Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Hoodoo Death

When I've talked to people about the World Cup, they often object to is the idea that the repeating patterns in the tournament mean anything. So what, for instance, if there haven't been any new winners who weren't hosts since 1958? Yet even if this sequence is ended on Sunday - and after today's result there's now a two in three chance that it will be - it doesn't invalidate the remarkable consistency up until now, over thirteen tournaments and 52 years. (One pattern has definitely been ended this World Cup: for the first time there will be a European winner outside Europe.) Even now, in a comparatively anomalous World Cup - which, however, could still be won by Germany of course - the semi-finalists included two former winners and one two-time finalist. If Spain make the final, they will be the first new non-host finalist since Holland first made it in 1974.

We've talked here a great deal about the importance of "belief". But the kind of "belief" that must be involved is of an uncanny type; it isn't a question of individual psychology, nor even of collective psychology in any simple way - we're not dealing with something like crowd behaviour, after all, where spatial and temporal proximity can account for influence. No: what we have to account for are persistences over long periods of time, in conditions where the causal mechanisms are obscure.

Tabloid-vernacular discussion of football will often invoke "ghosts", "hoodoos" and "bogey teams". Now, commonsense might want to dismiss such phenomena as mere happenstance (it just so happens that, year in, year out, Team X loses to Team Y), yet - as is often the case with commonsense - such a dismissal risks being far more absurd than trying to explain how they have happened.

One dimension here must be self-fulfilling prophecy, which Ben has discussed most recently in terms of Brazil. In his crucial 1942 essay "Voodoo Death", Walter Cannon showed how self-fulfilling beliefs can literally kill. Cannon studied victims of shock and of voodoo sorcery, discovering that, in both cases, the victims were caused to panic themselves to death. One of the values of Cannon's work is that, far from being some vacuous New Age nonsense about the "power of the mind", it goes into precise detail about the physiology of belief, the way beliefs are instantiated in the autonomic nervous system. At the same time, these self-destructive states cannot be triggered unless the individual in question already has certain background beliefs - it is only someone who believes in the power of sorcery who will die when a sorcerer points a bone at them, for instance. But it's not possible not to "believe" in Brazil's success ; it's a matter of brute factual record. And this history of success is not some neutral record which can be consigned into the past once the match starts - it forms part of the "psychological" texture of the match itself.

If it's a final between Spain and Holland then there are ghosts on both sides. But Spain might feel that, having gone two rounds further than they've previously managed, they've already laid the ghosts of their past failings, and now all bets are off. Holland's spectres, meanwhile, can only be confronted in the final. Holland's grinding progress through the tournament recalls that of Brazil in 94. As Loki pointed out on twitter, that Brazil team was "haunted by ghosts of a brillliantly skillful, but ultimately failed past", the 82 side, just as this Dutch side is stalked by the spectres of 1974. Will the Dutch exorcise that ghost even if they win the tournament?(One thing that occurred to me tonight: is football nostalgia like music nostalgia, forever stalled in the 60s and 70s? Beyond their own team's fans, there doesn't seem to be much nostalgia for any of the World Cup winners of the 80s or 90s, and except, perhaps, for the France of 98, it's hard to imagine such nostalgia developing in the future.)


  1. Actually, there is no bigger nostalgia today than the one that longs for a new Maradona, and that's firmly rooted in the 80s.

  2. It's funny how much nostalgia there is now for those Dutch teams of the 1970's. They might not have won the W.C., but they did perhaps as much for football on a world scale as did Brazil and Italy.
    Today's Dutch team doesn't play the old "Total Football", and they may rank second in the hearts of many Holland fans even if this team wins it all Sunday.
    Nice blog BTW.

  3. Only sort of a propos, but one fascinating thing about this world cup is the development of a whole new strand of nostalgia, which forms part of the rather hastily-learned received wisdom of the *American* soccer fan. You can read it any day in blogs and comments of say the New York Times.

    You might think the appearance, of such a pure, innocent and ambitious simulacrum of Ur-Euro-Football-culture, including all its historical myths and preposterous identifications, would give folks in Europe a little self-reflexive pause for thought. But I don't think it does, it just makes them feel superior, albeit a little defensive. But it's early days: the Americans are only starting.

  4. It seems like this type of analysis would be useful if we were faced with uniform teams in a game where skill is the only determining element. For an example, at least structurally similar to what you're talking about, I'm thinking of Malcolm Gladwell's piece on the strange successes of Jamaican-Canadian sprinters. In sprinting, you've removed enough variables where such wildly disparate results require some other explanation.

    It doesn't seem to me that a complex, strategic and low-scoring game like soccer has room for such analysis, or rather that such an analysis could only be done when the analyses of those variables that have much more impact on the outcome are exhausted. Otherwise, you're just using hindsight to re-psychologize a largely material game.

  5. IlllllllllllllI but your argument sounds circular - no "psychological" explanation can be up to much because "it's a largely material game" therefore psychological explanations can't be valid. But it seems to me that football isn't a largely material game; it's much less "material" than something like sprinting, because it involves all kinds of intersubjective factors which just don't obtain when you simply have to run faster than someone else.
    The fact football is "complex, strategic and low-scoring" is precisely why "psychological" factors play such an important part in it. (I'm putting "psychology" in inverted commas here because, as I said in the post, it's psychology of a strange kind.) And I'm not trying to explain "wildly disparate" results, but outcomes which are just the opposite. Given the repeated success of some teams, we can either just say that they win because they are more skilled than their opponents every time (this doesn't seem to stand up to much scrutiny, and itself requires explanation) or just throw up our hands in the air and say that no explanation is possible - shit happens, it's too complicated to talk about. I've never suggested that the factors I'm talking about are the only ones that play a part, only that they must play some part and are worth thinking about.

