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Posts Tagged ‘World Cup’

Thucydides, as has been well established on this blog over the last few years as well as in the publications of many other social scientists, has something useful and important to say about everything, and football is no exception. Sport is, after all, merely an ersatz form of international conflict, and so governed by the same universal principles that are identified and expounded in Thucydides’ account. This is not a simple matter of deciding who ‘won’ the Peloponnesian War and then trying to develop a crude analogy with contemporary football teams – the Persians were the real winners, so obviously Iran will do well, and not just because I drew them in the school sweepstake – because Thucydides’ analysis emphasises the role of chance and contingency in the outcome of a specific series of battles and other events (sc. tournament). Rather, we need to establish relative probabilities, on the basis of the various algorithms and general principles set out in his analysis.

(1) Strength and Tactics. ‘The strong do what they will, and the weak endure what they must’: on the face of it, this famous statement summons up the image of an utterly dominant Spain or Brazil with perfect ball control and 80%+ possession, simply toying with a team like England, whose only tactic is to resort to hope, danger’s comforter, namely the optimistic boot upfield. If football was indeed governed by such regularities, prediction would be easy, and would simply be a matter of deciding between the various strong teams who would inevitably (in this model) advance to the semi-finals. This does indeed appear to be the underlying assumption of many of the predictions made in national newspapers – but it is sustainable only if we focus on the Melian Dialogue in isolation (as, of course, so many international relations theorists and sports reporters do). In fact, Thucydides’ wider narrative makes it clear that events are always far more complicated than this: apparent dominance can conceal significant weaknesses – Athenian control of the sea came to nothing, with its inability to strike any killer blow against the Spartans – and lead to reckless over-reach (the Sicilian gambit), at which point the ‘stronger’ team is vulnerable to swift counter-attack. We need to consider not only the relative strengths of the different teams in objective terms, but also the ways in which they deploy their forces, whether absorbing constant ravaging of their territory in the expectation of being able to strike unexpectedly on the counter (the Periclean approach in the early years of the war), or seeking to dominate midfield, or the Spartan¬†catenaccio approach, terrified of their vulnerability at the back to Helot revolt. And we should keep in mind, as Thucydides makes clear at the beginning of his work (see the excellent analysis by Edith Foster) that teams may drastically over- or under-estimate their own strengths and power, and those of their opponents, with deleterious effects on their choice of tactics.

(2) Motivation and Emotion. This is a crucial theme in Thucydides’ analysis: decision-making is shown to be swayed by any number of non-rational factors, both at individual and collective level. If we take the team as a whole (including its management) to be equivalent to the polity, then it is driven by honour, interest and fear, to different degrees and with different consequences. The goal may be the same for all three motives, but is a team prepared to seek victory at the expense of honour (Holland in 2010), or to risk failure so as not to betray their principles (Brazil on various occasions), or will it simply be consumed by fear, unexpectedly (Germany against Italy in the last European Cup) or predictably (England pretty well every tournament)? Moreover, there is the power of the individual, whether trainer or a single dominant player, to try to manipulate the responses of the team; it’s not just about the plan, but the ability to get the players to follow the plan successfully. There are some indications that the Sicilian Expedition might have had a chance of success if Alcibiades had not been dropped, and then flounced out of the training camp in a huff; conversely, Nicias might have been undroppable from the expedition, but it’s clear that the Athenians would have played better under different leadership. The jury is out as to whether Cleon was a disastrous replacement for Pericles after his injury, or whether his role in the Pylos victory balances his disruptive effect on team morale…

The results? 1. Argentina 2. Germany 3. Brazil 4. Spain. Still working on the algorithms for individual games, but this evening looks like a safe 2-0 for Brazil.

Oh, and the human thing being what it is, events tend to repeat themselves in more or less the same manner, so England are likely to go out on penalties in the second round…

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