The musings of Mr Monkeysized

Football: a game of percentages and journalistic inadequacy by monkeysized
June 17, 2010, 10:18
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Bloody hell. Now I’ve started fiddling about with The Times site I’ve just found something else to think about. Football.

I’ve been waiting to express my monkeysized thoughts about football for a while. We are, after all, now into the second round of group matches in the World Cup. There’s much to say. A lot of it is about the nature of football itself: Millionaires in coloured nylon shorts chasing around a pig’s bladder without using their hands. Other than the goalkeepers.

It’s also an awful lot of fun, and a global conversational universal solvent bar none. But football journalists and pundits try to step things up a level. In some countries this comes down to rampant jingoism, but in England it’s better to call it contraryism. Very few Englishmen would consider themselves nailed on for the title, but many English journos think that’s what they hear from their countrymen, perhaps swayed by the nonsense spoken by football commentators. After England drew one-one with the US (rather unluckily) it was interpreted as evidence that: 1. England were crap; and 2. Englishmen were idiots for their blind belief that they were the best in the world.

And now Spain lose to Switzerland, among other instances of big teams under-performing. And all in the first round.

As the Fink Tank, the terrific analytical tool developed by Daniel Finkelstein and team and published in The Times suggests, football remains a game of percentages. One team may be better than the other at wearing nylon shorts and kicking a pig’s bladder, but, based upon a statistical analysis, there is almost always a percentage chance of the other team winning, even if that chance is vanishingly small. Currently, for instance, the Fink Tank has a 10.4% chance of England winning the whole thing, and Spain a 10.2% chance. That makes them the 3rd and 4th most likely. Brazil is on 22% and Holland on 16.2%. Honduras, Algeria, North Korea and New Zealand have chances entering into the statistically irrelevant (they are listed at 0.0%).

That doesn’t seem like a disaster for England. And yet the over-whelming chance of them not winning the competition will no doubt be interpreted as part of this overwhelming narrative of English failure that the jingoistic and ignorant population just doesn’t understand. Pish.

The real failure is among the journalists. Hacks aren’t always the cleverest, and sports hacks tend to be thicker than most. They especially fail to understand statistical relevance, but like to position themselves as holding insights that the mass of the population just doesn’t get – they are thus deeply contrarian. (Some journos, however, are very intelligent – think of Simon Kuper on the FT (he once lusted after a woman at university who was sleeping with me at the time, although that might not be strictly relevant here) or floating brain-in-a-tank Jonathan Wilson on the Guardian.)

The wilfully contrarian pomposity of sports journalism is thus little more than a cry in the dark from the inadequate, like the slightly loud pub bore who makes his points a little bit too loudly, masking a bit of his own weakness. They’re not bad journalists, and some of the biggest gobshites are also splendid writers and witty commentators. But I beg of them not to forget that they comment on nylon-short-wearing, pig-bladder-kicking millionaires for a living. Most of the rest of us get that, and enjoy it anyway. I’d love it if England won, and I know that they have a very good relative chance, if a low absolute chance. It’s time the journos understood this too.