How elite soccer illustrates an ancient paradox and a current problem

by Emrys Westacott

The market is efficient. The market knows best. This belief underlies much contemporary theory and practice, especially in the realm of government policy. It is has been used, for instance, to justify privatizing the railways and the post office in the UK, and it forms a central plank in the arguments of those who oppose a government run national health care system in the US. Imgres

The basic idea is simple enough. People express their preferences through their spending habits; they vote with their wallets. If DVDs replace video tapes, or if Amazon puts Borders Books out of business, that is just efficiency in action, with the market performing the function that natural selection performs in the course of evolution. And just as evolutionary biologists do not criticize environmental conditions (although they may sometimes put on another hat and seek to protect threatened species or habitats), so economists, insofar as they are trying to be scientific, will not criticize consumer preferences. About expressed preferences there is no disputing.

But of course, as engaged, concerned, interested, moralizing, and occasionally sanctimonious human beings, most of us do make value judgements about people's preferences. We do this in one of two ways.

1) We normatively judge the preferences themselves. E.g. we criticize people (including ourselves) for drinking too much, eating unhealthy foods, watching stupid TV shows, spending too much time playing video games, or engaging in conspicuous consumption. And we applaud people for learning new skills, cultivating their talents, supporting a local enterprise, or giving to charity.

2) We evaluate how well people's preferences, as expressed through their actions, will help them realize their ultimate goals. E.g. Teachers tell students that if they want to be professionally successful they should study more and party less. Psychologists tell us all that if we want to make ourselves happier we should spend less on ourselves and more on others.

Often, the first sort of evaluation is really a version of the second, but that needn't concern us here. It's the second kind that interests me.

We all often act on specific short-term preferences in a way that produces long-term consequences that are contrary in some ways to what we really desire. The paradox that by pursuing what we think we want we fail to attain what we really want was first explored by Plato in the Gorgias and the Republic.[1] I believe top-flight soccer offers an interesting and instructive illustration of this paradox.

A basic problem with soccer today in the elite leagues is that much of the time it lacks real excitement. Consider these lists of champions over the past ten years:

Year England Spain Germany Italy Portugal

2005 Chelsea Barcelona Bayern Munich —- Benfica

2006 Chelsea Barcelona Bayern Munich Inter Milan Porto

2007 Man. U. Real Madrid VfB Stuttgart Inter Milan Porto

2008 Man. U. Real Madrid Bayern Munch Inter Milan Porto

2009 Man. U. Barcelona VfL Wolfsburg Inter Milan Porto

2010 Chelsea Barcelona Bayern Munich Inter Milan Benfica

2011 Man. U. Barcelona Borussia Dortmund AC Milan Porto

2012 Man City Real Madrid Borussia Dortmund Juventus Porto

2013 Man. U. Barcelona Bayern Munich Juventus Porto

2014 Man. City Atlético Madrid Bayern Munich Juventus Benfica

2015 Chelsea Barcelona Bayern Munich Juventus Benfica

In each league, there are only two, three, or (at the outside) four teams who seriously compete for the title. The other clubs are essentially there to make up the numbers. In Germany, Italy, and France, the same team has won the league for the past three seasons. Imgres-1

Saying that elite soccer lacks excitement is not the same as saying it is boring. If it were boring, it wouldn't be as popular as it is around the world. But to be exciting a sport must be either risky, like ski jumping, or competitive. Soccer in the top leagues is only competitive in a minimal sense. Next year, either Barcalona or Real Madrid will win the Spanish title; either Porto or Benfica will win the Portuguese title; few will bet on any team other than Bayern or Juventus to win their respective leagues. In the English Premier League, it will probably be Chelsea, with Man. U. and Arsenal as possible contenders.

To be fair, there will be some exciting games between teams that are evenly matched or where there is a traditional rivalry. And the commentators will do their best to make things seem more thrilling than they really are (“Liverpool have just ten minutes to score two goals and keep alive their dream of a Champions League place!!”) But commonly, at the end of the season, the most exciting games are those involving the teams struggling to avoid relegation to the lesser leagues.

