Life is Like a Game of Football — The First Half

Little kid playing football - striving forward passionately, indicating competitiveness.
Little Jack from Our Little Family

…and chocolates, but we already know that.

It’s probably been three or four years since I first conceived of the idea to write a post about football and the many similarities it has with ‘real life’ — the practical takeaways and metaphorical learnings on offer, and what the beautiful game tells us about confidence, incentives, and success. That it’s taken me this long to commit to writing is fitting given the theme.

For simplicity’s sake we’ll start at the extreme and exclude anomalies: the typical Premier League (or La Liga or World Cup) match. That things never go to plan in life is a fundamental axiom. In football (or soccer, for ye Americanos), tens of hours, weeks and even months go into the preparation of big games. Opponents’ style of play will be scrupulously studied — the key players, the set pieces, the typical and non-typical routines, the psychology, the patterns. All of it. At the highest level, resources are unlimited. Manchester United, Barcelona, Juventus, PSG — they can afford the greatest minds, they have the supercomputers, they’ve got all the statistics and footage, and they have decades of experience (a lot of it, success). Between finding out about the opponent and kick-off, all that can be known is known; preparation has forever been first concern in sport, but today more than ever. And yet it’s still fun — fun to watch and, it seems, to participate in. And the reason it’s fun is that it’s unpredictable, still.

Despite all the calculations, information, massive computing power and hoards of experience, the underdogs still conquer the favourites, the best players go through stinkers, the greatest managers are fired, money is lost, what was meant to happen doesn’t. It’s still a landscape shrouded in the mists of mystery, risk, ambivalence, fantasy.

The day creativity becomes surplus to requirements is the day football dies. But it will never die, because football is played by humans, and humans are complex. They have emotions, off-days, bad spells, conflicting interests; unlike complicated things like our solar system and the supercomputers generating the betting odds, people are inconstant, tricky, erratic. Their nature and behaviour is defined by unpredictability and uncertainty.  We watch sport first and foremost because of this uncertainty. Take replays: they’re inferior to live streams for this reason. Even if we avoid finding out about the result before watching the replay, it’s less appealing because people already know. We — or rather, I — want to be first. If somebody else finds out first, that’s not good. It’s no longer truly unpredictable: we know it’s already happened, and so, well, the element of uncertainty that matters is lost. Just as it is lost when the favourite has no chance of losing, the top scorer has no chance of not scoring, the manager’s job is not at risk, when nothing can go wrong. Uncertainty is rife to the very last minute in so many matches, which is why it’s thrilling.

Huh! Reminds me of that old, bone-crushingly depressing platitude ‘same shit, different day’. When every day is mapped out, planned, the events known, when things are consistently invariant — the environment, people, food, work — life is boring. Heck, a single day void of any uncertainty or potential for novelty is a less exciting day.1 One way to view life is a consecutive span of days unknowable in length; in other words, your life is made up of days. And we all know that even when the number of days is great, it’s never enough. Ergo, there is little time for unexciting days. 

Going back to the axiom, by the tenth minute of most matches pretty much all players have forgotten the plan. It’s either not working, costly, boring, or was never really understood. It doesn’t take long for the plan’s true identity to be discovered: the antithesis of creative energy. And creative energy is the heart of not just football but all sport. It’s the reason people watch, the reason players play, the reason so much money’s in the air, the reason people love the game. From the first minute to the last we watch two teams go at each other, trying to suss one-another out, to get the better of the other, trying to score.

I’m sure you’ve made plans before. Big or small, simple or complicated, short term or long — it doesn’t matter. If you’ve kids, you’ll know all about the fundamental axiom. Things Never Go To Plan. But we shouldn’t be discouraged; too often we throw in the towel when Lady Luck plays the unexpected card. Whether influenced primarily by culture, choice of parents, schooling, personality of past experiences, we have it firmly rooted in our bones that there exists a correct way to do things — to solve the problem, to be successful, to be a good person, to leave a legacy, to make money, to make a dream come true. There is more than one way to bring a dream to life: there’s literally an unknowable number of ways. (And don’t even bother with the supercomputer: it knows all about humans, and doesn’t like to fail.)

