World cup reflections

Germany advanced to the World Cup final by a very rare, convincing, historic (7-1) beatdown, Argentina by one of the more typical squeakers.  The main deficiency of [world] football [US] soccer as a sport is the poor correlation between score and team performance, mainly because goals are so rare that they are swamped by randomness.  So in game after game, the team that wins didn’t necessarily play better than the losers.

Its main deficiency as a social institution is actually similar (though not intrinsic), and more important: almost two hundred million Brazilians are miserable this week, rending their garments as though losing a game indicated something important about them or their country.  From the press reports, it would seem that winning the world cup would have made made up for the failures in actually presenting the event (or all the expensive stadiums that will sit empty henceforth), or would count more than this real world-class victory.

There’s nothing wrong with team sports, being fans, and having unifying cultural institutions, and soccer has big virtues: it’s genuinely athletic, not very dangerous, and anyone can enjoy it with a ball and a largish flat place to kick it around in. But being proud of your local team as though you had anything to do with their success, or as though they say anything about you when they win, or as though the outcome of a soccer game has any enduring value anyway, is as genuinely stupid as being proud of your ancestors. The correlation between putting up a winning soccer team and being an admirable or successful nation is even worse than the correlation between a soccer score and quality of play.

This, on the other hand,  (Um a Zero was written on the occasion of a famous Brazil 1-0 win) is something to properly make Brazilian hearts swell, a bunch of kids from all over the world coming together in Boston to play a choro almost a hundred years old.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

14 thoughts on “World cup reflections”

  1. Spot on for the music. I disagree that reducing the destruction of the Amazon rainforest to merely the area of Bali last year is cause for celebration. Brazil should be doing net reafforestation. Dilma cares little for the issue, refused to make a zero-deafforestation pledge in her Presidential campaign, and appointed Aldo Rebelo, leader in the gutting of the new Forestry Code, as Sports Minister. With luck Brazil's humiliating exit may be followed by his, especially as the preparations for the 2016 Rio Olympics (an insane double potlatch) are in deep trouble: the "worst ever", according to an IOC Vice-President.

    The classic memoir of soccer fandom is Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. He’s a real Arsenal fan, with full awareness of how how absurd it is.

    1. Fever Pitch is a treasure not just of sport writing but of novel writing more generally.

      1. Novel? It's an autobiography. Hornby has written several good and funny novels as well.

  2. Fever Pitch is also a fun sports mania movie, about the Red Sox.

    There's plenty of work left to do for the rain forest, but seriously, Jim: compare to west Africa and SE Asia. Turning the corner is a BFD and should be celebrated: we have to be able to admire success without always saying "but…". Also, there are serious problems with the forest code, unfortunately not what got 'fixed', like making preservation of a national resource the task of individual landowners (so all the incentives go the wrong way) and assuring fragmentation of the preserved areas.

    1. You are quite wrong to say that there is no rational basis for fans to feel a part of a team's wins and losses, for two reasons.

      First, fans invest money in their teams. In the UK, individual seats could be purchased by bonds paid off over many years, and working class families paid for years to have their own seat, thereby enriching the team and helping them hire more talent.

      Second, fans affect how players perform Michael! Fans can intimidate opponents, encourage their own team, show loyalty when times are tough and be brutal to their own. In short they influence the outcomes of games and therefore have every reason to take pride in wins.

      1. I think Keith is right and we have seen the proof of it at this World Cup. The tremendous emotional investment of the Brazilian fans (and the mystique they helped to create around Brazilian football) undeniably exerted a power over the games. Does anyone believe that Brazil would have made it out of their group if this tournament had taken place anywhere but in Brazil?

        I was saddened to see Brazil knocked out of the tournament, even though it was obvious that they were not playing good football. The Brazilians were wonderful and gracious hosts (even in defeat) and I think that contributed greatly to making this the best World Cup of my life. I think it makes a tremendous difference when the host country has a love for the game.

      2. and furthermore, tell me about it! I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in 1957. A really disillusioning experience, but I was a kid. And a Red Sox fan in 2004. It was lots of fun…for a couple of weeks, then real life kicked in, as it should have. I'm calling for a sense of proportion about what is a game.

        We have fans who 'invest money' in our teams, too, and the big money boosters have a lot more influence than the TV eyeballs and bottoms in the seats; your institution has been less corrupted by them, but they haven't done either school any good that I can see.

    2. In stabilising the climate, there is no try. Should we praise degrees of graceful failure, as with Brazil, the USA and the UK? Better praise the few real heroes, Bhutan, Costa Rica and Denmark, that have committed credibly to sustainability. Of course, there’s also the "improvement" gold star. This has to reward recent gains, not absolute achievement. My objection to giving this to Brazil is that their big shift towards sustainability came years ago, with the generals' huge dam at Itaipu (it drowned a lot of the Parana valley and the greatest waterfalls on Earth, but it's 13 reliable gigawatts) and the bagasse ethanol programme. The progress on deforestation has stopped under Dilma, and the Sarney clique still rules the wasteland that used to be Maranhão.

      The long-shot hope is that Eduardo Campos will be elected President in October with Marina Silva as VP. He's a conventional careerist but she has real green convictions if less skill. But on paper it’s for rumoured alcoholic Aecio Neves to lose.

  3. From the press reports, it would seem that winning the world cup would have made made up for the failures . . .

    And this demonstrates a fundamental problem with your analysis: you're taking at face value the most hysterical press writing as to how people would react to the results of the World Cup. The overwhelming majority of fans, Brazilian and otherwise, have a lot more sense of proportion than you give them credit for.

    1. Given the history of football related violence in Latin America and very much including Brazil, I have been very impressed by the spirt of friendship and peaceful coexistence demonstrated by fans everywhere and especially in Brazil. It makes me very happy that this World Cup hasn't been marred by violence or hooliganism but it isn't something I'd ever take for granted.

  4. I'm in agreement with your critique of soccer in particular–a damned odd game–and sympathetic with your points on sports fandom generally.

    But what would Aristotle say about spectator sports? He'd certainly think there was some point to them, and probably a pretty important point, considering the amount of time and attention they consume.

    He'd probably argue for some kind of cathartic purpose–that sports give people a safe outlet for passion and aggression. Yes, hooligans; yes, riots; yes, the occasional Latin American war, but on net, we play a lot more international soccer these days, and fight a lot fewer wars. I doubt this is exactly what Stephen Pinker is talking about, but it might be worthy of some consideration.

    1. The heyday of spectator sports in the ancient world – gladiators and chariot racing – came much later, after the end of the republics. The catharsis they offered was antidemocratic: identification with untouchable heroes and scorn for remote victims. Modern sports crowds are much closer to the Coliseum and Hippodrome than to the great torchlit procession up the Acropolis that closes Aeschylus’ profound Oresteia, a catharsis enabled by democratic justice. Even though Athena’s tiebreaking legal reasoning to let Orestes off is worthy of Justice Alito.

Comments are closed.