Duffer

Michael Duffy never wanted the soccer World Cup here.

Now he has solid grounds for his dread. He was evidently grazing in the archives of the Library of Economics and Liberty, an indispensable resource for rightwing culture warriors, when he came upon this anti-soccer polemic by one Alan R. Sanderson, an American economist who writes mostly about sport. Duffy must have known straight away that Sanderson’s analysis fits Australia perfectly too.

Stripped bare, Sanderson’s thesis is that match outcomes in soccer are rather arbitrary and don’t reflect the ability and effort of the players; that Europeans, raised in nanny states where efforts and rewards are weakly linked, are comfortable with this; and that Americans, raised in a society where hard work and skill are rewarded, dislike it for the same reason.

Duffy’s measure of a sport’s popularity is attendance at matches. He acknowledges that participation in soccer is high, but thinks this only strengthens his case. If children are forced to play soccer and then ‘abandon it the moment they don’t have to play it’, there must really be something wrong with the game. It isn’t just that, for reasons of history and custom, people have not been exposed to the sport: on the contrary, they have every opportunity to appreciate whatever merit the game might have, but still turn their backs on it in the end.

By ‘abandon’ Duffy doesn’t mean stop playing; of course he knows that other codes of football have even higher attrition rates than soccer. Nor does he mean they don’t follow soccer on television, since he has no way of knowing. ‘Abandon’ just means they don’t attend live matches.

That happens to be true. And the real reason they don’t, which is obvious to everyone except Duffy, is that soccer fans are so much spoiled by the high quality international soccer on TV, that the inferior local competitions are not worth the effort. It’s a great shame, and we all hope the situation will change, but it’s the undeniable reason all the same.

So we have a dubious criterion for unpopularity and a straightforward explanation why this criterion is met. But why let that get in the way of some reductive sociological theorising, especially when it conforms to your favourite cultural stereotypes and your ideological obsessions at the same time? Especially when the idea comes from a Chicago economist, which means effectively from Milton Friedman himself.

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that soccer is not just unpopular in Australia, but even more so than can be explained simply in terms of historical accident. Does Sanderson’s explanation for the phenomenon make any sense?

Duffy accepts Sanderson’s contention that the results of soccer matches must be more random than the results of basketball matches because the scores are lower. Presumably he would substitute Aussie rules or rugby for basketball in the comparison. And for all I know it may be true when it comes to individual matches. But weak teams in soccer never win premierships, and rarely knockout competitions.

In any case Americans have their own low-scoring game in the form of baseball. I don’t remember anyone speculating that those molly-coddled Americans enjoy baseball because it comforts them to see that the weak and lazy can occasionally prevail.

A society that didn’t like sports in which chance played a part, would overwhelmingly prefer to attend athletics and rowing competitions. By contrast, one that preferred games of luck would never tolerate the Tour de France, and would replace round balls with egg-shaped ones in as many games as feasible.

But let’s grant them that part of the story, and suppose for argument’s sake that luck plays a smaller part in American and Australian sports generally. There is a more fundamental problem with the argument, which reveals itself in this sentence :

[Sanderson] says those Americans who support the game “are uncomfortable with competitions that produce winners and losers, and soccer appeals to their egalitarian, risk-averse streak”¦”.

Hang on. How did we manage to end up concluding that the entrepreneurial Americans want a deterministic outcome, while the risk-averse Europeans prefer a random outcome?

Sanderson’s argument collapses when one notices that the welfare state has nothing to do with randomness. On the contrary, it provides security not just against the hazards of the marketplace, but against the risks of being born without much brains or energy. There is no reason at all why a population who want to be insured against every vicissitude of fortune, would prefer a sport where outcomes are arbitrary.

It’s plain that the pair of them are confusing two quite separate theories. One is the idea that Europeans are risk-averse and don’t want to chance their incomes on their abilities. And there is certainly an argument going around, associated mostly closely with Alberto Alessina, to the effect that Americans are inherently happier with inequality than Europeans, and that this explains why Europeans elect social democratic governments.

