Talent is not the only ingredient in a world-beating squad. In fact, building a team of champions is always a matter of finding the right blend between individual quality, experience and a winning mentality. Which explains why many of the 23-man squad lists of the nations participating in this year's FIFA World Cup™ contain an assortment of famous names along with some less familiar ones.
More than simply choosing the players, however, the job of the coaches is to foster an indomitable team spirit right from the training stage. In order to achieve this, the various technical staffs have resorted to some novel measures to galvanise their squads.
This year the prize for the most original motivational approach surely goes to Japan, who rounded off their build-up in Switzerland with a visit from members of Japanese boy band Exile. During the event, Takeshi Okada’s men were presented with a banner and some origami cranes in the team’s colours.
By contrast, USA sought support from a higher authority just before heading out to South Africa, visiting the White House to receive a rousing presidential send-off from Barack Obama. Accompanied by Bill Clinton, his predecessor and the honorary chairman of the USA bid committee for the 2018 and 2022 editions of the competition, the US president assured the team that the whole country would be rooting for them. "You’re going to be representing all of us and we are incredibly proud of what you’ve done already".
Prior to their campaign, the German team had an audience with Formula 1 racing driver Nico Rosberg and celebrated mountaineer Reinhold Messner. And to add a physical dimension to this exchange of experiences, Joachim Low’s men even received a visit from legendary New Zealand rugby star Jonah Lomu at their training camp.
It’s important to tell the players that teamwork is not just an expression.
The mountains have provided a source of inspiration for many of this year’s hopefuls, with the Portugal team also sharing stories with a renowned climber in the form of Joao Garcia. The alpine adventurer had some uplifting words for his countrymen: "I wanted to give them a message of hope", explained the veteran alpinist, who lost the tip of his nose to frostbite during his first attempt to scale Mount Everest. "The greatest achievements are based on passion, honesty, hard work and humility".
In a further attempt to build fighting spirit among his troops, Lusitanians’ head coach Carlos Queiroz invited members of an elite Portuguese special forces unit to drop into the training ground and put his players through their paces in an armed combat simulation.
"It’s important to tell the players that teamwork is not just an expression. They are privileged in that, when a football team falls short, the price they pay is defeat. But there are other teams where, when a member of the team fails in his duties, he puts his own life and those of his partners in danger and the price they pay is death".
The French squad turned words into actions during the first week of their training camp in Tignes, in the French Alps. Just as in 2006, Raymond Domenech and his charges scaled a mountain before spending a night in an alpine refuge some 3000 metres above sea level. It provided the ideal surrounds in which to bring his players closer together.
"If you don’t get on with each other off the field, you won’t get on with each other on the field and won’t achieve anything during matches," the French coach apparently told his men. "Learn to appreciate each other, discover yourselves, be united."
Argentina supremo Diego Maradona has resorted to symbolism in an attempt to drum up some patriotic fervour among his protégés. Throughout his team’s build-up programme, the former FIFA World Cup-winner has had various slogans affixed to the players’ bedrooms in their training camp retreat, including one displayed next to an Albiceleste shirt which read 'There is nothing more important'.
Finally there was little to catch the eye as regards the preparations of reigning European champions Spain, if not the very location of their training camp. La Roja have returned to familiar surroundings in an apparent attempt to recapture the spirit which brought them victory in 2008, by choosing to prepare in the little Austrian village of Schruns. It is similar in many respects to Neustift im Stubaital, where the Iberians laid the seeds of their majestic triumph at UEFA EURO 2008. Only time will tell if this tactic will pay off for a second time.