The importance of luck and bad luck in reporting
Every friend of football should feel while watching a match that the outcome of a single game depends on a number of small factors that one could confidently put under the heading of “luck or bad luck”. It is too often the case that a goal-scoring opportunity is missed by millimetres on one side and a perhaps much smaller chance leads to a goal on the other. It can even accumulate that one team misses a large number of chances, while the other takes one of the few.
Then there are the numerous close refereeing decisions, which cannot always be balanced at decisive moments. There is hardly a match in which there are not, in retrospect, some decisions that are at least considered worthy of discussion, certainly most of them in situations that have a match-deciding or at least pre-deciding character. Discussions are usually only held in connection with goal situations in which the character of “(pre)decisive” is obvious, in the sense that a goal could result from it or a goal was awarded that had a blemish that was discovered afterwards. Goals occur infrequently (just under three times per match as a guide) and a single one can thus decide a match or, often enough, set the tone in the usually close scores.
It can be, in a less decisive but still relevant way, yellow, yellow-red or red cards. It should also be obvious that a wrongly awarded free kick here or a disallowed whistle there has an impact, even if it was “only” about possession.
In summary, there are little things in just about every action that carry a character that cannot be specifically controlled, and thus deserve at least the addition of randomness. There would be no reason to assume that this should (completely) even out in the course of a season, much less in a single match.
Otto Rehhagel once summed it up like this: “Football is a game in which it’s a matter of a few millimetres and fractions of seconds.” That is exactly how almost every match situation is. It is always very close, the success or failure of an action determined by chance. To get some kind of “inevitability” in there is both undesirable and not appropriate to the circumstances. Why not desirable? Because a high degree of predictability in the outcome of a match (the outcome of an entire competition) would not be able to captivate the masses, to lure them into the stadiums, in front of the screens.
The exception that a possession results in a goal is very rare, so that anyone who concedes a goal can logically look into this situation at several points and try to track down the moment when it would have been quite easy to get out of the tricky situation into which they eventually got. It is possible that the coach discovers a “mistake”, but it is also possible that the player in question himself, who perhaps caused the ball to be lost in the forward movement, who did not simply knock the ball into the stands in a pressured situation but instead made an attempt to free himself playfully, the defender, the defender who perhaps gave up his position without needing to and who did not hurry back in time, perhaps actually lost sight of his opponent for a moment or behaved clumsily in a duel and lost it, or in extreme cases even failed to commit a foul, which would have been the only way out in the threatening situation.
But one thing remains decisive: a goal is scored very rarely and a number of circumstances have to come together for the ball to strike. The elements are so varied and the goals so rare that it becomes immediately obvious that there are factors that belong in the category of “coincidence”: one man’s luck, another man’s bad luck.
It can even happen – as happened recently in England — that a balloon decisively alters the trajectory of the ball, causing it to hit the ground! The goal was awarded and, despite lengthy discussions afterwards, the game was not replayed. A precedent?
Comparable, of course, to the paper ball at Werder against HSV. Responsible for a corner kick that led to a goal.
Another small facet of luck and misfortune: it occasionally happens that an action succeeds because it is actually executed imperfectly. A simple example would be: a striker aims for the left corner when taking a shot, the goalkeeper anticipates this and would be prepared for it. Only the striker does not hit the ball correctly, not as planned, and the ball goes into the right corner. However, this corner was “coincidentally” or even “fortunately” not occupied.
Of course, it would be a mistake to try to put everything down to this. There are definitely differentiations in the performances and there are many deserved victories. It is by no means intended to give the losers an argument to be used at any time, thereby closing one’s eyes to obvious shortcomings. There are differences and that is a good thing. There is a team that is better assessed beforehand, that dominates a game and wins. There is a team that was better rated beforehand that dominates a game – but loses. There is a team that has been rated better beforehand but is not superior in the game itself and still wins. There is a better team that is the weaker team in the game itself and actually loses. And there are lots of other possibilities of what can happen. For example: a draw?
All this should be kept in mind at all times, please. Which is by no means to say: everyone is equally good and chance decides. It is an element. That should be recognised and included in a game analysis.
