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England should look forward with same hope after good results and bad

Real Madrid sought success far and wide

England celebrate during the World Cup
1 of 1

England’s performance in one international tournament tells you nothing about their performance in the next. Or in between, for that matter.

Two months ago England reached a World Cup semi-final. Pundits spoke of progress and the prospect of even more to come. Last week England lost to Spain. Then pundits spoke of a reality check, of coming back down to earth with a bump.

Almost everything they said, I think, was wrong.

England have entered an international competition every two years since 1962. First a World Cup then a European Championship. For the moment I will count the new Nations League, in which England lost to Spain, as part of the qualification process for the European Championship.

I compared England’s performance in one tournament with their performance in the next. And what I found was that after a good tournament their record was effectively the same as it was after a bad tournament.

After reaching a final or semi-final England’s record was: one semi-final, two quarter-finals and one loss in the last 16. After losses in the last 16 England’s record was: one semi-final, two-quarter-finals and another defeat in the last 16. Identical.

After finishing outside the last 16 and failing to qualify for a tournament, England reached one final (which they won), a semi-final, a quarter-final and went out once in the last 16. On another occasion they failed to qualify for the next tournament but only eight did qualify.

I think England’s record after failing to qualify is for all practical purposes no worse than their record after reaching a final or semi-final.

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman was once asked to speak at a US firm of wealth advisers to the rich. He was given the investment returns for each of the previous eight years for all of the firm’s 25 investment advisers. He searched for correlations in performance between years and found none. How well an adviser did in one year told him nothing about how well they would do in the next, or indeed any other.

At the end of each year the advisers with the best returns were given a bonus. Kahneman’s investigation suggested their success could be attributed entirely to luck. Twelve months later the bonuses would go to different advisers.

The night before the talk Kahneman was taken to dinner by the firm’s executives. He asked them to guess the correlation for performance between years. They smiled. One said: “Not very high”. Another said: “Performance certainly fluctuates”. No one realised the answer was zero.

Kahneman wrote afterwards: “Our message to the executives was that… the firm was rewarding luck as it if were skill. This should have been shocking news to them, but it was not. We all went on calmly with our dinner, and I have no doubt that both our findings and their implications were quickly swept under the rug and that life in the firm went on just as before.”

International footballers have skill and luck, and both differ. There is in international football a natural pecking order. The English national team is nearly always better than most but worse than some.

How good an international team should be depends mostly on how many people in that country play football. We will never know exactly. We can only hazard a guess from the population of the country and the popularity in the country of football. The more people from any land who play football the better the best 11 should be.

A fairly large number of people live in or come from England and a lot of them like football. England should and does have a national team that is usually better than most others but not all. Variations in results from one tournament to the next, let alone from one game to the next, are caused mostly by variations in luck. The skill of the best English players fluctuates hardly at all.

Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski reached the same conclusion in a book called Why England Lose. They studied 400 England games.

They found: “There is no predictive value in the outcome of England’s last game, or indeed in any combination of England’s recent games. Whatever happened in the last match appears to have no bearing on what will happen tonight.

“Contrary to all popular opinion, it may be that the strength of the England team barely ever changes (which would make the entire apparatus of punditry attached to the team instantly redundant). A star player might fade or retire, but in a country of 50 million people, there is always someone coming up who is near enough his level as to make almost no difference.”

Real Madrid sought success far and wide

Real Madrid won four of the last five European Cups and all of the first five. In between there were four other victories. Altogether Madrid have won a record 13 European Cups.

A theme running from their earliest successes through to the most recent is that whenever possible they have tried to buy the best players from wherever in the world those players happened to be.

It is an old policy for Madrid, not one started by current president Florentino Perez. Indeed it is an old ambition in sport, dating back at least to the days of the Greek Olympics.

Cristiano Ronaldo, a star of Madrid’s last four wins, was for several years one of the best two players in the world. He has now dropped down to play for Juventus.

Alfredo Di Stefano, who played in Madrid’s first five wins, between 1956 and 1960, was one of the best footballers ever. Ferenc Puskas, who joined him in the 1960 final, was another all-time great. Puskas would have played in the 1959 final as well had he not been injured.

Perez has been president between 2000 and 2006 and from 2009 until now. In his first term he started what became known as the Galacticos policy of buying as many as he could of the most famous footballers in the world.

When Madrid won the European Cup in 2002 – the first time with Perez as president – there were five players in their starting line-up who had been born outside Spain. The same number as in 1960 and 1959. But for Puskas’s injury the total in 1959 could have been six.


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England?s record after failing to qualify is for all practical purposes no worse than their record after reaching a final or semi-final
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