Joachim Loew’s powerful World Cup pep talk


Germany's forward Mario Goetze celebrates after scoring a goal during the second half of extra-time during the 2014 FIFA World Cup final football match between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 13, 2014. Germany won the match 1-0. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSENODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

They were just a few words, but they were powerful ones: "Show to the world that you're better than [Lionel] Messi, show that you can decide the World Cup."

And with those words of inspiration, Germany coach Joachim Loew ushered Mario Goetze onto the field late in Sunday afternoon's final, a 22-year-old sub for veteran Miroslav Klose, the World Cup's all-time scoring leader. Some substitute players would have laughed at the idea their coach was saying they were better than a revered player who's been named the world player of the year four times. But Goetze took it seriously, and he went on to score the only goal of the match in the 113th minute, leading his team to its fourth World Cup title.

Much has been made of Germany's technicality, its teamwork, and its infrastructure -- and all of these were key to winning this year's trophy. Germany plays a possession-oriented passing game that efficiently tries to create as many occasions for a goal as it can. It favors a team-oriented style of play where there is a substitute for every star. And it has invested more than $1 billion over more than a decade rigorously developing young talent like Goetze in seemingly industrial-line fashion.

But it's hard not to also wonder what impact Loew's few little words may have had on Goetze's deciding goal. More a dare than a motivational speech, it had three things going for it. For one, it was personal. Any talented young player wants to be compared to one of the world's great stars, even if it may be a bit of a stretch. It gave Goetze a specific target to envision rather than some amorphous call to "be the best." Ego, however perilous it can be, also has an uncanny way of driving us all.

It also put the moment in stark relief without turning up the pressure too high. The same basic point delivered less artfully -- "don't look now, it's only the World Cup that's at stake" -- could sink even the most talented player. Instead, Loew's comments appealed to the promise of the moment rather than its pressure.

Most of all, the sideline pep talk showed how much Loew believed in his player. He didn't use the platitudinous "show me what you're made of." Rather, he told Goetze to show the world what he already knows. He didn't say "if you score, you win the World Cup." Instead, he told him to show "that you can" score the decisive goal.

For any player, "can" inspires much more confidence than "if." And whatever system or style may have ultimately scored Germany's big win on Sunday, it's hard to believe a coach's well-chosen words of confidence in his young player didn't provide a big assist.

Read also:

The World Cup leadership of Tim Howard

The leadership style of Miami Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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