So even if basically everyone feels it or, following this line of argument here, would accept it immediately:
In the reporting here, this fact is almost completely ignored, faded out. One may only refer to these factors in the very last place, if at all. The coach of the losing team who wants to point out the situations that went against his team in the manner mentioned, including the referee’s decisions, “makes it too easy for himself” and “overlooks the numerous shortcomings” or “wants to gloss over the failure” or “seeks excuses”.
Has he not recognised the mistakes himself? Isn’t the use of chances a sign of quality? Didn’t the team have enough time after conceding a goal due to a dubious refereeing decision to correct this? What are cheap excuses about bad luck for you or good luck for others?
No, only laymen talk about luck and bad luck, according to the common, preconceived view. You can’t call it that, even if it were obvious. It is very rare these days to hear someone who dares to say, in the very last sentence, after having “exposed” all his own shortcomings and failings (which can only mean that he has told the media what he thinks): “In the end, perhaps we were also a little unlucky. At this point he has then created all the conditions for NOT being chosen as a layman.
If you think about it for just a moment, how bland the realisation may sound after every game, no matter how dramatic, with all the back and forth and up and down, that there is always pretending: “In the end, this team’s victory was deserved because…” It’s not only insipid, it’s also ticked off immediately afterwards. What else can you ask after that? “Yes, uh, deserved, and that was all?” “Yes, deserved, some made their chances, others didn’t, that’s it.” There would be so much more that could interest you in a game and a review and that you could go into.
The preparation of a game degenerates into explaining every victory with a random palette of standard phrases that are unsympathetic in their construction, but at the same time tend to obscure the facts rather than illuminate them. “Chances not taken = poor finishing”. “Opponents invited themselves to concede goals”. “Too many individual mistakes”. “Failed collectively”. You could translate these sentences very skilfully and no less accurately into “blah blah blah”. Nothing comes of it, absolutely nothing that could help you. Apart from the fact that a little emotion would be good at any point. Sympathy for an unhappy loser, perhaps? Only one would have to acknowledge that such a thing exists at all….
It would be such a relief to be allowed to simply state what is obvious. Coaches — who are truly brilliant analysts — would be allowed to say after a game, without blushing, without the risk of being accused of making a “cheap excuse”, that the result today was unfortunate, that at this or that point the pendulum could have swung in their favour. The reporters would have the chance to explain a defeat in a well-founded way, to gain expert status instead of, on the contrary, forfeiting it, as they probably fear. They would not have to search pointlessly for accumulations of errors – and, in their estimation, always find them at present, without any comprehensibility for viewers or listeners. One might confidently ascribe the occurrence to the coincidences contained in the game and, insofar as one team benefits recognisably from it, ascribe to it the luck that the opponent lacked. One team might have the “luck of the fittest”, which one would not want to deny them, and the opponent would have deserved a certain regret, but one could give them a “great game – maybe it will work out better next time”, thus consoling them and at the same time building them up again, as thoroughly human but at the same time very welcome components. Instead of stamping him into the ground, as is currently customary. “Nothing came from them today…”.
To sum up: Allowing luck and bad luck to be responsible for the outcome of individual scenes and entire games would have these four or so advantages overall:
- it would come much closer to the truth than researching causes that in many cases do not even exist.
- it would allow, recognise, uncover and make vivid the multifaceted nature of football
- the commentary, both live and after the matches, would be guaranteed to be more exciting, fairer and more enjoyable
- the spectators would definitely appreciate it.
Point 1 alone would be enough for it to be appreciated. The others only add to this in the conviction that it would behave in this way and to that extent would be appreciated by the spectator.
By the way, there would be another consequence: at present, coaches and journalists in particular are a bit like cyclists and car drivers in road traffic or even, as Loriot recognised, like men and women: they simply don’t go together.
As soon as journalists would include the understanding of luck and misfortune in their range of football knowledge, they would have the chance to get closer to the coaches again. Perhaps they could tease out a few truths here and there that would actually bring the spectator closer to being a coach? At the current state of hostilities, this is not happening. The coaches remain friendly and smiling as a rule because they know the power of the media and know full well that the actually appropriate reaction will be used against them in the form of malicious rebuke and that they will come off badly in the process. Only they have a declared goal when in the interview: to come across well, to get over with quickly. A kind of compulsory exercise. They would only get into trouble if they held the interviewer in high esteem. But there is no reason for that.