  6. M. Toledo
    You're right about Maradona, but I guess I was thinking about nostalgia for teams, not for individuals. I don't think anyone is particularly nostalgic for the Argentina team of 86, only for Maradona.

  7. Have to agree with Mark here. First - llllllllll - I'd strongly dispute the idea that psychology cannot be discussed in football, but that's a post in itself. (The closest I'd come to your position is that team psychology, and its permutations through the time of the game, and the season, are so complex that they almost elude meaningful discussion)

    Beyond Mark's examples, the game is littered with examples of longterm history repeating itself. A famous example being Man Utd's ability to salvage games by scoring late goals - the 'material' fundamentals are that as one of the most athletic and skilful squads around, they are already equipped to score more last-minute goals than most other teams, but it's demonstrably true that (compared to most of their top 6 rivals), the knowledge that they 'always' score late goals means the players seem to enter the last 5mins in a more relaxed and confident state, while their opponents, as time ticks down, becoming increasingly panicked, sit deep and end up inviting the winner or equalizer.

    'The physiology of belief' is pretty much perfect, because what the above hoodoos amount to is the psychological version of 'muscle memory'. They're psychological twitches or reflexes, so ingrained that they enables the player to function that fraction more efficiently.

    Take Schweinsteiger's effortless sashay down the righthand of Argentina's box to set up the third goal. Steven Gerrard, a better player, would probably not have had the chutzpah to make that run, even in that situation. Schweinsteiger did because Germany's phenomenal tournament record means he can play with little fear of failure. Gerrard would have been paralyzed by what was at stake - for Schweinsteiger much less was at stake.

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  10. Mark,

    Well, as a matter of fact, I think you are being somewhat british-centric on the nostalgia. Really, you won't find a lot of nostalgia for the England 66 team outside the UK. Neither for Germany in the 74 or Argentina in 78; just for the Clockwork Orange and, maybe, Beckenbauer.

    I do agree, however, on you pointing out that there's some sort of aura developing around the France team from '98. That was, very possibly, the most significant world cup winner since Maradona in 86, and also very possibly the most important team since the Clockwork Orange: the worthiest world cup winner in the last 20 years.

    You mention the ghost of past failures, which I agree with, but what about the ghost of past successes? England, Argentina and Uruguay both know a lot about it, still living in the shadows of their past glories and afraid of not measuring up to their antecessors. Every time Uruguay plays in Brazil for the World Cup qualification the press start talking about a new "Maracanazo", and more often than not, uruguayans are not up to it. And how much of Messi's low performing may have been induced by the weight of the expectations for a new Maradona? Could replacing Maradona be a daunting job even for a player who has won every club title available? I think of The Stone Roses and their appointment as "the next Beatles", and I can't help thinking how that ended.

    Also Brazil had it for 24 years, and they only managed to exorcise it in USA 94 (having to sacrifice a big chunk of their identity in the process).

  11. I'm not straightforwardly being British-centric - or presumably anglocentric - though. My mistake was in referring to the 60s - I guess there isn't really much nostalgia for 60s teams, and even here there isn't the same kind of nostalgia for England 66 as there is for Holland 74 or Brazil 70. No-one compares England 2010 with England 66 - 66 here is ancient history, so far in the past that there's no direct nostalgia for it. But Brazil and Holland are always compared to the 70 and 74 variants. It's really those two teams that seem to concentrate nostalgia in a way that I don't see happening with any other team/ era.
    I agree on weight of past successes, for sure

  12. Re: the apparent lack of 80s-90s nostalgia - I know they weren't World Cup Winners, but surely there's an enormous amount of nostalgia for the England team of Italia 90, something apparent in the fact that 'World in Motion' and bloody 'Nessun Dorma' receive incessant plays every world cup since (with the obvious exception of 1994...) And I'm not sure how much that is actually to do with football, more with a late 80s/early 90s, post-89 pre-Yugoslav war/Major winning '92 election/etc optimism.

  13. Could the nostalgia for 1970 and 1974 be partly because they are the oldest World Cups in colour? And thus part of an epoch perceived as "ours," modern or contemporary, but fixed as always the most distant moments within that epoch. Thus they have the particularly acute tensions - faraway/so-close, absence/presence - which are the precondition for the mixed mode of nostalgia, the pleasant pang of it etc. Maybe it's too simplistic to put it down to media-aesthetics, but it may play some role.

  14. Owen -- I'd say it's the collective experience of that WC, the cultural context around it, rather than a nostalgia for the signature playing style of the 1990 team at work there... Moments are remembered: Platt's volley, Lineker's equalizer, and masochistically the penalties of Pearce and Waddle... but they're never really mentioned as a reference point for *how* England (or anyone else) should be playing now.

  15. I think the fact they were the last World Cups before professionalism really took hold also increases the collective fondness for them - both in how we relate to the participants and the style of follow the lack of a large money motive allowed to prosper (You're less likely to have a player like Van Bommel when he's not being paid a couple of million a season).

  16. edit: *football* not follow