Last Saturday saw the final of the oldest soccer club competition in the world, the English F.A. Cup. Chelsea FC won it 1-0 thanks to a goal by Didier Drogba against Portsmouth FC to secure the double of League title and cup.
35 minutes into the game, Portsmouth player Kevin-Prince Boateng was late on a tackle, resulting in a harsh foul on Chelsea’s Michael Ballack.
Two days later, on Monday, the doctor’s diagnosis was “a tear of the medial collateral ligament of the right ankle”. That rules Ballack out for the World Cup. A personal pity for a great player that came very close on multiple occasions but never quite made it to win a big international title.
Michael Ballack is the captain and undisputed leader of the German National Team, a team traditionally known for its ability to perform well in tournaments and thus by definition one of the favorites for South Africa (bookmakers currently rate them in sixth spot). In a football crazy country like Germany, the National Team and the World Cup play a very important role. The news of Ballack missing the tournament dominated the news coverage and the discussion on the streets on Monday. A whole country was in shock.
The developments on Monday, May 17, gave a perfect example of how to cope with shocking, negative news. I will put the coverage of Ballack in the press into the context of one of the best known change management models, the “Kübler-Ross Model”, also known as the “Five Stages of Grief”, originally introduced by Swiss/US psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. The model was based on analyzing how people cope with receiving bad messages, like the diagnosis of severe illness. It mentions five stages – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance – that an individual goes through from receiving the bad news until coping with it. In the business context the model is often used in change management processes. It helps managers that have to steer a group through a negatively perceived change by telling them what kinds of emotional reactions to expect and by making them try to accommodate and give room for all these five phases.
To illustrate my point I will alter the perspective a little bit from the usual one: I will not look at it from the perspective of Michael Ballack, but from the perspective of the German public and press. That should be legitimate as the German public identifies themselves with their National Team in a way that they were really shocked when they heard the diagnosis, so they felt impacted by a negative, shocking event, in this case the news that Ballack will not play at the World Cup.
Monday, May 17, 2010.
10:30 a.m. – Phase 1: Denial
Ballack is having MRI in Munich. First rumors appear on Twitter that Ballack won’t be able to play at the World Cup. Reactions come in immediately, asking for evidence and patience. “Let’s wait for the official result”. The press cites Joachim Löw, the head coach of the German National Team again, who said “We need clarity but we obviously hope the injury proves not to be serious. Michael is our captain and one of our leading players.” a day earlier and did not want to join into the discussion on who could be replacing Ballack until the final result of the MRI was available.
12:00 noon – Phase 2: Anger
The diagnosis stands, Ballack will miss the World Cup. And Germany has a new collective enemy: Kevin-Prince Boateng. He is not unknown in Germany. Born to a German mother (and a Ghanaian father) and raised there, he is known for his aggressive style of play that already earned him quite a number of yellow and red cards while still playing at German clubs like Hertha BSC Berlin or Borussia Dortmund. A lot of German soccer fans already blamed him for his heavy fouls prior to last Saturday. Even though he’s a very talented player he was not always welcome – a story that so far pretty much resembles the one of Mario Balotelli I talked about in my last post.
Boateng “fled” to England and as he did not see any opportunity to play for the German National Team he opted to start for his father’s home country Ghana. He will most probably make it to the Ghanaian squad for the World Cup where in the first round he could meet his brother Jerome who plays in the German team.
It only takes minutes until Internet forums declare Kevin-Prince Boateng “public enemy number one” and the Facebook group “82.000.000 against Boateng” (Germany has 82.000.000 inhabitants) only needs 1 day to pass the 100.000 members mark.
Ballack’s financial manager mentions that legal measures against Boateng may be possible, not to mention all the kinds of insults that I don’t want to cite here.
1:00 p.m. – Phase 3: Bargaining
Joachim Löw nominated his preliminary 30 player squad for the World Cup just days before Ballack’s injury. The squad has to be cut back to 23 prior to the tournament. With Ballack’s injury, the team lacks decent options in defensive midfield to team up with Bastian Schweinsteiger, as some potential replacement players are injured (Simon Rolfes, Sebastian Kehl).
Four months ago, Löw told former team member and defensive midfield player Torsten Frings that he would not be playing at the World Cup, and he is not part of the 30 player squad. Frings played a decent season at his home team Werder Bremen and has a lot of experience, but obviously some personal issues between Löw and Frings lead to Löw’s decision of not considering Frings.
Now the time for the pro-Frings camp has come. Fans on the internet and “experts” in interviews start a campaign in favor of Frings, trying to convince Löw to overcome himself and forget about the issues he has with Frings. Hope had a new name. The Ballack injury wouldn’t be that much of a severe blow if at least Frings could play and replace the captain.
The fans’ hopes only last for a few hours. Then Löw declares that he was not thinking about bringing Frings back. Bargaining over.
6:00 p.m. – Phase 4: Depression
The evening news shows start reporting about the day. The Ballack story is told and analyzed. Experts with more or less expertise are heard, reporters interview people on the streets. Everyone agrees that this is a sad day for German soccer, some say for Germany in general. Chances to win the World Cup seem to have dropped to zero within one day. A whole country seems depressed.
9:00 p.m. – Phase 5: Acceptance
The first shock is releasing its grip. Some soccer journalists start to dare discussing if the loss of Ballack really plays such an important role. Some mention that his season at Chelsea was far from excellent, as there even were some phases in which he was not a regular starter. Some discuss that he does not bring a winning aura to the team. Some simply think he’s too old and not fitting with the young team anyway. Some mention that these kinds of blows can glue a team together and maybe losing Ballack creates a team spirit that will make Germany even stronger at the World Cup.
Ballack arrives at the training camp of the National Team and talks to his team mates. Then he states to the press:
“The National Team played some good matches without me before. The team now has to get over it as soon as possible and look ahead”.
“Get over it and look ahead” – a constructive new beginning. In Kübler-Ross’ model, the end of the five stages is usually indicated by the fact that the victim starts to take ownership for his or her situation. In one month from now we will know if the German public and the National Team really got over it and took ownership. No matter what the result will be, the development gave us the opportunity to analyze a complete grief process within just half a day. If you want to spend a little more time on the topic: The original publication by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is called “On Death and Dying“. Glad we didn’t go that far in this example.