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Football as a Battle Between Right and Left-Brain Thinking

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GERMANY GOAL WORLD CUP
Laurence Griffiths via Getty Images

Coauthored by Julio M. Ottino and Daniel Diermeier.

Close to a billion people watched the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, many more than the Olympics. It is the only global sport that people are truly passionate about. It matters as much to Colombians as to Cameroonians.

In the United States, this cup represented a transition. More people got it. Getting football is not about rational arguments. Explaining the attraction of football is a bit like explaining why people should like opera, French movies, or performance art. Like opera, football is an exaggeration of life, a representation of how the world is, or, for large parts of the world, how they think it should be: a world with even chances, a level playing field.

To try to make sense of our complex world we are increasingly resorting to analytics and bringing in left-brain thinking. We are now trying to make sense of football with an ever-growing body of quantitative tools. Football has given rise to entire analytics-based industries involving sophisticated analysis of network centrality, passing effectiveness, the probability that a sequence of passes of given lengths will result in a goal, and much more. Economists are getting in the game, analyzing penalty kicks using game-theory and statistical analysis. So far, these efforts are hardly predictive. Handicapping football remains difficult. Some predictions -- notably by Goldman Sachs and Nate Silver -- were spectacularly wrong. The reality is that one can see an entire set of statistics about a game, sans goals, and not be able to determine who actually won. The 120-minute statistics of Argentina and Holland were virtually identical. The possession in the Brazil-Germany game was 52 percent to 48 percent.

As in life, one can work hard and not get the goals and the results. This is true in football more than in other sports. Scoring, and thus success, is more discrete. Baseball and basketball use series of games to decide the outcome. That feature, in addition to higher scoring, means that the eventual winner is more likely to reflect probabilistic tendencies. As some cynics have said, the problem with the NBA Finals is that the best team always wins.

The decisiveness of a few discrete events, often determined by luck or a mistake, breeds superstition and quasi-religious attitudes. Lack of planning can be balanced by a single heroic effort, so many believe. And they are often proved right. One mistake or a great single action can win a game. The belief in the great action, genius and miracles is the great equalizer. On a good day, Ghana could beat Germany, and Iran could beat Argentina. But football is democratic in another sense as well: there is no optimal physique. Tall, short, it does not matter. One can be short, like Messi or Maradona, and be the best player in the world. These views represent creativity and brilliant improvisation, the right side of the brain. And the belief that one act of brilliance can decide a game. Hope for all.

But left-brain thinking is on the advance. Planning is on the rise. German coaches use extensive scouting and analysis to identify weaknesses in the Brazilian defense. The German youth development program, created after the disasters in 2000 and 2004, likely was the real reason for the success. Meticulous planning, from a custom-built team facility to the use of sports psychologists specializing in penalty kicks, created an environment where success was likely. Yet, had Messi scored in the final, all this would have been widely considered a failure, further evidence that success in football depends on individual genius and a spark of inspiration and grace. Therein lies the attraction. Football will continue to be a battle between teamwork and individual action, between deliberate planning and improvisation, between left-brain and right-brain thinking.

Statistical analysis, modeling, and simulation will play an increasingly larger role. But right-brain thinking will continue to play a role. As Kuper and Szymanski have shown, markets for players are highly efficient and teams with the biggest payrolls win their leagues consistently. Yet in spite of this, the magic of the single game, the hope against odds, will remain undiminished. Like opera, football will continue to be an exaggerated version of reality, deeply meaningful and emotionally engaging for millions. Most people in the world like to believe in miracles, in emerging as winners against bad odds. Football gives them this hope. Yet, it will become clearer that planning and strategy do pay off, just not always and not always when it matters most. In its unique mix of science and superstitions, football represents the perfect metaphor of the balance between our left and right brains.

Coauthors: Julio M. Ottino, Dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, was born in Argentina; Daniel Diermeier, a Professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, was born in Germany. Both are exhausted from yesterday's final.

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