The second theory, attributable recently to Alain de Botton, is that Europeans are less enthusiastic than Americans about meritocracy, because they know it leaves the majority of people feeling inadequate and miserable. They actually prefer hereditary rank and privilege, because it provides an explanation, unrelated to their personal shortcomings, for their low status.

Duffy likes the idea, common to both theories, that Europeans are uncomfortable tying rewards to effort. But he hasn’t noticed that the reasons are different, and he can’t argue both of them simultaneously. A society that avoids such outcomes because its people are risk averse the sort of society that builds a nanny state will not have any use for sports where results are random. On the other hand, a society that can’t handle differences in ability will undoubtedly prefer games of chance, but it will also have a bias against equality, and therefore little use for a welfare state.

Perhaps sensing that the sociological logic is shaky, Duffy finds other ways to reinforce the proposition that soccer is for sissy cultures. He hints at the unmanly nature of the game by noting that many soccer parents ‘want to make their boys more like girls and their girls more like boys’. At face value this is just bizarre, but I guess the subtext is that any sport girls can play too can’t be as tough as rugby. And Duffy naturally agrees with Sanderson that

men have evolved to have considerable strength in their upper torsos. They often use this in combat, and sport was developed as a way to channel physical aggression into less harmful behaviour. For football to prevent men from using their arms and hands is simply perverse, making it the sports equivalent of Irish dancing.

Or marathon running, perhaps another sport for sissies?

If nothng else, Duffy’s column confirms that there is a class of Aussie blokes who for some reason feel threatened by soccer (maybe the feeling is like the one I get every time a new Starbucks opens), and need to rationalise this with reference to a broader ideological framework. What else could Duffy have in common with John Quiggin, who claims that soccer is the most capitalist football code?

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Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
15 years ago

“are uncomfortable with competitions that produce winners and losers, and soccer appeals to their egalitarian, risk-averse streak. The same crowd usually also can be counted on to oppose globalisation.”

Duffy obviously hasn’t watched much Premier League football, I have seen games without a single Englishman. And I cannot think of another code which even comes close in terms of internationalism, his example of MLB is poor, having a World Series with teams from only American and Canada always seemed absurd. But probably the best example I can think of in football is a small Belgium club called Beveren in the heart of a working-class anti-immigrant district (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K.S.K._Beveren), a team persistently threatened with relegation, which came up with the frugal idea of scouting Africa for its talent, resulting in a team full of mainly Ivory Coast players. Instead of their usual position as persistant losers this moved pushed Beveren into the cup final and the team well up into the top-half of the league table. Also from this success Bevern were able to exploit the proceeds of the sales of the top players, such as Emmnauel Eboue (now at Arsenal) and Yaya Gnere Toure, a profit that would not have realised if they had an anti-global mentality, e.g. pick only local players teams like the Basque team Athletico Bilbao (a once mighty club which last year was flirting with relegation).

Also this contrast with American football is pretty ridiculous, considering if didn’t get six points for a touchdown, many of there matches wouldn’t have much higher scores than soccer. I also think football’s more spontaneous nature requires a lot more risk, which is an improvement on the robotic stop-start follow-procedure-at-all-costs that defines gridiron (its a game for technicians), and to think play stops the minute the player with the ball hits the ground. Gridiron just doesn’t allow for the sort of autonomy that is allowed in football, I can’t see a Ronaldinho or Zidane thriving in an environment in which they are required to check every minute movement with their coach before-hand.

Come to think about it I think it is also rich for Duffy to accuse American sports of being more pro-capitalist (as it is these very sports that have salary caps to maintain an even playing-field), he obviously doesn’t know of the predatory power of a Chelsea (ask Arsene Wenger), Real Madrid or AC Milan (who with those Bellusconi-billions are not relegated for match-fixing after escaping on a technicality, but maybe thats a point for a later blog-post).

