Last updated at 15:21, Thursday 7th June 2012

Culture's consequences: Part 3

Mike Holden

Mike Holden looks at the role of collectivism and explains why some nations are better equipped to upset the odds than others...

Related articles:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Individualism
Part 3: Collectivism
Part 4: High power distance
Part 5: Low power distance
Part 6: Masculinity
Part 7: Femininity
Part 8: High uncertainty avoidance
Part 9: Low uncertainty avoidance

Collectivism: what makes a surprise package?

In the early 1990s, the international football landscape changed in a way that made the World Cup and European Championships harder to win.

The end of the Berlin wall and the break-up of the old Soviet Union were soon followed by civil war in Yugoslavia, transforming three old nations into 16 new member states under UEFA jurisdiction, paving the way for both FIFA and UEFA to swell the number of participants for the finals of their respective flagship competitions.

Euro 96 in England doubled-up to become a 16-team tournament for the first time. Two years later, the World Cup in France was contested by 32 teams, previously 24. Since then, subsequent tournaments have been won by a nation that kicked-off in the top five of the outright betting market - with one obvious exception: Greece at Euro 2004.

That's not to say Greece is the only success story for the smaller nations, although that probably depends on your definition of a smaller nation and the conditions you put in place. In those eight summer events involving European teams, a nation that started the tournament at odds of 20/1 or greater has reached the semi-finals on 10 occasions.

It's a list comprising eight different countries in total (Czech Republic, Croatia, Portugal, South Korea, Turkey, Greece, Russia and Uruguay) and, from a cultural perspective, seven of them have something in common: collectivism.

To understand what collectivism actually is, we should refer once again to the cultural dimensions of Dutch professor Geert Hofstede. According to Hofstede, collectivism is the extent to which a society operates within a tightly-knit framework whereby individuals expect relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

In practical terms, one might say that people from collectivist countries have a natural tendency to act upon a sense of duty towards other members within a given community, often at the expense of their own personal fulfillment. In short, if you've ever groaned at the prospect of visiting that annoying auntie with the moustache when you could have been sat at home playing Champ Manager, then it's fair to say you're no Edinson Cavani.

But don't beat yourself up about it. It's just the way you're conditioned if you're British. Or American. Or Australian. Indeed, in such countries, specialist consultants are paid good money to come into workplaces and teach us about the values of teamwork and the benefits of teambuilding exercises. Trying to create some sense of collectivism in situations where it might be beneficial is an ongoing struggle against our natural instinct to look after number one.

And here's the underlying point in all of this: when culture dictates that people from a certain country have a natural tendency to put other people first, then the likely outcome is that such nations will more readily strike upon a team that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

Of course, some will no doubt dispute the idea that collectivism is a key ingredient in creating a surprise package. Some might prefer to focus on each case in isolation and present unique reasons for why those nations overachieved, others might recall certain individuals within those teams and suggest they didn't overachieve at all, or did so with a huge helping of individual quality.

However, we all create our own narratives to help us understand why such successes occur and it's a natural phenomenon that some players who were largely unheralded prior to an international tournament become household names afterwards. Yet there's always the great players who don't perform, the ones unable to carry their team in the way they might have been carried by others (doing the dirty work on their behalf) had they been raised in a collectivist society.

In an attempt to establish some clarity on the role of collectivism in the success of smaller nations, we can perhaps draw comparisons between countries of similar size and stature.

In Europe, there's a cluster of 10 nations with a population between 7-12 million people. Four of them (Portugal, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria) score low on individualism (defining them as collectivist), while another four (Hungary, Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland) score high on individualism. The other two (Czech Republic and Austria) fall somewhere in the middle.

So how do tournament records since 1996 compare?

Well, the first group (collectivist) boasts 18 tournament qualifications, 10 group stage progressions, eight knockout victories and four semi-final appearances, while the second group (individualist) has 12 qualifications, four group stage progressions with just one knockout victory and no semi-final appearances.

Likewise, much the same can be said when you take the cluster of seven nations (for whom Hofstede's measurements exist) with a population between 2-5 million people. In this case, two countries (Croatia and Slovenia) stand out like sharks in a sea of individualist socieities.

Those two nations have 10 tournament qualifications, three group stage progressions, two knockout wins and one semi-final appearance between them, which is more, in each case, than Finland, Norway, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Wales put together.

Back Greece to qualify from Group A, Portugal to qualify from Group B & Croatia to qualify from Group C at 14/1

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