Culture's consequences: Part 4
Mike Holden looks at the influence of high power distance and suggests that some nations need one standout player to do themselves justice...
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
High power distance: why do France always need a talisman?
Two years ago, something extraordinary occurred with the French national team in South Africa. The players went on strike, refusing to train in support of Nicolas Anelka following his expulsion from the squad for a half-time row with head coach Raymond Domenech. The story made front-page headlines all over the world, but nowhere was it reported with such venom as in France.
The government were appalled, the football federation were appalled, the media were appalled and the public were appalled. On the news channels, on radio stations, in the bars and cafes, barely a single voice could be heard in support of the players, even though many seemed to understand the inadequacies of the Domenech regime and the possible causes of frustration. The backlash against the players was furious.
The President, Nicolas Sarkozy, described the situation as "unacceptable" and instructed the Sports Minister, Roselyne Bachelot, to prolong her stay in South Africa so she could get some answers from Domenech, captain Patrice Evra and the FFF president, Jean-Pierre Escalettes.
When asked to give her own assessment, Bachelot pulled no punches: "The government has to intervene because the reputation of France is at stake. I have told the players they have tarnished the image of France. It is a moral disaster for French football. I told them they could no longer be heroes for our children. They have destroyed the dreams of their countrymen, their friends and supporters."
Whether the decision to walk away from that training session in Knysna was pre-meditated or not, the players soon realised they had done something terrible. Resentment towards Domenech and the FFF still lingered, but remorse was almost immediate and Bachelot revealed that some players broke down in tears when she confronted them. In the words of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris: "We went way too far. It was a clumsy decision, a big mistake. It was totally stupid."
The whole affair was a sorry one by anyone's standards but the most extraordinary thing about this story was the fact it involved France, because the precedent itself was so un-French. The headlines and straplines in the UK might have all contained the word 'revolt' but the French Revolution was over 200 years ago. They don't do revolutions anymore. They do hierarchies and obedience.
The Dutch professor Geert Hofstede doesn't know much about football - I know because I've asked him - so had you presented him with a list of the 32 nations who participated in the World Cup two years ago and asked him to pick the one he considered most likely to go on strike, I suspect France would be somewhere near the bottom.
But that's an important lesson to understand when trying to make sense of Hofstede's cultural dimensions because nothing is ever black and white. Nations, like people, can sometimes behave in ways that are out of character. However, the reassuring thing in this instance was the reaction of the French people, which was entirely in-keeping with what you'd expect from a country known for its high power distance. Hofstede wouldn't have been the least bit surprised by that.
According to the Hofstede model, power distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country accept that power is distributed unequally. France is a country that readily accepts inequalities. Subordinates are generally expected to show respect to those in authority. One might also say that some sense of hierarchy is craved within any given group situation.
One interesting theory that crops up when analysing the tournament performance of high power distance countries is the idea that such nations require one exceptional performer to act as a leader out on the pitch. If a team has 11 players of more or less equal quality and pedigree, it can create an uneasy state of homogeneity because nobody really knows who should step up and take responsibility in moments of tension.
To illustrate the point, consider the following list of European countries who also score among the highest for power distance in the Hofstede model: Russia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal.
Now let's start with Russia. In modern times, the Russians have a dismal tournament record. Since finishing runners-up to Holland as the Soviet Union in the 1988 European Championships, they have failed to qualify for finals on four occasions and failed to progress beyond the group stage a further six times.
The one exception came four years ago when they progressed all the way to the semi-finals of Euro 2008 under the astute guidance of Guus Hiddink. Hiddink, a known disciple of the Hofstede model, appointed Andrei Arshavin as his on-field general on the back of a blistering period in his career pulling the strings for Zenit St Petersburg and it was a role the little number 10 accepted with relish.
Arshavin's performances at Euro 2008 were breathtaking, elevating Russia to a level that many considered implausible prior to the tournament and it's no surprise that all Russian hopes are now being pinned on the form of the Arsenal playmaker, despite him losing his way at the Emirates. The general consensus seems to be that Russia could be a threat if Arshavin turns up, but the contrast will be stark if he doesn't.
And that's the key point to understand here because there's nothing particularly unusual about one great player taking a team to another level, yet it's something different altogether when that team continually falls way short of expectations without such a player.
For Poland, read Zbigniew Boniek. For Romania, read Gheorghe Hagi. For Bulgaria, read Hristo Stoichkov. For Portugal, read Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo. It's not necessarily about what those players do, it's about how much their presence comforts the rest of the team. It's about power distance and hierarchy on the pitch. Don't fret too much about your own performance because, ultimately, you're not responsible. It's the talisman who will take most of the rap.
As for France, the contrast between their tournament records with and without Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane is jaw-dropping.
With Platini, they reached the semi-finals of three successive tournaments between 1982 and 1986, winning the European Championship on home soil in 1984. In five tournaments with Zidane, they reached three finals (winning two) and one semi-final. (And no, we're not counting the laughable episode in Japan/Korea 2002 when Zizou was sent out with a heavily strapped-up hamstring for the final group game!)
All of which means that in the last seven tournaments without a talismanic number 10, Les Bleus have failed to qualify on three occasions and failed to progress beyond the group stage in the other four.
Now how's that for all or nothing?
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