World Cup proves that football remains a wild art form

Date published: Monday 2nd July 2018 8:49

I know a lot of people who know a lot about football, people who are walking encyclopedias of the world game; I’m always happy to spend hours talking to them because I love talking about football. But I wouldn’t trust a single one of them to tell me with any confidence what will happen before a game. Why? Because when it comes to predicting anything about football, nobody knows anything. And that’s why I love it.

No matter how wise and how much knowledge and standing they have, I know they are just guessing. We did our own predictions on F365 and I have to admit to going entirely on a spontaneous gut instinct because I know that I know nothing about the future. Look at social media, it is full of people asserting hindsight, as though it was insight. Full of people who say they knew what would happen in any particular game. But they didn’t, because nobody knows anything.

Many experts predicted the semi-finals would be between four specific sides, two or three of which have already been knocked out, whereas my missus, who knows almost nothing about football at all, picked four teams that are still in it. How is that possible? How can someone who doesn’t know much do better than people who knows loads?

Because nobody knows anything. That’s why.

This World Cup has been a return to the game’s traditional values, when stripped of money and privilege. Anyone can beat anyone on any day and you don’t know who will beat whom. And my god it is beautiful, isn’t it? The unknowable is the very thrill of existence itself. The unknowable is the ultimate bulwark against dull predictability. It is the reason to take your next breath.

Trying to predict what will happen in a football match absolutely should be a fool’s game and seen as such. And yet game after game attracts so many predictions (and bets) about the score and pretty much anything else. Sometimes they’re right, a lot of times they’re wrong. Why? You know why – because nobody knows anything. And I think that scares some people. They don’t want it to be so random, they want it to actually be as predictable as possible. They want identifiable best teams to win and the identifiable best players to play best, hence a tweet I saw which was along the lines of ‘the best two sides should play each other in the final and that’s not going to happen so how can it be the best World Cup ever?’.

Before a big game, there is so much analysis. The stats are delved into and supposed truths drawn out from them. Important players are identified and tactics predicted. Then in the first five minutes the goalkeeper lets one through his hands, or there’s a sending-off, or a full-back scores for the first time with a 30-yard volley or any other number of unlikely events. And all that meticulous study, no matter how intelligent or well-informed, is all out of the window, immediately. Tear it up, throw it away.

Scream for me, Donington: nobody knows anything.

Betting companies turn over a huge amount of money by suggesting you can peruse the world of football and ‘take your profit’ through your extensive knowledge of the game. The last weeks have proven that to be utter folly. Russia beating Spain with 24% possession alone has surely proven that nobody knows anything. And that’s exactly how it should be. It’s not a criticism, or an insult, it is a celebration of the glorious nature of the human condition as expressed through sport.

Unpredictability is the magnetic core quality of the game. That’s obviously why this World Cup is brilliant. But in recent years, football has been sold to us, via incredibly in-depth statistical analysis and a plethora of experts with big screens and in-depth research, as more science than art. And because of huge financial doping, it actually has become more predictable than used to be the case in the Premier League, though not elsewhere lower down the league structure.

However, when stripped of the intravenously-fed heavy dose of cash, the World Cup is showing us in block capital letters that football remains a wild art form that will not be tamed by statistics or by any amount of technology or VAR. Because still, even now, with all this scrutiny, science and technology, wonderfully, magically, beautifully, still nobody knows anything. And thank God for that.

The idea that football should be run like a science, like mathematics or physics and if you just analyse the data correctly, then we can arrive at the best outcome, whatever that may mean, is totally at odds with the true nature of the game. Once you see football as a science, it makes sense to want the correct answers. But there is no right or wrong in art. You do your best to express yourself and that’s all there is. You just do what you do and you live with it.

Failure to understand that fact is why we now have VAR. It has been driven by the obsession with getting things right; by seeing football as science in which getting things wrong cannot be tolerated. But I hope this World Cup has refreshed and rebooted all of our expectations of what football can be – indeed what it once was a long time ago – and that we judge the coming Premier League season against it and find that an increasingly financially warped, non-competitive situation, where the top six are an island unto themselves, largely churning out predictable results against the rest, is simply not as good and indeed is a betrayal of the very nature of the game itself. A betrayal, even, of our humanity.

Because in football, and in life as well, until we realise that the only thing we know is that we know nothing, we will remain knowing nothing and, ironically enough, we won’t even know it.

John Nicholson


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