Football and Economics

Sta. Ana is coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms.  This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, July 3, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

Is it worth it to link economics and football?

Why not? Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate, can get away with—and gain respect for—his ideas that economics determines people’s behavior in committing suicide, crime or terrorism. Some would dismiss Becker’s ideas as controversial if not frivolous. The bigger criticism is that these ideas reduce people’s behavior and emotions to economic and rational calculations.

But even Becker would be hard pressed to find rationality in people’s or nation’s brutish reactions to football matches—countries going to war, a player being murdered for being the goat in a tight match, referees receiving credible death threats, fans engaging in skirmishes even before the games begin.

Yet, it is irresistible to connect football and economics. Economics is said to be the queen of the sciences though many believe that it is the dismal science. And football is indisputably the most popular, most spectacular sport on earth. Somehow, the queen of the sciences—or the rational but dismal science—and the queen of sports—the irrational,
colorful and electrifying game—are connected.

We have to thank the British for introducing contemporary football and modern economics to the rest of the world.

Adam Smith, a Scot but still British, is the founder of classical economics. Alfred Marshall, another British citizen, was a founder of the neo-classical school and was instrumental in making economics an independent course in universities.

It is also said that ball-kicking games were already played in English villages during the Middle Ages. (Evidence, however, shows that the Chinese were already playing some form of football in the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.) , The popularity of ball-kicking matches in England eventually led to the crafting of common rules in 1863 to govern the first football association. (The word “soccer” is derived from “association.”)

By that time, Adam Smith’s philosophy of self-interest and atomism had become dominant. In contrast however to liberal economics that worships individual effort, football recognizes individual talent but in the end, games are won because of solid teamwork.

I have heard an economist remark, though casually, about a causal relationship between football and economic growth. Several years ago, the International Monetary Fund’s representative to the Philippines, Sean Nolan, hosted a private dinner attended by a few Filipino economists. The dinner conversation got lively when Sean, an Irishman fond of football, observed that Ireland’s economic takeoff occurred in the wake of its becoming a football powerhouse. Reacting to Sean’s observation, former Economic Planning Secretary Felipe Medalla noted that the Philippine economic decline began after the Philippines lost the Asian Basketball Championship. Sean’s and Philip’s statements reaffirm the truism that national pride, unified identity, and collective psyche make citizens cooperate and perform well.

World statesmen, politicians and economists take football seriously. Kofi Annan wrote an article on the parallelisms between football and the United Nations (UN). He notes with envy that football is more universal than the UN; for example, with respect to “celebrating our common humanity.” Incidentally, the FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) outnumbers the UN in membership: 207 to 191.

Other world leaders are eagerly monitoring the 2006 World Cup games. Recently elected Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who is likewise an economist, temporarily set aside State matters to watch Italy’s knockout game versus Australia. The tall, handsome Prodi thus came late for his meeting with Mrs. Gloria Arroyo, leaving the short and unhandsome queen of the enchanted kingdom, also schooled in economics, to cool her heels for half an hour. Or was Prodi’s tardiness in meeting Arroyo his message that she didn’t deserve presidential treatment?

Supposedly, the mission of those in the economics profession, Prodi and Arroyo included, is to increase people’s output, income and well-being. But football players are perhaps better than economists in improving people’s welfare. In 2004, a leading European football club, Inter Milan, donated thousands of euros to a village in Chiapas, which was destroyed by the Mexican military in an attempt to dislodge the Zapatista rebels. Inter Milan’s donation was used to rebuild the homes and water pipelines. In a statement addressed to the villagers and the Zapatistas, Inter Milan’s team captain, the Argentine Javier Zanetti, declared: “We believe in a better world, in an unglobalized world, enriched by the cultural differences and customs of all the people. This is why we want to support you in this struggle to maintain your roots and fight for your ideals.”

It might seem ironic for an Argentine playing for an Italian Club that has fans all over the world to say that he “believes in a better world, in an unglobalized world.” But his statement reminds me of a not-often quoted phrase from John Meynard Keynes:
“I sympathize with those who would minimize, rather than those who would maximize economic entanglements between nations. Ideas, art, knowledge, hospitality, and travel should be international. But let goods be homespun whenever reasonable and conveniently possible, and above all let finance be primarily national.”

Economics can learn a lot from football. Economics today is dominated by one model or one school of thought—neo-classicism, plus its extreme variant called neo-liberalism. In many economic departments throughout the world, heterodox economics is not even
taught. In recent times, pluralism in economics is dormant.

Not in football. In the World Cup games, note that each national team has a distinct strategy or a special style of playing (the technology, as it were).  The German football model can be described as efficient, thorough, and almost precise. The Argentine team has swagger but is constrained by a serene composure; their players combine panache and patience, biding their time to find the opportune moment to deliver the big blow. The Italians are feared for their attack that comes in waves, but they are likewise respected for their solid defense, known as catenaccio (in English, the door bolt). The Japanese team has a stout heart, playing kamikaze football as if every game was the final one. Brazil boasts of its samba-style football, combining overflowing individual talent and great teamwork. The French team is the synergy of pluralism, the epitome of fraternité, as shown by the multi-ethnic composition of its team.

Not only does the flowering of different models or styles celebrate pluralism. It likewise emphasizes that all teams playing in the World Cup are excellent, that their football philosophies and models are all admired.

Football is art; it does not fancy itself as “science,” unlike mainstream economics, which tries to fashion itself as the equivalent of physics and biology. Economics ought to rediscover its beauty by likewise rediscovering that it is an art.

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