Soccer and Science

I am very enthusiastic sports fan. To be a supporter of Sligo Rovers is proof enough of that, but when I add Leicester City (where I did my PhD) to the list of team results I must have every week, it is clear that I am a sad case.   I have been attending soccer games since I was 8 years old and now that I am back in Dublin I get real pleasure from the possibility of seeing Soccer, Rugby and GAA games that were only dated newspaper reports when I lived in Germany, France or the USA. I was at the Ireland-Montenegro game last Wednesday. Those who commented wryly that it was as exciting as watching paint dry were wrong; you never know what the final colour of the paint will be when dry, where as last Wednesday you would have been surprised if there was a result other than a draw and it would have changed nothing in terms of the World cup qualifiers. To say that it was a dreadful game, therefore shows that even a fan can be a critic.

I was also at the Ireland-Italy game last Saturday. It was terrific from start to heartbreak end. Ireland scored two great goals. Italy got two that had a mix of skill and lack of concentration by Ireland. In between times the Irish side worked very hard to contain the World Champions.

 I went home feeling uplifted and dejected simultaneously and later looked at the recording of the game (always needed as goals are scored quickly and at a distance in the ground, and the replays in the ground always censor anything controversial and that annoys me!). I skipped quickly forward to the experts views at half time. I was stunned. I was told that those who know about football would see that this had been a disgraceful performance by Ireland. Well that put 80000 fans and me in our place. Perhaps we should not have chanted ‘Ole’ and ‘Stood up’ for the boys in Green? And the missing alchemic potion that would have converted this dross to gold, according to Eamon Dunphy was Andy Reid.  I fast forwarded after receiving that wisdom and enjoyed the joy and the pain of the last few minutes of the second half, before the experts started again.

The same theme continues, the same saviour was missing to make this an Irish team that could play football. Although Eamon Dunphy led the debate the other two experts and the chair did not tell him to “get a grip”. My reading is that the player in question has lost two stone recently and that suggests that he was two stone overweight when he was central to the campaign to have him in the side. He also has not been an automatic first team choice for Sunderland and when selected he is unlikely to play for the full 90 minutes. But he can play some wonderful passes that may make experts think that with him in the team we can be as good as Brazil. The fact is that will never be able to play as beautifully as Brazil, France, Portugal, Spain etc. But that does not mean we will always lose when we play those teams. It is just that we have to play to the maximum of our potential. In the case of soccer it means playing with players that cannot get onto second division teams. Yet we expect and occasionally get success. If world rankings were corrected for population I would think we are in the very top tier. 

Some of these thoughts are relevant also to science, knowledge based industries and other topics that really pre-occupy my mind and time (sport is the release of pressure valve). Here we also perform above our weight .Having ignored investing in the fundamentals of a high tech economy until less than a decade ago. We now expect to be world champions. Success in this arena needs young people (equivalent to players) trained at the highest level in top class laboratories, first class leaders of the research groups (equivalent to managers), the infra-structure (equivalent to grounds and training facilities) to allow the right experiments to be performed and an overall plan to get the best out of these elements (equivalent to Trapattoni). Success also needs some time and continuity of support of the plan. Stoke City, Hull City, Wolverhampton, Bolton did not get to the premiership by playing like Arsenal or Manchester United and if they tried now to do so they would drop quickly. Some will fail in any case because their best will not be good enough. Similarly, in the scientific domain some countries, like South Korea or Singapore invest very heavily to accelerate success (think Manchester City or Chelsea). We don’t do that. We are now close to the EU27 average in our financial investment and 50% below that of the average OECD country. So it is essential that we play to a plan that suits our means. I think the results show that we are being very successful. 

The international competitions are the best way to judge standards in both football and finance. Here the performance of the IDA is really outstanding. And part of their offerings when they go out to play for a company is the growing number of excellent skilled people in Ireland. Of course, as in football, there are those experts who think we should change our way of playing, who cheerfully point to inadequacies, who express doubts at half time even when we are performing well on the field of encounters and who would suggest that the plan should be changed. The one sport where Ireland is truly champion is begrudgery, so we and policy maker should not be swayed from our current plan by the dreamers. Of course there is a need to allow the plan to evolve, to shift emphasis, to learn from what is working and what is not. But consistency around a core plan is an essential part of delivering on an ambitious challenge and that is true whether it refers to the resources that are made available, the understanding that we need more skilled players or simply that it is not true that you can be a winner in the high tech world without a mixture of components from basic through to applied research, researchers and laboratories. Otherwise, for example supporting applied research only, would be akin to selecting a team of forwards and goal-scorers only. And both fans and experts would agree that that would be a silly plan even in the short term.


3 thoughts on “Soccer and Science

  1. John Hodgson

    Contrast Irish performance with English in either science or football. England/UK expects to be in the top league now because we invented the game, won a home World Cup once, or have a noble history of discovery and invention. Virtually every official, establishment output in science harks back to the glory days of the LMB, Darwin and Newton, just as the footballing establishment dwells in the echoes of 1966 and expects each team to reach that zenith even though the playing fields are gone and the grass roots enthusiasm has waned. There is little apparent strategy in either English soccer or UK science, just a hope that the past can be rekindled.

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