Now some readers will object that if what I say were true, elite soccer would not command the global audience that it does. But soccer can be popular without being exciting. One reason for this is that many viewers choose teams to support, and since people like to be winners, the most popular teams tend to be those that win a lot. So clubs like Man. U. and Barcelona have fans all over the world. A second reason, which is probably more important, is that people (myself included) will watch top fight soccer, even though they don't support any of the teams simply because they enjoy the spectacle of soccer played brilliantly. Images

And the top players are undeniably brilliant. Take Barcelona and Lionel Messi, for instance. Here are some of Baracelona's results from last season:

5-0 v Levante (twice)

6-0 v Grenada

5-1 v Seville

5-1 v Espanyol

6-0 v Elche

6-1 v Rayo Vallecano

5-0 v Getafe

Messi scored five hat-tricks in these routs. Not to take anything away from Messi, who is clearly one of the greatest players in the history of the game, but the primary reason for the lop-sided scores is the obvious imbalance of talent on the field. Barca have an attacking “trident” of Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar, players who many pundits would rank as three of the four best strikers in the world (the other one being Real Madrid's Christian Ronaldo). Watching them play is mesmerizing; the goals they score are beautiful. But one-sided dominance is not a recipe for excitement.

So why do only a small number of teams have a realistic shot at a title? No mystery here. Soccer-bettorsThe most successful teams are simply the richest teams. They can buy the best players at their asking price and pay them what they demand. In other words, the explanation lies in market forces–which brings us back to our initial problem. Top-flight soccer would be more interesting and exciting if the best players were spread more evenly among the competing teams. But we, the people, are willing to pay good money to see the top players perform and to buy the products they endorse: that is how we express our preferences. Our money filters through the system into the pockets of the players and their agents, and the result is the situation we now have in top-flight soccer: superb stadiums and facilities; expensive tickets; remarkable concentrations of talent; some superb football played; very rich players whose lifestyles are radically different from those of their fans; a depressingly large number of uncompetitive fixtures; and a rather tedious predictability about the league tables at the end of the season.

Consider this: in the fifteen seasons from 1949 to 1964, the English first division (forbear of the premier league) had eleven different champions. That sort of openness is inconceivable these days; but who wouldn't prefer it to the restricted probabilities of the present? I don't pretend to be much of a fan of American football, but I'm impressed by the fact that over the last ten seasons, nine different teams have won the Super Bowl. One reason for this is the enlightened drafting system under which the team that finished last the previous year has first pick of the new draftees, while the team that finished first picks last. Professional soccer doesn't have a draft, but it could take other measures such as capping how much money clubs can spend on players, how much they can pay them, and how many foreign or non-local players they can field.

In my mind there are parallels between the situation in elite soccer and other spheres. Take, for instance, the problem afflicting many town centers, especially in the US. Where small towns used to have bustling high streets that served as busy centers of community interaction, many now have depressingly deserted centers with few viable businesses. This situation is also one that has been brought about by people simply expressing their preferences, shopping at malls, superstores, and online, where there is more choice and everything is cheaper. Here, too, some will maintain that there is little to lament: what's not to like about better selection, low cost, and convenience? Well, I suppose this, too, is a matter of preference, but many will say they prefer–even if they don't express this preference consistently through their behavior–vibrant local communities, more human interaction, and life lived less abstractly.

The moral of all this? Just because the market is driven by our expressed preferences does not mean it necessarily delivers what we want. Recognizing this, we should be willing to restrict the operation of market forces when we can see how doing so will produce outcomes closer to the preferences we express not through our actions but in our reflective judgements.

[1] In Plato's Gorgias, Socrates says that although tyrants do whatever they “see fit” to do, they do nothing that they want to do. This strikes his interlocutors as obviously absurd, but Socrates' meaning isn't hard to fathom. Like everyone else, tyrants want to be happy–that is, to live a life that is enviable and admirable. Since they conceive this to be a life full of pleasure, they pursue power, and once power is obtained they set about gratifying all their desires. They thus do “whatever they see fit to do (gratify their desires),” but doing this doesn't give them what they really want (happiness). In the Republic, Plato supports this claim by painting a memorable and plausible portrait of the tyrant who ends up friendless, fearful, and spiritually bankrupt.