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What football teaches us

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Summary:
I was a little perplexed by Tom Chivers' nice defence of his love of football. For me, any defence can only be a rationalization: my love of the game long preceded the acquisition of whatever feeble reason I possess. Nevertheless, there is a lot that Tom has left out. Albert Camus famously said that "what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the Racing Universitaire Algerios." He might have added, though, that it teaches us so much about society too. One thing it teaches us is the importance of emergence and complexity. Danny Murphy exaggerates when he says that Man City's guard of honour for Liverpool will leave Kevin De Bruyne "clapping for some players who can’t even lace his boots." But there's a point there. A great team does not

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I was a little perplexed by Tom Chivers' nice defence of his love of football. For me, any defence can only be a rationalization: my love of the game long preceded the acquisition of whatever feeble reason I possess.

Nevertheless, there is a lot that Tom has left out. Albert Camus famously said that "what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the Racing Universitaire Algerios." He might have added, though, that it teaches us so much about society too. Arsenal

One thing it teaches us is the importance of emergence and complexity. Danny Murphy exaggerates when he says that Man City's guard of honour for Liverpool will leave Kevin De Bruyne "clapping for some players who can’t even lace his boots." But there's a point there. A great team does not necessarily comprise the best players, but rather ones that function best as a collective. The Leicester City team of 2016 had few stars, but it won the title. And the legendary Arsenal back four comprised players who (Adams apart) were somewhat limited.

Conversely, great players don't make great teams. A few years ago, England fielded a "golden generation" - Lampard, Scholes, Rooney, Cole, Gerrard etc - but to no great success.

You can't read the properties of a collective simply from its components. The same applies to societies. Marx wrote that the unhappy condition of workers “does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist” but was rather the product of impersonal forces. The same is true of gender and racial inequalities. Injustice is not only a matter of bad people doing bad things.

One feature of complex systems is that history matters: they are as they are because of what happened in the past. The same is true of football. There is a type of player that England does not produce: the player such as Xavi, Pirlo or Modric who can control the pace of the game by retaining possession. The nearest we've had in recent decades is Paul Scholes, but putting him into an England team was like giving a computer to a monkey.

The problem here is history. Working class Englishmen have for decades been expected to work hard, know their place and do as they were told. That's an environment which crushes the intelligence that a type of footballer needs. (We might add that there are countless great foreign players which have no equivalent in England: Cantona, Bergkamp, Zola, Ozil and so on.)

Another implication of emergence is that matches matter. Success isn't a matter of finding the best people, but the right people. Olivier Giroud is widely criticized, but he made Arsenal a better team than they are now, and helped France win a world cup. He's not the best striker, but for two different teams he was the right one. And football is full of managers who did well at one club but failed at another - because they were sometimes a good match for the club, sometimes not. The same is true in business: whether a manager succeeds or fails depends not just on his individual ability but upon how good a match (pdf) he is for the job.

Which helps explain something else. Football exemplifies William Goldman's saying: nobody knows anything. Claudio Ranieri's appointment as Leicester manager was greeted with derision, and Arsene Wenger's at Arsenal with "Arsene who?". Both were great successes. Conversely, much-lauded signings often fail - such as many expensive Chelsea strikers.

Complexity produces unpredictability. Which is why football pundits are like the men who told Elvis to go back to truck-driving or the Beatles that they had no future in showbiz: "you win nothing with kids."

It's not just complexity that so often causes pundits and fans to go wrong. Something else does - cognitive biases. Radio 5 Live's 6-0-6 is the strongest corroboration of Daniel Kahneman you'll ever hear. There are gazillions of these: the hot-hand fallacy (pdf) ("he's on form"): the consistency illusion ("I always knew he was rubbish"): over-reaction ("sack the manager"):hindsight bias ("he should have passed it instead"); misperceiving randomness (across ten cupties in which a team has a 10% chance of winning, the chance of giant-killing in one will be 2-1 on): the outcome bias (if a team wins, however flukily, we infer that it played OK); and so on.

These might seem harmless mistakes when confined to talking about football. But they have analogues in expensive mistakes. The hot-hand fallacy leads investors to pile into unit trusts with good recent performance (pdf) - which costs them money as the performance proves unsustainable. Over-reaction leads them to buy stocks at the top of the market and sell at the bottom. Failing to see that low probabilities compound to give us a high one helps explain why so many projects run over time and budget. And so on.

In all these ways, football really is more than just a game. It teaches us how societies and businesses operate, and how to think clearly about them. You can learn much more from the back pages of a newspaper than you'll learn from the front pages.

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