2014 World Cup of Charisma

Every four years, the FIFA World Cup transforms a handful of sportsmen into household names, globally recognizable even to those of us who don’t follow football. Less for the goals they score, more for their style off the field during the tournament.

With up to a billion people following the month-long tournament on TV, the World Cup is both a laboratory and a public stage for the workings of charisma. We see the making – and the breaking – of sporting heroes up close.

Take it easy: this post doesn’t claim to show how you too can become just like Ballon D’or heroes Cristiano Ronaldo, Luís Soares or Lionel Messi. It’s just to point out that we all have something to learn from watching the charismatic behaviour of these star footballers.

Golden Ball: Stars like Messi are working your emotions

Golden Ball: Stars like Messi are working your emotions

So, as you’re enjoying the 2014 FIFA World Cup matches – and perhaps being transported into pure football passion – you can observe how these players are working just as hard with your emotions as they are with the ball.

What they are doing is using charisma to get us to follow them.

Charisma is the ability of certain subjects to establish instant rapport, so lowering barriers of distrust and thereby increasing their influence over others. Not just as for sportsman, but for all of us, for life. Charisma is the unique combination of behaviours, vital energy, verbal style and body language that makes up our personal communication style and helps define effectiveness in influencing other people.

Above all, charisma can be defined as the way groups can be influenced by certain individuals. The World Cup is a stunning display of how mass audiences voluntarily project their “followership” onto certain players – all because of the way they are perceived. To explore the definition, you can visit the Communicate Charisma website and get to know the Seven Dimensions of charisma.

Philosopher, poet - and charismatic player: Eric Cantona

Philosopher, poet – and charismatic player: Eric Cantona

There is no right or wrong about charisma, and what distinguishes it is not so much the way people project it, but the effect it has on audiences. German sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as the way leaders are perceived. He wrote: “What is alone important is how the individual is actually regarded by those subject to charismatic authority, by his followers.”

Becoming a hero of the ‘Beautiful Game’ is as close as our secular age gets to the charisma reserved in ancient or medieval times for saints and prophets. Previously we have looked in detail at the way star athletes like Usain Bolt transformed the 2012 London Olympics into the ‘Charisma Games.’

Winning influence, gaining trust and being rewarded with acceptance, are all classic charisma attributes that we associate with football heroes. Think of a few:

Diego Maradona used his "Hand of God"

Diego Maradona used his “Hand of God”

In the 1986 Mexico World Cup, the “Hand of God” justification used by Argentina’s Diego Maradona to explain use of his hand to score against England in a quarter final, undoubtedly contributed later to the mood of invincibility that secured his team victory against Germany, and the Jules Rimet trophy.

After the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin, when France lost to Italy on penalties after Zinedine Zidane was sent off for head-butting an Italian player who had issued racist taunts, the French captain stunned the political establishment to become a national hero and symbol of racial integration.

The art of  Head-butting: Sculpted tribute to Zidane

The art of Head-butting: Sculpted tribute to Zidane

Conversely, in the 1998 World Cup final against France, the psychological and physical meltdown of Brazilian striker Ronaldo caused widespread humiliation in Brazil that took years to recover from. It also took years for England striker David Beckham to rehabilitate himself after getting sent off for kicking an Argentinian player during an earlier stage of the same tournament.

Tortured legacy: Ronaldo's breakdown still rankles.

Tortured legacy: Ronaldo’s breakdown still rankles.

And now for 2014, Brazil looks anxiously toward wing forward Neymar to take up the mantle of the nation’s leading sporting legend Pelé. Both men got their start at the Santos football club, and both have had their share of off-pitch controversy (Neymar for financial dealings with European clubs). Pelé, of course helped Brazil to triumph in 1958, in 1962 and then in 1970 in Mexico City, later becoming World Player of the Century. Neymar won many hearts for his charismatic gesture when he scooped up a youthful pitch invader during a friendly match in  South Africa. He repeated the gesture  on the eve of the tournament at the Brazilian squad’s training centre. This article accurately profiles the weight of nationwide expectation upon the slender shoulders of Brazil’s most  charismatic young player.

Neymar showed Charisma in South Africa

Neymar showed Charisma in South Africa

As we’ll see, one of the characteristics of Charisma is “being a tough act to follow.” Pelé had it – and still has – by the bucket-load, so host-country pressure on the slim, 62 Kg Neymar is intense. It’s not too much to say that the re-election of  Brazilian president Dilma Rosseff may depend on whether or not Neymar  can take  his place in the pantheon of Brazilian World Cup champion strikers. Now wonder then, that  Neymar (an Evangelical) believes he has God on his side.

This video  (The Game before the Game) may be a very canny  piece of promotion for  Beats headphones, but it captures beautifully the spirit and the importance of charisma for  footballers. Not to mention Afro-Brazilian religion for the  home team.

And so it has been through decades of European football, where the best-known legends have been those with strong and often tortured personalities, such as poet-philosopher Eric Cantona, tearaway humourist George Best, pugnacious Ruud van Nistelrooy, and ‘flawed genius’ Paul Gascoigne. Latterly, Italy’s “Super Mario” Balotelli of AC Milan has clowned his way to stardom.

Best at football. Best joker. Simply George Best

Best at football. Best joker. Simply George Best

For them, carefully-nurtured charisma off the field surely contributed to the myth of invincibility during play. Sometimes, as in the case of Gary Lineker, it’s opened the way to lucrative media careers.

The managers who inhabit the liveliest space in the popular imagination are the charismatic ones — figures such as José Mourinho of Chelsea or Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United. This last redoubled his charisma simply by leaving the stage. The failure of successor David Moyes to continue Manchester United’s winning run after Ferguson’s retirement simply confirmed the former’s charismatic status.

Sir Alex Ferguson proved an impossible act to follow.

Sir Alex Ferguson proved an impossible act to follow.

How do we know that the 2014 FIFA World Cup stars really have charisma? Well, we can become part of a collective intelligence or “the wisdom of crowds” to measure it.

Communicate Charisma has developed a methodology to map, measure and visualise personal charisma. Though it’s primarily a tool for personal development, we can also apply it to understand the charismatic behaviour of famous individuals, from Martin Luther King, to Barack Obama and even Christiano Ronaldo.

As you can read in this post, it shares  DNA or common ancestry with some of the best-known personality profiling methods.  The practical  applications  of greater self-awareness about communications in a business context include enhanced effectiveness in sales for professional service providers, as you can read in this sequence of three posts.

Using online tools, Communicate Charisma is now collecting popular judgements about the style of  ‘Great Communicators’ from politics, international affairs, celebrity and, yes – from sport.

Oprah Winfrey, First Lady of TV charisma

Oprah Winfrey, First Lady of TV charisma


You can complete the assessment of a “Great Communicator” by following this link. You’ll be helping us to build a database of Great Communicators – sporting or otherwise. Thanks to collective intelligence, the more people completing the surveys, the more accurate the portraits we can publish.

Enjoy the World Cup! And gain extra insight into the games by seeing how the greatest players don’t simply exhibit ball control – they have ‘charisma control’ too.

Communicate Charisma Seven Dimension plot yields 105 variants

How the map for a hard-driving but empathy-challenged World Cup striker might look.


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