Last updated at 10:23, Tuesday 3rd July 2012

Culture's consequences: Part 8

Mike Holden

Mike Holden looks at high uncertainty avoidance and explains why Italy tend to be so formidable in knockout football...

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

High uncertainty avoidance: what makes Italian teams so defensive?

International football throws up few more daunting prospects than a knockout match against Italy. Going toe to toe with the Azzurri in a sudden death scenario is akin to finding yourself embroiled in a staring competition with a robot. Their motto, quite simply, should read: "We've got all day."

This, after all, is a nation where people put aside two hours a day to sit down and eat a meal. It's also a country built on deeply religious foundations, creating a system of beliefs with heavy emphasis on loyalty and faith. In football, patience is the name of the game and uncertainty avoidance is the standout cultural dimension.

You have to go back 24 years for the last time the Italians lost a knockout match inside 90 minutes at a major tournament. Goals from Sergei Litovchenko and Oleg Protasov enabled the Soviet Union to inflict a 2-0 semi-final defeat on Azeglio Vicini's men in Stuttgart at Euro 88. Since then, Italy have played 19 knockout matches, winning nine (six of them with a clean sheet) and drawing ten, five of them 0-0.

And it's always the stalemates that find their way into folklore, especially the goalless ones. Not that we remember too much about them. Each one simply reinforces the legend.

Over the last 20 years, Brazil, France, Holland, Germany and Spain have all sampled the nerve-shredding anxiety of 120 goalless minutes against the Azzurri - well, okay, 118 minutes in Germany's case - and most of them knew damn well what was happening to them long before half-time of normal time. They knew not to make any advanced plans.

But there's a certain beauty to it. The Italians are immaculate. They tolerate positional errors on a football pitch like they tolerate creases in an Armani shirt. It's a quality that people with masculine tendencies can only admire once emotions are cast aside and results are reflected upon in the cold light of day.

This is an illustration of high uncertainty avoidance in its purest sporting form, but what exactly is uncertainty avoidance? It's a matter that needs clearing up because it's a behaviour that's too often misinterpreted.

When most people talk about the Italians, they often use words like 'defensive' and 'negative', which is often true, but neither term is totally satisfactory because Italian teams can sometimes be expansive and expressive when the time is right and the odds are stacked in their favour. Sometimes, the opposition can be equally culpable. They know Italy aren't going to blink, so they choose not to blink either.

Uncertainty avoidance comes in many guises but, in this instance, we're focusing solely on how it comes across within a game situation. According to the model of the Dutch professor Geert Hofstede, uncertainty avoidance expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?

Moreover, countries exhibiting strong levels of uncertainty avoidance maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour, and they are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. All of which raises an interesting point ahead of Euro 2012 because the current Italian team under the guidance of Cesare Prandelli is said to be untypically Italian in its philosophy.

Now if that proves to be the case and Italy take more risks at this tournament, then you have to question the pressures they might come under for ditching a cultural identity that has served them so well down the years, although it must be said that the players are reported to be unanimously in favour of the new style.

Nonetheless, they should brace themselves for a backlash if it doesn't pay dividends, while a heroes' return is unlikely if they escape a tough group only to exit the tournament in what the people consider to be a cavalier manner. Personally, I imagine old habits will die hard once the action begins and the sense of occasion dawns on Prandelli and his players. It's just not in their nature to leave too much to chance.

That said, it's a scenario that provides an important lesson in applying the Hofstede model because not everything is black and white. And perhaps the finest example of a nation ditching it's cultural principles in the pursuit of success is now being offered by the Republic of Ireland under the guidance of Giovanni Trapattoni.

The Irish have one of the weakest scores for uncertainty avoidance in Europe but we shouldn't think of this team as being Irish - with Trap at the helm, we should think of them as Italian.

It's a fascinating case study of a team positively embracing the principles of an alien culture but it could probably only happen when a manager with such high esteem takes hold of a nation whose past successes have been so fleeting. The risks are low, yet the rewards could be substantial.

Not that Trapattoni's time in charge of Ireland has been plain sailing. Despite an obvious improvement in results, his defensive tactics have been heavily criticised by the Irish media and public, which is entirely understandable seeing as though they are cultural opposites. On top of that, it also took a while for the players to fully embrace what Trapattoni and his backroom staff have been asking of them.

In the words of assistant manager Marco Tardelli: "We knew when we took charge that the Irish players' mentality was like an English mentality and total different to an Italian player, who prefers to wait rather than trying to make things happen.

"In England, there are more chances and more goals, but we wanted the team to be more tactical, more disciplined and more like the approach in Italy. We told them at the start that, if you have that mentality, then it is possible to achieve any result.

"I realised in the moment after the Russia game (a 0-0 draw in Moscow) that they had started to believe us. On the plane home, Richard (Dunne) came over and told us he understood why we have won so much, because we pay attention to every tiny detail of play."

It requires a certain level of single-mindedness from everyone inside the camp to bed down a new set of principles and go against cultural norms, but participation in this tournament suggests the Irish are finally getting there.

Who knows, if they do well at Euro 2012, it may well change the cultural ideology of the Republic of Ireland national team for many years to come.

Back the Republic of Ireland to be eliminated on penalties at 40/1

Follow @Miguel_BOTB on Twitter