There is no Right Way. This is the biggest failure of modern (or rather, stuck-in-the-war-era) schooling methods, and it’s a massive self-disservice as long as it’s consciously maintained. Once the manager’s plan inevitably escapes the stadium via Mexican wave, the players have no choice but to continue. For what? For the win. They know what result they want. But they continue because they have to.

I wonder how many of us would succeed if we had no choice but to continue pursuing our big ideas when things stopped according with the plan? Those that succeed — by personal and cultural definition — always deviate from the plan. Sometimes they tell a retrospective story about how things went exactly how they planned — that is always false; many biographies might also be titled ‘Confabulation for Dummies’. And I would still read.

Back to the game, scoring is more important than defending for one reason: nobody likes watching one-goal matches with both teams playing ultra-defensively. This would indicate a lack of creativity and therefore, interestingness. And therefore the word ‘exciting’ becomes laughable. This is the case even if my team is winning. Yes, though as impressive as an art form, scoring is more important than defending. To score, attacking players have to be clever, experimental, inspired, daring, creative; the element of surprise is pivotal. And they need this individually and collectively. Because over and over and over, they will fail. Possession will be lost by smart interception or error, individual runs will be ended with an aggressive takedown or good challenge, the referee will have a nightmare, the goalkeeper sometimes is The Dr. Reed Richards. And yet the attackers, backed by the the rest of the team, doggedly, passionately and tirelessly go on in pursuit of victory.

Attackers will attempt same things over and over, and fai. And they will be creative and fail. And they will continually oscillate between the two (itself a creative act). Sometimes they will be successful and sometimes they won’t. Those who become really good — unabashadley and tenaciously going through the trial-and-error ringer — are the best players, teams, the best managers.

The incentives to keep moving forward are mighty. For players, it’s because the world is watching, they’re terrified of the boss’s wrath, they’re on a colossal pay packet, it’s because they love to win. Ditto for managers, but often the drive is more internal. For supporters, it’s loyalty to the family, the community, a single player, or the city; and it’s patently about seeing the other side lose as much as it is about winning; and it’s about the chance to scream and shout and be dogmatic, without much cost in the ‘real world’. It’s not as if there aren’t incentives in the other direction — players’ confidence can be shot (a problem we’ll talk about later) down by YouTube comments and newspaper columnists, and managers can crumble under the pressure, and I might be reluctant to tell my potential boss that I am in love with the team he resents — but we’re talking here about the norms at the extremes.

Miserable Mourinho, showing how much pressure he was under as Manutd manager.
Was the pressure of being Manutd Manager with such a decorated history the defining factor in Mourinho’s unfortunate removal?

Imagine if we moved forward in the same manner as do footballers in a high-stake match — relentlessly, brazenly, because we ‘must’. Imagine. That this doesn’t justify immoral or reckless behaviour goes without saying. In fact it calls for the direct opposite: bold, inspiring, high-agency, creative, daring, rational and indeed shameless behaviour in service of big, humane, admirable ends.

Another critical component in any dressing room and individual player’s life is confidence. We’ll look at that in the next part but if you read only this and take away one thing, let it be that as soon as a team or player or manager starts to lose confidence, whether justifiably or not, it’s not good. It won’t help.

Confidence in eventually figuring it out is what fuels the iterative process of trial and error. A team low in confidence is as boring and/or painful to watch as a match between two teams playing for a draw. Why try when it’s impossible? Of course it’s rarely if ever impossible. But the human being is not simple. Try viewing the next football or tennis match you watch through a confidence lens. Watching someone suffering from a confidence dip, you might conclude that he should just ‘be more confident’, that is, that he should just believe in himself and victory in spite of the past hour of play or what the people are mumbling or what he has been saying to himself. And you’d be right. Self-fulfilling prophecies aren’t make-believe.


  1. It was even demotivating to write that sentence.

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