ‘playmaker’, which gave a designated player free reign to improvise and creatively run the team’s offense. It was this willingness to go beyond prevailing boundaries rather than compete within them that allowed the Hungarians to elevate the sport to new heights of enrichment for players and spectators alike.