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
15 years ago

As Stephen said, the point about soccer being thoroughly capitalist is a simple fact about the way the competition is organised. It’s not a metaphorical claim about the game. As regards my post, the insistence on using the term “football” for one code of football in a country that has historically supported (at least) four is an instance of globalisation trying to destroy cultural variety, and objectionable on that ground, just like Starbucks.

Neither of these things has anything to do with whether soccer is a good game to play or watch. It’s both, though I wish they would come up with a better way to resolve ties than penalty shootouts. How about reducing the number of players on each side gradually until one team scores? This would give much less incentive for defensive play by teams with good goalkeepers, something that seemed to be a problem in quite a few of the World Cup games.

Rex
Rex
15 years ago

How about reducing the number of players on each side gradually until one team scores?

Brilliant!

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
15 years ago

Stephen

I’m glad you raised the globalisation issue. I might have, but the post was much too long anyway.

John

No one wants soccer to usurp the homegrown codes: just to reach the point where we have a thriving domestic competition and good pay for the players. Also, it never even occurred to me to call it football. You are grossly overstating the phenomenon of terminological bullying.

Penalty shoot-outs are gladiatorial good fun, but very arbitrary. The question is whether the arbitrariness really matters. As a practical matter, only one team can progress to the next round; when there is a shoot-out, the game is remembered as essentially a draw, and the losing side goes away with some honour.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

As Stephen rightly points out, Soccer should be the darling sport of the right wing. There are no financial restrictions to prevent concentration of excellence. Man United is the biggest sports club in the world

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

I thought Duffy had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Interestingly, fellow weekend columnist (and Duffy’s ideological opposite), Mike Carlton, also takes not dissimilar potshots at the World Game………………

James Farrell
James Farrell
15 years ago

Well of course we all enjoy a bit of hilarious leg-pulling now and again. But isn’t there some obligation on the columnist who indulges in this particular pleasure, to supply an outlandish theory of his own, rather than recycle one from the net?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

Well, if it was me, James, I’d certainly be supplying my own outlandish theory :)

James Farrell
James Farrell
15 years ago

“Well, if it was me…”

I fervently wish it was!

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Yes John, I agree with the removal of players till you get a result. The other possibility is enlarging the size of the goals, but it would take longer to set up. One could also remove the goalie. That would sort things out – but I guess rather too dramatically. One might also remove the offside rule?

taust
taust
15 years ago

Football distills life – some reward for effort but the final result can have a large slice of luck.

The USA has a belief in the rule of law giving a ‘fair’ outcome hence their more ‘technical’ game.

Cricket should be the ultimate USA game. Complex rules with a final decision by the umpire. Unfortunatly it has now on the way to destruction by the PC’s with appeal bodies proper procedures etc etc.

Beach volley ball would be worth analysing but I have never read the rules.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
15 years ago

OTOH, the Sanderson-Duffy perspective may take some comfort from the political turn leftwards by most South American countries. All soft-cock soccer countries – what do you expect?

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
15 years ago

“Cricket should be the ultimate USA game. Complex rules with a final decision by the umpire. ”

This sounds about as anti-Hayekian as you could get.

haiku
haiku
15 years ago

Duffy knows bugger-all about sport. Yobbo or Wickstein would take him to the cleaners. Maybe even Jason Soon.

Have any of you ever played drop-off? You simply couldn’t do it in a major tournament. In six-a-side, we got down to two players each (and played for several minutes) before sheer exhaustion set in and a goal was scored. Imagine trying to back up again after that …

taust
taust
15 years ago

John Quiggin your comment strikes an interesting chord.

The USA constitutional system based on the rule of law and separation of powers would appear to be anti-Hayekian in structure.

Did the founding fathers of the USA constitution make a mistake and develop a constitution that is flawed for the ongoing development of a free economy.

A structurally flawed constitution might explain the baroque developments that lead to USA protectionism being an all pervading characteristic of the USA political scene.