The past weeks have shown both the beautiful and dark side of world's most popular game, both showcasing leadership psychology. In a mesmerising display of superior individual and team effort Barcelona FC was crowned European Champions. Watching the Barcelona team play reminds us that humans have evolved as social animals, with perfect team coordination and cooperation; under the leadership of the world's best footballers, such as Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This pleasing display of teamwork is reminiscent of the successful hunting parties carried out by our ancestors on the African savannah.
Then there is the dark side of soccer: the world's football federation's (FIFA) leadership contest. It was not a proper contest, because there was only one candidate for the most prestigious position in world football: Sepp Blatter, a 75-year old Swiss bureaucrat who has ruled the FIFA with an iron fist since 1998. Think Blatter, think Napoleon. In the psychological literature there is a phenomenon called the Napoleon complex which refers to an inferiority complex, carried in particular by people of short stature.
The Napoleon complex is named after the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte; Napoleon was said to have compensated for his short height by seeking power, war and conquest (it was later revealed that Napoleon was actually of average height for his time period, with misconceptions stemming from an incorrect height conversion because of confusion between French and English units).
The Napoleon complex has been observed in animals too. Smaller animals pick fights with bigger ones, and sometimes win these contests by playing dirty. In a 1995 study of swordtail fish, 78% of observed fights were initiated by the smaller fish. From an evolutionary perspective this "Napoleon complex" behavior seems irrational, but maybe not when the short guys have nothing to lose.
Does Blatter have a Napoleon complex? Without a full consultation with a clinical psychologist, we won't know. But, with his diminutive stature of 1.71m (or 5.6 feet) we can infer that he relies on tactics other than physical dominance to stay in charge. He deploys strategies familiar from our primate cousins, the Gorilla and Chimpanzee (and some familiar African and Arab rulers), whose communities contain alpha males who rule like despots. Like any authority figure who has been in power for a long time he has a number of cronies to whom he owes favours, and his reign has attracted allegations of corruption.
For example, the 2022 World Cup will be hosted not by a soccer superpower like Germany or Argentina. that honour will go to Qatar, the minute oil state in the Arab peninsula with 6,500 registered footballers, where summer temperatures rise to 40 degrees Celsius, making soccer (certainly of the Barcelona style) virtually impossible. The decision, raising the possibility that the World Cup will be played in the winter rather than the summer, struck many as bizarre; there are allegations that the members of FIFA's executive committee accepted bribes to vote for Qatar.
Blatter has also copied the alpha chimp by managing to see off his only rival for the FIFA presidency; cleverly, Blatter has managed to distance himself from this coup. Just before the vote, Mohammed Bin Hammam was accused of involvement with bribery. He withdrew from the contest and now has been suspended on allegations of corruption.
Interestingly, Blatter once suggested that women footballers should play in skimpy outfits to increase the allure of the female game; and he also suggested gays should refrain from having sex at the Qatari World Cup (homosexuality is illegal there). These kind of off-the-wall comments issue regularly from the mouths of leaders. A recent study showed that individuals who appear to violate normal rules of conduct are seen as more leader like*
So where will Napoleon Blatter as we might style him, find his Waterloo? Echoing 1815, the Brits tried but failed to drum up enough support to postpone the FIFA-elections. The lesson from history and from our cousins, the chimps, is that overthrowing the dominant is only really possible by forming coalitions; in this case, by joining forces with other with other major footballing nations who also have much to gain from a change in the way that the game is governed.
* Van Kleef, Homan, Finkenauer, Gundemir et al. (2011) in Social and Personality Psychological Science.