The Real Deal

Last Tuesday, Real Madrid and Manchester United faced each other in front of 75,000 fans at the Bernabeu in Madrid in the first leg of their European Champions League clash replica watches. 4000 miles away in the Grille at Harvard Business School, 40-odd people settled down to cheer on two of the world’s biggest teams – Tottenham Hotspur are the other one – with the world’s greatest players. Unfortunately for the 10 United supporters, nine-time winners, Real, raced to a three-goal lead early in the second half, thanks to some sublime skill from Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Raul. Dutchman, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, pulled one back for United to give them some hope in the return leg at Old Trafford next week, but United still face an uphill task to progress to the semi-finals. One of the happiest supporters in the Grille crowd was ex-Real player David Rodriguez-Fraile (NA). Harbus Sports asked David about his views on the game and what it’s like to play for the most famous team in the world.

Harbus: Did Real Madrid deserve to win?
David Rodriguez-Fraile: Yes. They controlled the rhythm of the game, and most importantly, they were able to capitalize on the opportunities they created // Raul, Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo did a great job dismantling the Manchester United guard, and their defense effectively shut down United players David Beckham and Ryan Giggs. Furthermore, there were 2 clear penalty kicks that weren’t awarded to Real, so the final score could have been even more favorable. Also, Real Madrid was able to take advantage of their home crowd’s support and the “intimidation factor” that rival teams suffer when playing in the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

Harbus: What’s it like to be a pro-soccer player?
DR-F: It’s a great experience, but it’s not exactly what most people think. It involves a lot of sacrifice and mental strength. Competition is extremely fierce and young developing players have a lot of pressure to perform every game. Opportunities are rare and you must take advantage when you get them.

The experience varies depending on the team you play on and the country you compete in. I started playing professionally for Real Madrid when I was 14, and had to work my way up through the junior teams before reaching the “First Team”. At the same time I was also part of the Spanish National Team, which involved significant time away from home.

With Real Madrid we would train 6 days a week for about 3-4 hours a day. Games were usually on Sundays, and every other weekend we would have to travel to another city for a match. The night before a match we would spend in a hotel together so we would concentrate and focus on performance. The season lasted 11 months.

With the National team we would train on a per game basis, as opposed to a continuous schedule. This means that whenever there was a match or a tournament coming up, we would stop training with our respective club teams and start training together as a National Team. We would usually have two 3-hour training sessions a day (morning and afternoon) in Madrid. Since players came from multiple cities, we would all stay together at the same hotel for the preparation period. We would then travel to the country where the match or tournament was held about 4 days in advance. Tournament duration is variable and can go anywhere from just one match to a six-game World Cup. The former would involve about 4 days away from home, while the latter would imply about 5 weeks. On average, I would spend about 30-40% of the year abroad.

In Europe there aren’t any college leagues or teams, so the system isn’t set up for young players to study while they play. Top players are devoted to the sport full-time as soon as they are given the chance to compete at a high level. Luckily I was able to have some flexibility at my high school and university in terms of attendance and exam dates.

Harbus: Which player impressed you the most at real?
DR-F: Definitely Raul. He is the perfect example of what differentiates a good player from a world class star. He has the most privileged mental capacity for the game I have ever seen. He is not fast, his technical skills are about average, he doesn’t have a strong body, and his shots are not powerful. Yet his leadership, toughness, alertness, focus, consistency and self-confidence allow him to be one of the four top players in the World. He somehow always manages to be at the right place at the right time, and he usually scores in the most important moments. He has a sixth sense for the game.

Harbus: How do the senior players treat the juniors?
DR-F: You have to earn their respect. Usually they will be a little skeptical of a young player that starts training and playing with them.

However if they think you have what it takes to succeed, they will indirectly help you develop as a player. For your own good, they will be especially hard on you during practice so you can mature more rapidly.

However, you have to remember that in order for you to play, you must take someone else’s spot. Then it becomes a problem of how to balance a) internal competitiveness within the team, and b) teamwork for the achievement of the common goal.

Harbus: How did you cope with the pressure of playing in front of 105,000 fanatical fans?
DR-F: The first time your emotions run wild in your body. The noise is deafening and you feel like every single move will be carefully monitored by the crowd and the TV viewers. Then you learn to concentrate and isolate your mind from the environment. Mental preparation is just as important or more than physical warm-up before a game. In soccer it is essential to control your emotions during the game because if you get nervous then you will lose part of your “feel” and accuracy to the adrenaline of the moment. You must learn to use pressure to your advantage instead of having it work against you. Pressure should imply more focus, concentration and an enhanced effort to do things right as opposed to nervousness and anxiety. The one time it is healthy to go crazy momentarily is in the post-goal celebration.

Harbus: I doubt most soccer players in Europe have even heard of an MBA. Why come to HBS?
DR-F: There are two main reasons: physical and personal.

At the beginning of the 2000-2001 season I broke a ligament in my right knee. After rehabilitation, I came back but then severely injured my back only a month later. While it has partially healed in the last year, I cannot compete anywhere close to 100% of my capability at the moment. Therefore an important factor in my decision is that soccer, as any other sport, is subject to injuries that can threaten your career.

On the other hand, I also felt like I wanted to focus on developing personally, intellectually and spiritually. It is extremely tough to do so in that kind of environment and I felt like I needed to continue growing in all areas of my character. I was a junior in college at this time and I knew that I needed to decide what path to follow because combining professional sports with college is manageable, but after graduation it is either one thing or the other. In addition, I will always have the possibility of playing again if I decide to do so after HBS.

Harbus: Do sports hold any lessons for business leaders? In what way are they similar?
DR-F: I think that in many cases leadership, discipline and desire are three things that can be extrapolated beneficially. It is amazing to experience how players really motivate themselves and each other, and individually bring out the best in one another. Since they are barely teenagers they know that in most cases it is their only chance to succeed so they work hard every single day and sacrifice common youth activities for a long term dream. The passion with which they compete and try to get better every day is really without comparison.

I would argue that sports and business have similar means for success; the only difference is the age at which one usually achieves it. Because talent is a given for p
ro athletes and top business people, what differentiates the best from the good is the way in which you take advantage of your talent. You must know how to fully exploit your competitive advantage and learn every day from every situation possible.

Harbus: Will the USA ever win the World Cup?
DR-F: Probably, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Soccer is a sport with deep cultural roots in many countries, and in the US it’s still far away from achieving the necessary popularity for it to receive the attention and resources necessary to build a competitive system that would allow the US to produce world-class players. However, we all know that the US has very good athletic programs and that soccer is growing rapidly throughout the country. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them pour a tremendous amount of resources into branding the sport. These things take time though, and it will be at least another generation or two before we can see the results.

Harbus: Will you be able to play competitively again?
DR-F: That’s a good question… I am playing every now and then for fun, and I am slowly feeling better as time goes by. Hopefully I will be able to fully recover and be in shape before graduation, and then I can decide what my career will be after HBS.

DR-F: Who will win the IM soccer next year?
DR-F: You will, Chris!