Football and statistics

Pause for Thought: BBC Radio 2 Jun 18th 2008

American Football coach Vince Lombardi once said that ‘football is like life.’ So although it’s a different type of football, I’ve been watching Euro 2008 to see if he’s right. Isn’t it good to be unencumbered by any of that nationalistic angst about how any of the home nations might fare? And life is definitely better without our news programmes and front pages filled with analysis of team selection and concerns about certain players’ knees or metatarsals – never mind what their wives or girlfriends are up to.

But it seems that in this tournament, football isn’t much like life, unless life is statistics. I always thought football was about the number of goals scored – you score more than the opposition – you win. You score less – you lose. You score the same number – well, who knows? It could be goal difference, penalties, sudden death or even a fate worse than sudden death.

But football, like life, is clearly more complicated than that. Now, as well as the score, we get told how many times each team has attempted to pass the ball and the percentage of successful passes. And when a player’s substituted, we’re shown how many metres he’s run compared to the team’s average.

And thanks to a new performance index, we get even more silly statistics. Did you know, for example, that Germany’s Michael Ballack has covered more than thirty kilometres in the three games he’s played, with a top speed of 30.88 km per hour. Did you want to know?

Do all these new footballing statistics teach us something about life? I doubt it. You can’t tell the quality of a player’s contribution based on how far or fast he’s run, any more than you can tell the quality of a person’s life by the number of years they’ve lived. As the poet Philip James Bailey wrote:

We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. They most live
Who think most – feel the noblest – act the best.

That may not get you through to the quarter-finals or even enable you to keep up with Michael Ballack et al, but it’s a better way of measuring the quality of our lives and reminds us that life isn’t really like football at all – it’s much more important than that.

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