"Papua New Guinea? Easy the worse place I have ever been in the world!" proclaimed our old coach Doug Moore over lunch last week as I discussed where the next U20 Women's World Cup was going to be held. He remembered taking a FIFA coaching course on the island nation just off the coast of Australia and the very strange energy that surrounded the very tribal culture that still remains in the underdeveloped nation. This tribal element to human nature once dominated the human mindset thousands of years ago, with bands of humans gathering together to create cultures, traditions, and spiritual superstitions all in order to please the chief and spiritual gods they believed in. You still see this tribal element in undeveloped areas of the world, you see Voodoo in Caribbean nations and tribes in the Amazon rain forest with various traditions and spiritual traditions that have been ongoing for thousands of years.
Today these ideas are somewhat lost in the more complex and advanced societies we have developed in the western world, but none the less the tribal sense that can be developed in football teams can bind the group together, creating an unseen and explainable energy. This energy will make outsiders feel unwelcome when they enter the tribal setting. It will allow the group to do whatever the chief or tribal leader says to do without any need for explanation. Traditions will develop within the team, a set culture will begin to form surrounding these traditions, superstitions, and rituals that are performed by the tribe. The group will begin to sacrifice itself more and more for the betterment of the tribe, to please the ancestors or previous members of the tribe, all in order to ensure their traditions and values are not lost along the way.
Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson developed a strong tribe. Ferguson was able to develop this culture of excellence at the club with himself acting as the chief in command of a powerful and exclusive tribe. Ferguson would never give too much insight into the ongoings at the club to outsiders in the media, developing an us against the world mentality that drove this tribal sense into the players. The exclusive tribe had devoted members that wouldn't dare speak poorly about the chief, and did everything they could to ensure the group tradition of winning silverware was satisfied. You hear stories of the various different traditions, superstitions, and tribal values the manager upheld throughout his reign at the club which fed into this unseen energy that always pushed United forward even when facing goal deficits at the end of games. The hair dryer treatment, his gum chewing, and the balls Scholes and Rooney would drive his way in warm ups were all prime examples of these tribal values and traditions.
Old Trafford was the a place no one not in a United kit wanted to come in those days. The energy surrounding the fortress was uncomforting to visiting teams. As they knew they were awaiting a almost certain defeat before the match even started. The tribe had made the pitch their home and through many years success, they were able to build an undeniable feeling of being unwelcomed on the pitch if you were not a Manchester United player or supporter. All of this stemming from the players devotion to the tribal leader Sir Alex and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the culture and traditions of the club.
Tribal values can be implemented in squads in various ways, but they usually do not come if they are forced on the squad by the tribal leader. Tribal traditions, superstitions, songs, and values need to come somewhat organically from members of the squad who are devoted to upholding the traditions and values of the team and chief. These tribal values tend to be easily built around food. When squads eat together vulnerability is high, leading to conversations between squad members hopefully leading to strong relationships. Many managers fail to win over locker rooms that are very tribal, devoted to the old chief and exclusive when they come in with new ideas and traditions that go against what the previous chief implemented. David Moyes famously took away chips from the players after Sir Alex left, leading to a locker room revolt by the famously opinionated squad members at United at the time. The lack of success the squad was seeing at the time, matched with the tribal values of the squad not being valued by the new chief lead to a quick departure for Moyes.
Of course these tribal values can work in negative ways as well. If the values and principles of the tribal culture are not healthy and aimed at being successful, you can see the tribe fail to establish a successful culture.. If the tribal leader or manager promotes irradic behavior that is not based on positive values and principles, you could see a group work in very evil ways in order to get the power and respect they desire. Think of the Broad Street Bullies of the great city of Philadelphia back in the 1970s. The culture surrounding the team was a valued on violence, aggression, and being tougher and more physical than their opponents. Sooner or later the tactic worked against the team and they were out muscled and beaten at their own game by equally as physical, but more skilled teams. The tribal traditions of those squads haunt Philadelphia to this day. A need to rough and physical over skillful is still demanded by fans, in an attempt to carry on the tribal traditions that brought the city success in the past.
This energy that comes from this tribal feeling that drives the culture is a unseen force that is hard to measure and develop. But it is very real, various squads have gotten this right and have built tribal dynasties of success. Teams also get this very wrong and get themselves stuck in cultures of failure with traditions and rituals that lead to failure. You can see it in the squad rituals, superstitions, songs, It takes a strong chief to lead a tribe to success, as well as squad members willing to buy into the clan culture of the team.