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7 World Cup Lessons for Your International Strategy

The 32 nations fighting for soccer supremacy in Brazil can teach us some valuable things for doing business abroad.

Wow, There Are a Lot of Countries
Sitting an ocean or two away from most of the world, it is pretty easy to lose your perspective. How often is Ghana or Bosnia-Herzegovina or Uruguay coming up in your territory planning meetings? But the World Cup gives each of these countries equal billing (at least until they get knocked out of the tournament) with more familiar markets such as Germany and Brazil.

When you are plotting your international strategy, you must remember that each and every one of these countries is a distinct market opportunity that will have its own potential and requirements. Opening an office in London or attending a trade show in Tokyo doesn’t make you a global company, and you need to prioritize opportunities for your limited resources.

And one more thing, the 2 billion people in China and India don’t even have a team to root for this year, nor do most of the nearly 200 countries that DIDN’T make the World Cup Finals.

Hey, Most of Those Guys Don’t Speak English

English is a popular language for many reasons, from British colonialism to American pop culture, but you can’t expect your customers to be fluent in English. So if you are ever considering expansion into a foreign market (even Canada), you need to design your solutions with internationalization support in mind from Day One.

It’s not rocket science and simple things like putting all of your text into resource files and anticipating the need to support metric measurements and multiple currencies will make your life much easier down the line. Assuming you architect things correctly, it then just becomes a resource prioritization issue for which languages you need to actively support. But don’t forget that internationalization is not a one-time thing, as soon as you add support for Danish or Greek you are going to need to get accurate translations for every single word that you ever add to your product down the line.

The United States Isn’t the Best at Everything

American Exceptionalism is baked into many of us, whether we want it to be or not. And it is easy to think that just because we’re American that our solution will be the one to dominate both the domestic and foreign markets. But despite our population of 313 million people and our massive economic advantages over most of the world, the U.S. is not even close to being the best at soccer.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your competitors will be coming from the U.S. — there are entrepreneurs and companies in lots of other places coming up with good ideas and executing on them who have their sites set on our shores and deep pockets. The English invented soccer, but they have a grand total of one World Cup title to their name and their professional leagues are chock full of imported players from every country you can imagine.

Different Expectations for Different Countries

U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann has famously said that the Americans have no chance of winning the World Cup this year. For many other countries just winning one match or advancing past the group stage would be viewed as a huge success, while for a country like Brazil or Germany anything short of the trophy would be viewed as a disappointment.

When you are assessing your international prospects, it is critical to understand what is important in their eyes, not yours. Whether it is understanding what kind of margin a local distributor needs or what feature is a must-have in Japan but no one would ever use in France, you can’t paint them with too broad of a brush. And for your own organization, you need to be realistic about what is possible in each market as well before setting yourself up for disappointment or failure.

Niche Market in One Place, Dominant in Others

Professional soccer in the U.S. is a distant fifth place to football, basketball, baseball and hockey. In other countries it might be in second place behind cricket or hockey or baseball, but in most of the world it is THE sport. This same kind of country-specific differentiation is important to consider when entering a new market: How big a pie are you competing for a piece of? What are the competing priorities for attention or dollars in a given country?

It’s Hard to Displace an Incumbent

In 1994 the U.S. hosted the World Cup and soon after that started Major League Soccer, and while it has grown in quality and attendance during that time, it does not hold a candle to the NFL. This is despite the fact that there are three million youth soccer players in the U.S. and that the MLS had the biggest soccer star in the world (David Beckham) playing in a top media market (Los Angeles).

If you are trying to knock off a big, entrenched player (or more ambitiously an entire industry), it is going to be an uphill battle, so you need to have realistic expectations. You want to identify the best opportunities for early – and likely smaller – successes while avoiding no-win situations during your fledgling days in a new market.

It’s Not Always a Fair Fight

Corruption and graft are a way of life in many countries and companies must enter markets with their eyes open to these realities. Whether it is bribery, patronage or piracy, it is often not a level playing field and a foreign operator can be at a huge disadvantage of their don’t have local knowledge or are unwilling to play dirty.

All you have to do is look at the match-fixing scandals that regularly plague “the beautiful game” or the fact that Qatar “bought” the 2022 World Cup despite the fact that it is a boiling, 122 degree patch of sand with only two million residents.