Posts Tagged ‘soccer’

Cab drivers, the heart of every nation

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

It is midnight in Mumbai and my cab driver knows two English words. He points to the huge traffic jam around the hotel caused by the festival and says: “shortcut”. I nod my head appreciatively, hoping he can get me to make my 3 am flight back to the US. As we dodge crowds of young children wandering in the shanties, he utters his second word: “tip”. Raised eyebrows tell me we’re now negotiating. For 20%, he gets me to the airport in less than an hour and I make my flight comfortably. This “tip for shortcut” value proposition is as concise as they come. Cabbies are the best small business owners.
It’s the second half of July in Paris. Traffic is slow, a surprise given that many French people are already on vacation. The problem is painters and plumbers, my Rumanian-born cab driver tells me. “They want to go on vacation in August, and in order to generate cash, they start three or four jobs they will finish in the fall, which allows them to collect multiple down-payments before leaving.” As we’re bobbing and weaving through traffic, he points to numerous double-parked vans clogging traffic. Cabbies are the best traffic analysts.
My London taxi driver hears me speak French on the phone. He asks me if I know the Armenian-born singer Charles Aznavour. As I tell him I do, he starts playing Aznavour’s song entitled “Ils Sont Tombés” (They Have Fallen), a stirring description of the Armenians uprising against Turks in the early 20th century. He’s not Armenian himself, but he has tears in his eyes as he barrels down the M4 to Heathrow. Cabbies are the conscience of mankind.
I am in Spain. Real Madrid is playing Manchester City at home tonight in the first game of the Champions League. We don’t have any language in common, yet we can communicate on whether Ronaldo is really sad (he thinks he’s a big baby), whether David Villa the Spaniard should be considered a traitor for playing for Manchester City (he thinks it’s OK because soccer is a global business), and whether Spain should dump the Euro (his position is no because Real Madrid could no longer attract big worldwide stars like Ronaldo, even though he’s a big baby). Cabbies are the best soccer economists.
As I head back home in Boston, my limo driver is Moroccan. He’s got opinions about everything, Obama vs. Romney, the Arab Spring, and the movie that is igniting protests all over the Middle East. “The problem is that there’s not enough American Muslim leadership to act as intermediary between the fanatics and the grassroots Muslim people”, he tells me, talking like a Harvard PhD. “Look how different this is from France or Germany where local imams in those two countries help tamper everything.” He dreams of playing a role like that someday. Cabbies are the best politicians.

The soul of Argentina

Friday, July 1st, 2011

It is winter time in Argentina. In the course of my three-day visit for an HSM conference, I will discover this is physically and figuratively true. The young woman charged by the conference organizer to shepherd me through the event has the sadness of Argentina in her eyes. She’s sharp as a tack, is curious about everything she can learn from me, and knows her job prospects are bleak. She wants to know all about the US and whether she would still be living at home if she were going to a US college. She dreams of green campuses and independence.

Argentina is like its soccer teams, brilliant and ultimately self-destructive. At every international soccer event, Argentina is one of the favorites, expected to combine creative play and game toughness to challenge the best. Year after year, they disappoint. This week, the news is dominated by the relegation of River Plate, one of the two leading club teams of Buenos Aires, who will have to play in a second-division league for the first time in its 110-year history, creating talks of bankruptcy for the club. For good measure, giant riots erupted after their last match around the Monumental stadium where they play, and more than 70 people were hurt.

I am coached not to mention River Plate’s fate on any of my speeches. Emotions are still raw. On the way to the airport last night, I catch from the road a glimpse of the Argentine national team starting its training for the Copa America tournament. Maybe this time…

At the conference itself, as well as during journalist interviews and company visits, there is strong interest in co-creation. Argentines love the notion that business is about people – there is an instinctive humanity you can feel anywhere in Argentina – and they know for not being very good at it that business is about building ecosystems. For a fleeting moment, it feels like hope.

In the evening, though, gloominess returns during a dinner I am attending with some business executives of Buenos Aires. The conversation starts with agriculture, where exorbitant export duties and the vagary of the government’s granting of export licenses are challenging a highly competitive intrinsic global position. In the oil sector, YPF, a very competent exploration and production and refining company, has been a political football for many years, moving from independence to being acquired by the Spanish company Repsol, to being sold again in a complex government scheme. There seems to be little love between the business community and the current government. Inflation has returned with a vengeance, with economists estimating it at 25-30% (the number is highly contested), but this does not seem to worry the government of Cristina Kirchner, widow of the previous President. Everywhere you turn, there is little hope for growth.

The remarkable thing about Argentines is that while few of their institutions work, they remain a nation of remarkable talent, giving their society a soulful dimension which touches your heart. Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers novel comes to mind. “Don’t worry about us, we’ll be all right,” one of the executives tells me, probably reacting to my empathetic look. “We’re used to this. We’ve learned to cope.” A minute later, though, he starts dreaming of Argentina adopting the Brazilian growth model.

“It would be fun to start growing like them,” he says. “But beating them in the final of the Copa America in a few weeks would be even better.”