12 July 1998, with my family in a small village somewhere in France. It is 11 o’clock at night and I should have been in bed hours ago. But there is no question of it this evening. I’m going wild! To judge by the loudly honking car horns and flags waving in the street, the whole village is going wild!
21 May 2015, at home on the sofa. After a 115-year wait, Ghent finally gets its chance for wild celebrations. The city doesn’t stop partying for four days. The climax follows on Sunday 24 May, when 125 000 residents of Ghent and other supporters flood the city centre with blue and white. Even today I can see more blue and white flags hanging in Ghent than Belgian flags on 21 July, our national holiday.
The French national football team won the World Cup in 1998, and AA Ghent won the Belgian premier league football championship last week. I would like to tell you more about what happened in Ghent.
We create the future today!
In his weighty tome “Strategy: A history” Lawrence Freedman describes strategy as shaping your own environment rather than submitting to external factors. He describes strategy as a concept that has emerged historically in three different areas: war, politics and business. AA Gent took conscious action, playing in all three of these areas with impeccable skill: something which puts a smile on my face for reasons beyond the love of the sport.
I am hardly the first to claim that football is war. Two teams meet each other in battle, not as a matter of life and death, but still with the hope of emerging from the arena as champions. Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s army was fighting fit this season. They had a clear vision before them: we rely on our own strength, we choose to attack. The team had drilled in fixed formations, which even resulted in elegant football. Each flank, each line clearly understood its own aims but was equally well integrated into the larger whole. It is not usually the best individuals, but the best collective that conquers the field.
It does not matter so much in war, but in politics success is certainly determined by the number of followers you can attract. And when it comes to its followers, Ghent looks far further afield than its fans alone. There is a strong link with the city itself: if you come from Ghent, you’re a Buffalo fan. There could be no better example than the mayor himself. Just before the final sprint to the finish line, the Buffalos launched a new slogan ‘We are one family, we are buffalo’, which brought extra attention to the club’s community efforts ‘voetbal in de stad’. By focusing on culture, the local community, health, diversity etc., AA Ghent addresses groups of residents who would not come to the stadium “just” for football. The community is not a separate initiative, but one that is strongly rooted in the club by means of a clear policy plan and a cascade of strategic goals. By contributing more to the world around you, you also get more back: cross-pollination results and everyone becomes a fan. Good football alone is not enough to mobilise 125 000 people.
AA Gent has also fought a hard fight on the battlefield of finance in recent years, which has led, step by step, to today’s success. Narrowly escaping bankruptcy in the 1990s, a policy of thrift and smart investments in the noughties was followed by the biggest investment of all, the Ghelamco Arena (with thanks to the community). All this was achieved by a closely-knit management team with a mandate for the long term. The club did not restrict itself to purely business relationships with its other partners either: there is mutual trust between it, the sponsors and the whole community. The conscious choice to remain a non-profit organisation has strengthened this trust all the more.
People will still be talking about this a hundred years from now.
If I live for another hundred years, I will not only remember Ghent’s sporting victory. The strategic aspect to that success will stay with me as well. Given the large number of stakeholders, strategy is always a complex issue for sports clubs. The ambitious approach to its community has certainly not made things any easier for AA Ghent. Nonetheless, the strategy was clearly thought out and implemented, without excesses or unnecessary frills. In strategic management research, the focus is increasingly on implementation, which is something we also like to get our teeth into at Möbius. Certainly in these terms, AA Ghent has avoided all the pitfalls with verve: it took a broad approach with an eye for detail, clear and feasible goals, step-by-step development, authentic leadership and so on.
The new stadium is not only generating new income (from subscriptions, snacks etc.) but also more followers and a more motivating backdrop to the action. War, politics and business. They all come together. The millions that the Champions League will generate next year will not turn anyone’s head here in Ghent. People here will continue to think in the long term and invest wisely.
Will we have to wait another 115 years? I sincerely doubt it!