What makes a good football player?

Most people believe that a meritocracy is the ideal system for distributing jobs and university places. But ‘merit’ is notoriously difficult to define, as a recent story involving Liverpool football club illustrates.

Liverpool is not the all-conquering club it was in the 70s and 80s. Although it’s a big club, it doesn’t have the economic muscle of, say, Manchester United. It now has new sponsors. And Gavin Lewis, of Standard Chartered, has recommended that in future the club look to enhance marketing/merchandising possibilities by recruiting players from Asia.
In a simple world what we mean by a meritocracy would be relatively easy to comprehend. Imagine a widget-making company, that produced a standardized product, widgets. In a meritocracy the business would recruit employees who could produce the most widgets.

The real world is rather more complex. The real world is more like football.
In the real world, widgets might vary in quality: how do you compare them? If the applicant is not a team player, or doesn’t ‘fit in’, then she may slow down others in the factory, even if she herself is brilliant at widget production. If she was widely disliked, then buyers might be deterred from buying the widgets, whatever their quality. Also, she might be the best widget maker in Year 1, but then take a sabbatical or maternity leave in Year 2: over what time-scale should productivity be judged? What considerations or allowances is it legitimate to take into account?

In football, the merit of players can’t be analysed in isolation. It’s useless to have a dazzlingly skilful striker if team mates won’t pass to him. A player is judged by his value-added to the team as a whole. But then even working out what this means is fraught with ambiguity.

Let’s assume that Mr Lewis is correct. If Liverpool were to recruit a couple of players from Japan and South Korea, TV and merchandising revenue would flood in. Put yourself in the position of manager Kenny Dagleish. You have a choice between selecting Player A from the UK and Player B from Japan. Player B is an excellent player, but on all the usual criteria, not quite as good as Player A. He is a tiny bit slower, a tiny bit weaker, a tiny bit less good in the air, a tiny bit less technically proficient. A team containing Player A is more likely, on this particular Saturday afternoon, to win than a team containing Player B. But picking Player B will boost income and allow the club to recruit and hold on to top players. Perhaps it’s only because you’ve regularly picked Player B in the past that the club has been able to fund today’s powerful squad. By all normal standards Player A is the better player. Yet Player B is better for the club:

Whom do you pick?

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7 Responses to What makes a good football player?

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Practical Ethics readers are clearly more impassioned by bullfighting than football, judging by the number of comments on the two recent posts … is it the idea of death that attracts comments ?
    As former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly observed, it would be silly to treat football as if it were a matter of life or death – football is much more important than that.

    To answer your question, clearly we should choose player B, especially if it were Socrates.

  • Matt Sharp says:

    I think it very much depends on the importance of the particular match, and the aims of the club for that season. If it's an important game, e.g a cup final, or near the end of the season and the team realistically has a chance of winning the league (or qualifying for Europe), then it would be stupid not to play your best team; so player A. Then the following season you can pick player B some of the time, which would be even more lucrative than the current season, since he would now be a member of a cup or league-winning side.

  • Konstantin says:

    each club sooner or later confronted with this kind of choice, alas!

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Is this supposed to be a question about ethics or a question about football management?

    David is right of course: the real world is too complex for questions about merit to have simple answers in general. But the ethical dimension seems to be missing here: why not just leave it to the market? I'm not going to do a Nicholas Shackel and extrapolate a bad traffic-light system into an argument against regulation, but unless we think players need protection against discrimination, why would this be an ethical issue?

    • David Edmonds says:

      Peter…in other areas of the economy we don't leave it to the market. Legislation prevents the equivalent of picking player B. A publican in some parts of the UK might believe (and believe correctly) that a Japanese bar-tender, say, would deter custom. But the publican is not allowed to reject a Japanese applicant for that reason. Yet you think it acceptable for a manager to pick a Japanese football player, who's not as good as, say, a Ghanaian player, because the economic impact of so doing might be beneficial to the club?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    David, I'm not necessarily saying that this *should* be left to the market, but the question seemed worth asking since otherwise the disucssion seemed indeed to be more about football management than about ethics. Essentially what you seem to be suggesting is that players *do* need protection from discrimination, just as much as Japanese applicant bar-tenders. Basically there are three questions that need to be distinguished here: 1. What is likely to be the most successful policy in the absence of regulation? 2. What ethical constraints, if any, should football clubs impose on themselves voluntarily? and 3. Is there a need for regulation?

    1. is obviously not an ethical issue, but it's the first question that comes to kind when considering whom to pick, and rightly so. Hence my comment that the ethical issue seemed to be missing; a better way of putting it would have been that the ethical issue had not been clearly identified. The question of regulation is related to the ethical one of course, but it's not identical. We might consider that it's unethical for managers to take account of nationality or other non-performance related considerations, but that regulation would be counter-productive. Conversely we might consider that regulation is needed to correct some kind of market failure, but that the individual managers are not themselves doing anything unethical (in the absence of such regulation) by taking such considerations into account.

    My intention is not to be irritatingly critical or pedantic (although I'm aware this may be the effect!), but it does seem to me that a good exploration of the ethical dimensions of this issue would better reflect these distinctions.

  • Arif says:

    I have 2 observations.

    The first is that if the "merit" in terms of pure football skills is the primary determinant of cost for individual players, the issue resolves itself more easily. In this case you buy a cheaper, less skilled player from Asia rather than a more expensive more skilled player from Africa. This assumes that other football clubs do not have the same marketing strategy as Liverpool and are not bidding up the prices of Asian players to achieve it.

    The second is that it would be interesting to consider the impacts of being completely open about how the merit has been constructed and valued for each player recruited. If we did a thought experiment which dispensed of the real-world hypocrisy, would things be better or worse? It initially seems to be worse to me, in the sense that the players would be demoralised and the fans disgusted to see how they are being cynically used. And then gets better as this disgust would make the more cynical clubs less successful. Then finally I thought – more depressingly – that most people, players and fans alike, probably are not fooled by hypocritical statements when signings are made, and are just as cynical as the managers in keeping the show on the road. So these become rules of the game.

    I think Peter has it right, though. Unlike other games, even those which are less about the skill they are supposed to showcase (like wrestling), perhaps the ethical issue is due to the way it might allocate vast sums of money in a manner unrelated to deserts but related to another criterion which systematically disadvantages particular groups. In this case, disadvantaging football-players from poor countries. In addition there is a more aesthetic question, about how awareness of this dynamic, however dimly, erodes part of the "spirit" of the game which makes it attractive for some people (which leads on to the possibility of market failure, which in this particular industry may not be such a bad thing….)


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