An expert who wants to protect his expert status by finding an explanation for everything – even if coincidence is directing it for everyone to see – loses credibility instead of gaining it. This would be an “objective” consequence, so to speak.
Finally, a little causal research should be done on how it came about in this country. The views expressed here may once again be given the small addition “daring”, but for that reason alone they should not be withheld. However, psychology must be called in as a science for this – although the argumentation here does not engage in a scientific form of presentation.
In 1954, Germany won the Football World Cup, quite soon after the war it had started and lost. In any case, there was a spirit of optimism, the economic miracle was on its way, people were – nine years after the country had hit rock bottom – in a positive and optimistic mood again. Winning the title made a very significant contribution to this mood.
However, if you follow contemporary reporting more closely, you might give the Germans a fair amount of credit for that final game at least (“Toni, you’re a hell of a guy”). They were not the better team, no, it was the Hungarians. The fact that people in this country begrudged these boys so much, that they played this game with heart and soul, passion and final dedication, that they seized their chance, that Herberger was an excellent coach and perfect for this squad, and that it was perhaps even recognised and even appreciated here and there abroad, may be all. But they were lucky, and we should be allowed to recognise and express that for this historic success, which was almost everything.
We can also take a moment to look at the losers, who were thus able to see the other side of this lucky medal: for them and for the country, a tragedy that will continue to have an effect for many, many years – perhaps even until today. You can lose games either way, and the Hungarians were by no means bad losers. But they were the better team in that match, they were the best team of the tournament in general. When you hear the words “May the best team win” before the start of a match, they also express the hope that luck will not be too much of an influence. It is a neutral sentence, but somehow it contains the idea that one does not wish for too much one-sidedly distributed luck. One wants to maintain an unpredictability so that it remains exciting, but still wishes for the better (the best) to prevail in the end. It’s a beautiful sentence, a pious wish that, by its very nature, takes the non-occurrence into account. One wishes for it, but recognises that things can turn out differently. Like in 1954.
So how do legends come into being? Exactly on the basis of something like that. Germany is world champion, Germany will be world champion. And if it doesn’t work out once, then that’s “happiness” denied to everyone in this country. Actually, one should always be. Either because you deserve it or, if you don’t deserve it, because you’re entitled to this luck – and thus also receive it?
Whatever the case, Germany has almost always achieved an outstanding result at major tournaments, basically selling itself “above its weight”. This is how they are perceived abroad: “la bestia negra”, the black beast. This beast cannot be defeated. Even if they are clearly worse in a single game: they win. If they are better: they win. This is by no means a matter of course in neighbouring countries. Especially when it is or was against Germany: you are equal or even better: you get the short end of the stick. But other nations (see Hungary) have been affected by unfortunate circumstances and have been eliminated as the better team. That doesn’t happen to the Germans.
So it’s logical that this kind of “winning gene” is implanted and passed on. Everyone is infected by it here. You get a claim to a holiday when Germany plays. “Today Germany is playing – today I will be able to go to bed with a nice feeling.” Somehow they’ll work it out.
Now you begin to understand why the terms “luck” and “bad luck” have simply been removed from usage? If one were to accept them as partly decisive for victories or defeats, would one not at the same time find all these feelings of happiness induced by the German team questionable? Whereby one may well note the similarity of terms: feelings of happiness, perhaps triggered by happy circumstances after all?
There is another aspect: in the country of the (permanent) world and European champions, people are so expert because they are a little bit world champions themselves. They simply know and can explain everything – at the latest after it has happened. France, England, Italy, everyone is in the dark. So it’s no wonder that they are “curious” about how a game will turn out. After all, they don’t play at German level – as proven at the last, penultimate, second-to-last European Championship, World Cup. Accordingly, every commentator here has to make it clear that he or she comes from the country of the world champion.
The conclusion would be this: a victory is never a lucky one. If it were, one would question the many victories and titles of the German national team. That is what all the coverage is built on, based on these successes, in the country of the football world rulers, where everyone knows everything about the game. This really has nothing to do with luck!
The summary of this chapter is quite simple: the terms “luck” and “bad luck” belong back in the everyday language of sports reporting. On this side and that, they have their justification and are much more suitable for getting to the heart of what happened. However, it is by no means meant to completely sweep other criteria under the carpet and serve as an excuse that is accepted at any time. It does not mean that ONLY chance decided a game. But it had its share.