The smart way to think about your bets for today is backwards from tomorrow
More words of wisdom from soccer boffin Kevin Pullein
In a bookshop I recently visited there were five sets of shelves for books on Smart Thinking. Are there really so many clever authors, I wondered? I tilted my head to one side and read the title on every spine. Then I pulled out one book and bought it. The book was called But What If We’re Wrong?
Author Chuck Klosterman starts with a simple observation. Every generation laughs at the beliefs of their ancestors, but they never think that one day their beliefs will sound comical to their descendants. Klosterman argues that we would have a better understanding of the present if we could think about it as though it were the past.
He suggests that people from the distant future looking back at the second half of the 20th century will declare that the television show that depicted life in the United States most accurately was Roseanne. He also reckons that rock music is a term that will become interchangeable with the name Chuck Berry. Though he is quick to add before anyone else can, he might be wrong. It is good knockabout fun.
There are difficulties in thinking about the present as if it were the past. To understand what the present will look like when it is the past you would need to know what people will think in the future. To do that you would have to be able to predict the future. But there are short limits to how far any human can peer ahead.
Meteorologists can forecast the weather accurately for up to five days ahead. Anyone who has bet on football and analysed their results honestly will know how hard it is to anticipate what will happen in the next hour and a half.
More by Kevin Pullein
Klosterman acknowledges this snag. He mentions The Book of Predictions, published in 1980. Contributors tried to imagine what life would be like in 50 years’ time. Less than 50 years later most of the predictions already sound silly.
“What is most instructive about The Book of Predictions,” Klosterman writes, “is the bad calculations that must have seemed totally justifiable – perhaps even conservative – at the time of publication. And the quality all these reasonable failures share is an inability to accept that the status quo is temporary.”
On an earlier visit to the same shop I had bought a book called Future Babble by Dan Gardner, who wrote: “Among literary theorists and historians, it is a truism that novels set in the future say a great deal about the time they were written and little or nothing about the future.” The reason is that the authors take what they believe to be present trends and project them on a straight arrow into the future.
Back to Klosterman. “My argument requires a successful futurist to anticipate whatever it is that can’t possibly be anticipated… But there’s still a practical lesson here, or at least a practical thought: even if we can’t foresee the unforeseeable, it’s possible to project a future reality where the most logical conclusions have no relationship to what actually happens.”
I sometimes conduct a thought experiment. I imagine what the present might look like from different possible versions of the future. Not the distant future, the close future. All results are possible in each of a day’s football matches. Some might be more likely than others but any could happen. If, for example, I am trying to get a handle on a team who have been going through a bad patch, I might ask myself what people will say about them tomorrow if they win today. It is not what they say before kick off.
A footnote sunk in the mud of history
Wolves have won the Championship. Next season they will play in the Premier League. There was a time long ago when they were declared champions of the world, though only by their manager.
Stan Cullis irked enough people for Uefa to agree to help settle arguments, in part of the world at least, by organising the European Cup. It evolved eventually into the Champions League.
On a stormy night in December 1954 Wolves played a floodlit friendly at home to Honved. The BBC showed the second half live. Wolves were then champions of England, Honved champions of Hungary.
Twice in the previous 13 months Hungary had thrashed England – 6-3 at Wembley then 7-1 in Budapest. Honved boasted six Hungarian internationals. Among them were the best two, inside forwards Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis.
Before the match Cullis had asked ground staff to water the already sodden pitch then go over it with heavy rollers. One of the ground staff was a 15-year-old Ron Atkinson.
Years later he recalled: “It was only when I watched the match that I understood what had been in the manager’s mind. The Hungarians were 2-0 up in fifteen minutes and playing superbly. It was the best football I have ever seen, brilliant first-time movement. But the pitch was getting heavier and heavier.
“Honved gradually got bogged down, and their tricks got stuck in the mud. Billy Wright and Ron Flowers kept slinging these huge passes up to the Wolves forwards. The mud just wore the Hungarians out.”
Wolves scored three times in the second half and won 3-2.
Afterwards Cullis showed reporters into the Wolves dressing room. “There they are,” he said, with a sweep of his arm, “the champions of the world.”
Others were not convinced. Willy Meisl was an Austrian Jewish émigré who loved his adopted home and its football. Honesty, though, compelled him to write: “Quagmires are not usually considered the best pitches on which world championships ought to be decided, not even neutral quagmires.”
Gabriel Hanot, a former French international, was editor of sports paper L’Equipe. He wrote: “We must wait for Wolves to visit Budapest before we proclaim their invincibility. And there are other clubs of international prowess, like Milan and Real Madrid. There is a strong case for starting a European Championship of clubs.”
Early in the next year Hanot invited handpicked clubs to participate in a European Cup. Fifa refused to sanction a competition run by a newspaper so it was organised instead by Uefa. The inaugural match was played in September 1955.
The first five editions of the European Cup were won by Real Madrid. Their best performance was in the last final. Stan Cullis watched from the stand as Madrid beat Frankfurt 7-3 with four goals scored by the former Honved player Ferenc Puskas.
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