Saturday, 19 June 2010

Football and Finance: mirrors of depression

The football World Cup is one of those things that impinges on the consciousness, whatever one does to avoid it. Why, even the Americans must be coming to terms with hearing the term ‘football’ used not for their sacred version of the game, but the way the other (and therefore less significant) 95% of humanity uses it. After all, with the US team beginning to emerge as a significant player – how long can it be before they dominate football as they do other sports? – Americans must be rapidly changing their habits of thought.

This competition has taught me several things. One is that I’ve learned to appreciate the three or four-minute highlight recordings the BBC puts up on its website. I’ve avoided watching any of the actual games, but am sometimes curious to find out what happened, so these brief videos are brilliant. The BBC has realised that to all intents and purposes nothing of any note happens during most of a football game, so you can cover anything worth actually seeing in three or four minutes of the 90 or so for which it lasts. Actually, I find that even the highlight recordings sometimes get dull, but at least you can tell from the progress bar that there isn’t long to go.

The even more significant thing I’ve learned from the World Cup is how football is a great metaphor for real life. Nothing original in that, you may say, but I think I’ve found a bit of a new angle.

You see, football at its best – which it doesn’t attain very often – is all about consummate skill in foot-eye coordination. An outstanding player will bring a fast moving ball under control and then dribble it a long way up a pitch, finishing with a pass of pinpoint precision to a fellow player or an unstoppable shot into the back of the net.

Now there are two points to make about those skills. One, that I’ve hinted at already, is that players don’t display them that often. For most of the match, players whose salaries given them in a year what most of us couldn’t amass in a couple of centuries, repeatedly lose the ball in an astounding show of clumsiness, pass it straight to an opponent, or fire it into the opposing goalkeeper’s arms.

The second point is another limitation. The skills aren’t transferable anywhere else. After all, in what other field is foot-eye coordination going to be useful? Hand-eye coordination, yes – there are many applications in engineering, in the arts, in life generally. But except in delivering well-directed kicks up the backside, which some may feel is an underused management technique in both the professional and, why not, the family sphere, I’m really not sure where else foot-eye coordination might be useful.

And lest anyone think that brilliant football skills are at least an indication of intellectual ability, consider Wayne Rooney’s outburst at the fans who were booing him and his team mates at the end of what we can loosely refer to as a ‘match’ against Algeria yesterday. By achieving a goalless draw, England proved themselves entirely the equals of their opponents. Algeria is, of course, amongst the minnows of world football, which says all we need to know about the England team’s talents.

Wayne Rooney is probably the brightest star in the England side, which puts him on a par with say Ben Affleck, the kind of actor of whom one always thinks, ‘wow, he could be good, I wonder why he doesn’t get more parts,’ until you actually seem him perform in one. ‘Nice to see your own fans booing you,’ Rooney told the fans, ‘That's what loyal support is.’

Clearly, to Rooney heavy sarcasm passes for wit, and he lacks the skill in empathy to understand why people whose loyal purchase of tickets to football matches allows him to pick up a pay check many hundreds or thousands of time bigger than theirs, might feel and express their disappointment at the inability of a top-flight striker to score a goal against one of the weakest sides in the tournament. What Rooney lacked in foot-eye coordination, he seems to have been intent to make up for in foot-mouth coordination.

Now switch your thoughts away from football. Think of the City of London or any other great financial centre. Here young men, and a tiny number of young women, usually straight out of school, are taken on to make decisions concerning often infinitesimal and extremely rapid fluctuations in share or currency values. When values are growing everywhere, they tend to get more of them right than wrong, move up the food chain and ‘earn’ colossal salaries. When economies go into recession, they get more wrong than right and they fire their juniors.

As the American economist Eugene Fama has shown, fund managers achieve no success overall that cannot be explained entirely by chance. They take their split-second, intuition-fuelled decisions, and all you can say is that sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong. When they’re right they go on to fame and fortune, when they’re wrong, then metaphorically they’re booed by their fans.

So we have overpaid individuals doing things which sometimes work but are just as likely not to. The skills, if skills they are, are completely inapplicable to any other field: where in any enterprise linked to the real economy would you be called on to gamble millions on your belief that a certain price will be higher or lower in a month than it is today, with no reason to suppose that your decision is more likely to be right than wrong?

The real beauty of being in that field, though, is that if you get things totally wrong, the worst that will happen to you is that you may get hauled in front of a committee or two and be insulted in public a bit, and you may have to put up with some nasty headlines for a while. But you’ll go on getting your huge bonuses, and if the banks don’t have the money themselves, the taxpayers will provide it .

In other words, these guys play a silly game with indifferent skills and the rest of us fund them to live in the wealthiest lifestyles imaginable. At worst, we get a bit upset and tell them so, but then we elect governments that, whatever else they do, will never touch their privileges.

Yesterday the fans at the scene of England’s latest woeful performance got a bit upset and told the players so, much to poor Mr Rooney’s annoyance. But next year they’ll troop up to their clubs and renew their season tickets. Mr Rooney may find some balm for his hurt feelings in the salary those fans will finance for him. And in 2012 when the run-up to the next world cup starts, they’ll turn out again as applause fodder and sources of subsidies to the players just like this time.

Football mirrors the real world.

And that realisation is about as cheering as the world cup itself.

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