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Soccer, a Metaphor of the Economy

July 6th, 2013 by Leonardo


This is the English version of the previously posted “Calcio, Metafora di Economia e Società”.


by Leonardo, IHC


I not into soccer at all. I know that you win if you score more goals, a kick in the knee is a foul, and the huge wages of some players are justified by all the ad’s conveyed. But malefic Rossano (a guy cited on this site from time to time) is an expert – or he looks as such; watching some matches together, he told me about how Italy’s play changes by just substituting the forward (Gilardino instead of Balotelli), how the setting of other teams (e.g. Spain) are less sensible to the substitution of a single player, and how the resulting game can even get far from the coach’s idea.

An analogy came to my mind regarding some ideas of society and the economy as an expression of society.


This insight came when watching Italy vs Spain, a semifinal of the Confederations Cup. By what malefic Rossano highlighted, the change of even a single player e.g. Balotelli causes a completely different working of the whole team to even “seize” the Spain’s wonderful play. Rossano’s illation is that Prandelli (the Italian coach) only chose the set of players under the constraints due to accidents, and Del Bosque (the Spanish coach) took care of Prandelli’s desired strategy instead of the unintended consequences of accidents. During the discussion, Rossano also told me that the play of Spanish clubs is very homogeneous, while Italian clubs’ is far more varied; this implies that a change of player in Italy’s team can cause a deeper, less foreseeable resetting of the play than in the Spanish case (specific circumstances can let the resulting play vary even more).


My economic readings often stretch into an analysis of society. The Austrian approach is first a “human” approach; economy is an expression of humanity. Human condition is a “scarcity” condition of means compared to ends; social philosophy is a research of the best way to cope with this “scarcity”. In Philosophy we have a “liberal” branch with trust in the ability of individuals to spontaneously organise in the right economic and political structures, and a “socialist” branch which assumes the ability of a planning entity to optimise the society. In the first branch, individual diversities are an asset to boost innovations in processes, products, organisations and institutions; in the second branch, homogeneity of social participants is crucial for society to be managed organically. The perfect substitutability of each person allows for reaching the planned target and the stability of the socialist result, but means a loss of alternative solutions for the liberal spontaneous, unforeseeable order.


Here came the analogy. Think of the behaviour of a soccer team as a model of how a society works: everyone (the player) variously aims to improve his/her own state; this involves an improvement of the surrounding environment too (scoring a goal, winning the match, or just improving the team’s play). Sociality is included via both the need to act with the others, and the impossibility to ignore the others’ state. The economic side comes from “scarcity”: the available time is limited (the regular 90 minutes, and the 30 minutes extra-time), and the human forces too (11 players and 3 substitutions from a limited set of alternative players), while needs exert an unlimited pressure (scoring at least a goal more than the opponent; scoring goals is somewhat the GDP of this society).

Within this setting, everyone works in the role he suits the best. Actually, such a working of “comparative advantages” is already biased by certain “requests” of the single “planner” (the coach decides who defends, who attacks, who runs along the sides…); this resembles a lot a society with a State “demanding” certain services and exerting a certain degree of coercion. Some room remains within the “planned” framework for “private initiatives” i.e. a spontaneous organisation of the play depending on contingent factors (e.g. the psycho-physical state of the player, insights, opponents’ actions, fans’ support). Private “initiatives” can even overturn the coach’s strategies, as he stands off the border of the playing field: the coach can call & yell but cannot physically force player to specific actions; actions then depend also on the various quality working on the playing field. In other words, within this model of society a “planned” address and a “free” initiative coexist; free initiative here is grounded on factors even unknown by the coach and linked to the specific time and place, something very similar to the “knowledge of circumstances of time and space” recalled by Hayek. Anyway, coach’s and players’ targets are well coordinated (they all like winning); dis-alignment can be found in the ways supposed to reach the target (the playing “policy”), non the target itself (Government, enterprises and workers, they all want the whole economic activity to grow).

This society is the more manageable by the coach, the more the players come from a  homogeneous environment characterised by the exact kind of play the coach requires; in a sense, each player is a bringer of a series of “traditions” (the club’s play) which affect the actions required on the playing field. When chancing a player, the homogeneity of the resources allows for maintaining the existing social scheme. If there’s a lack of homogeneity, the organisation on the ground – the kind of play – can show new, endogenous features depending on whom is playing i.e. highly sensible to specific “circumstances of time and space”; this can take the play far from the coach’s “philosophy”. The perfect war machine of the Spanish model can look rigid when compared to novelties, variability, even deviations, of the Italian model, as Spanish players come from a more homogeneous, solid environment (tradition). All of a sudden then, the well granted Spanish supremacy – expected on historical data – becomes uncertain all the time (it took seven turns of penalties to set the match).

Like in the two “philosophical” branches, we have on one hand a greater control of the behaviour of the society, strengthened by the certainty of the behaviour of each individual, who has been properly “educated and constrained” to a specific play; on the other hand, we have a greater uncertainty of the resulting play, due to the “variety” of qualities employed and recalled – spontaneously and unintentionally –  directly during the match with no pre-emptive “plannings”.


Then Italy has lost with penalties.


I do not what to compare the Spanish team to USSR and the Italian team to a liberal paradigm. They are just two soccer teams, and a soccer match is neither a clash of ideologies nor a model of economic analysis: it is just a soccer match.

Anyway, I have found this metaphor amusing. Maybe it could be used as an illustration in didactics or for mere fun (it is also a way to say that Italy has arrived just one step far from the final match DESPITE Prandelli and Balotelli).


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