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Leaders and Losers: Beckham and Clinton

I usually hate sporting analogies, but bear with me on this one:

I remember my respect for David Beckham going way up eight years ago when I heard him tell this story: Manchester United were 1-0 down to Bayern Munich in the final of the European Champions League. It was the 89th minute of the game. Just one minute remaining on the clock for the most prestigious trophy in European football (OK, soccer, if you must). Beckham was about to take a corner.

This was a trophy United had not won since 1968. Passions were running high. Beckham looked up as he was about to take the corner, with one minute of the match left, and saw the officials in the stand bringing the Champions League Cup out, ready for the presentation. He saw a flash of colour: they had already tied Bayern Munich’s team colours onto the handles of the trophy.

Beckham says one thought ran through his head. And it wasn’t “We’ve lost”. It was “Oh no you don’t!”.

Millions of people watching the game on TV knew that, with one minute to go, United had lost. 70,000 people in the stadium knew that United had lost. 11 members of the Bayern Munich team knew that United had lost. Even the officials in charge of presenting the trophy knew that United had lost.

But Beckham didn’t. And he galvanised his team into a three minute frenzy. From his corner, they equalised. Two minutes later, in extra time, they scored the winning goal. The officials quietly changed the team colours on the handles of the trophy to red and white.

The last minute of the game, before the final goal is scored, is extraordinary to watch (I have it on video: sorry; been a fan since I was tiny and saw them win it in 1968 in black and white on TV). The faces of the German players are complete panic. From knowing they have won, they somehow know they have lost, even before the last goal is scored, even though the statistical probability of anyone scoring in those remaining seconds is minuscule.

I was reminded of this by Gavin Esler’s brilliant series on Radio 4 this morning about the Clinton years in The White House. Like Tony Blair when he first walked into Number 10, Clinton was mystified that the levers of power didn’t seem connected to anything. Nothing went right in his first few months. A friend of his commented that when Clinton was winning, he would coast and needed reminding to push. But, when he was losing, he was at his best. He became so depressed when he lost both Houses to the Republicans that “he moped for months” trying to work out what to do. Then began the most successful period of his presidency. It was a Comeback Kid moment.

Leaders lose well, in the sense described above. Losing makes them stronger.

Gavin Esler’s series on The Clinton Years is compulsive listening. It’s on BBC Radio 4 . At time of writing this, there’s a link to it under the ‘listen again’ heading on the BBC Radio 4 website

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