Is a Red Card Ever Worth It? The Data Says Yes

Since its inception in 1970, the red card has come to signify the most brutal individual punishment a referee is capable of handing out.  Having a teammate sent off almost always forces a team to fall back into their own half, relying on counterattacks that take advantage of space left by opponents. If they get lucky, maybe they’ll be able to hold on for a draw.

And yet, despite the severe penalty, players are still sent off regularly. The decision is rarely random. Yes, red cards may sometimes be distributed in an ‘unfair’ manner, but more often than not they are the correct decision. They may be handed out when a player prevents a direct goal-scoring opportunity, injures an opponent, or deliberately starts a fight in order to get their target sent off as well. In these scenarios, red card offences are rational decisions taken upon by the player in order to produce a tangible benefit for his or her team. It just so happens these kinds of benefits (disallowing a goal, injury, etc.) are against the rules.

If red card offences were universally unproductive, then they would be exceedingly rare. Hence, the purpose of the red card is to create a negative consequence that invariably outweighs any potential benefit of breaking the rules.

But, like in most cases, the numbers tell a different story. Sometimes, getting a red card really is the best decision, and economists have figured out when that is.

Getting a Red Card – Why Earlier Is Actually Better

In 2009 Jan Vecer, an associate statistics professor at Columbia University, published a paper that analyzes a specific type of red card offense – one that prevents a direct goal scoring opportunity.

Take, for example, the infamous case of Luis Suarez, who shocked the football world when he used his hands to deny a last-minute header by Ghanaian striker Dominic Adiyah. Suarez was sent off, but his red card allowed Uruguay to push through extra-time and eventually win on penalties. Was Luis Suarez smart to play goalkeeper? His absence was certainly missed the following match, a 3-2 semifinal to the Netherlands, but it is exceedingly unlikely that Uruguay would have advanced in the first place had it not been for Suarez’s blatant disregard for the rules and Asamoah Gyan’s subsequent missed penalty.

It doesn’t take an economist to tell you that Suarez made the right choice, but the numbers explain why. Vecer’s paper expands on the findings made in two previous statistical analyses of red card impacts – Down to Ten: Estimating the Effect of a Red Card in Soccer and Consequences of players’ dismissal in professional soccer: A crisis-related analysis of group-size effects. Both studies use pre-game data such as probability of winning or probability of scoring a certain number of goals. Vecer et al. update their work by using newly available in-play betting data to look at the impact of a red card during the game itself. This kind of real-time data is becoming increasingly available to researchers, even outside of corporate partnerships and academic databanks. In-play data allows for nuance and the ability to consider rare effects, such as multiple red cards and card time intervals.

To make his calcualtions, Vecer relies on betting odds from World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008. Luckily, gambling companies suspend betting activities when there is an apparent goal or penalty, giving Vecer a natural way of delineating ‘before’ and ‘after’ betting odds. Vecer takes the difference between these before and after odds after a goal is scored in order to calculate each team’s implied scoring chances.

For example, let’s say the score between Team A and Team B is currently 0-0. Initially, the odds for either team to win can be used to calculate a baseline chance of scoring. Then if Team A scores, the new odds of drawing can actually be used to find the implied chance of Team B scoring a goal. Likewise, the odds of the Team A winning can be used to calculate the implied chance of no further goals, or the implied chance of three or more goals in a match that swing in Team A’s favor. Vecer is able to use scenarios like these to calculate the chance of scoring for both teams at any point in a match.

Now, in order to determine whether or not getting a red card is worth it, Vecer assumes all penalties have a roughly 80% chance of going in. He then compares the difference the scoring chances before and after having a player sent off, and whether or not it’s worth a penalty.

Using betting data, Vecer and his colleagues show that this kind of unsportsmanlike behavior can be optimal to achieve a victory or tie. Previous research has indicated that teams will often choose to commit an illegal offense in order to prevent goal opportunities. Vecer finds that the results depend on two factors: (a) the score-line and (b) whether or not it leads to a penalty. In the right circumstances, getting a red card can actually be desirable.

The following matrices represent the best time to deny a clear goal-scoring opportunity as a function of opponent scoring chances:

Penalty Incurred

1st table

The percentages above represent the threshold at which there *exists* an optimal time. In other words, if the game is tied, there is always an optimal time to stop a goal-scoring chance higher than 80%.When penalties are incurred, there is no single optimal time at which to commit a red card offense. While optimal times exist for individual scoring chances, these can be better thought of as ‘thresholds’ after which it is desirable to commit a red-card offense.

Granted, it’s impossible to time when these kinds of offenses actually happen in a game. But they do provide an important metric: a way of telling what period of time it’s optimal to stop a goal that has a near 100% chance of going in.

This means that in the same tied game, the optimal time threshold for stopping a 100% sure-goal is the 51st minute. For example, if Luis Suarez was going to get sent off, it would have been optimal for it to happen in the 51st minute. But it was still preferable to block Adiyah’s shot in injury time – in fact, it was preferable any time after the 51st minute. Any time before, however, and he would have done well to keep his hands to himself.

second graph

No Penalty Incurred

2nd table
For example, if you’re tied 0-0 and you have the opportunity to stop a goal without giving up a penalty (such as a last-man tackle outside the box) then the scoring threshold is 57.5%. This means that you should always take the chance if the opponent has an estimated 57.5 or higher chance of scoring. As the game progresses, it becomes increasingly optimal to make that kind of tackle at lower scoring chances. After about 60 minutes, the opponent need only a ~17% chance of scoring for it to justify a last-ditch tackle.When penalties are not incurred, things are measured a little differently. The scoring chance thresholds here show the point at which it is *always* preferable to commit a red-card offense. When the opponent chance likelihood dips below these thresholds, then there is only a specific set of times where it is preferable

first graph

So What Does This Mean?

The primary issue is that these chances are calculated by betting odds that are not directly observable in a match by players. Unfortunately, a defender has no practical way of finding out what the precise scoring chances of the opponent is before making a last-ditch tackle.

Nevertheless, the data indicates that, a lot of the time, red cards can be beneficial. Surprisingly, red cards incurred without giving up a penalty are optimal fairly early in the second half. This finding is fairly counterintuitive. After all, shouldn’t it be better to play less time with a man down than more?

As we’re about to see, that isn’t always the case.

Down To 10: Why Less Is Sometimes More

On April 27, Benfica went down to 10 men against Porto in the Portuguese Domestic Cup with sixty minutes left to play. O Clássico, as the match is referred to in Portugal, is known for being one of the most intense in Europe. To play with any sort of disadvantage is no easy task. But Benfica had done it before – ten days earlier they defeated Porto 3-1 in the semi-finals of the Portuguese League Cup after playing with ten men for an hour. And just as they hoped, Benfica went on to beat Porto again, this time winning 4-3 on penalties. Less than a week later Benfica knocked Juventus out of the Europa League at the semi-final stage.  After winning the first leg 2-1 at home, they held out for a 0-0 draw in Turin after going down to ten men in the 67th.

Is this a fluke, or is it possible that playing with 10 men gave Benfica some form of advantage? Most footballing fans would scorn the idea of having their players sent off, but what if it produced strategic benefits that could be gamed?


Arsenal Coach Arsene Wenger after losing to Galatasaray in the 2000 UEFA Cup Final: “It was not a huge advantage for us to have Hagi sent off, sometimes you defend better with 10 men because everybody is focused.”

Mario Mechtel, an economics PhD candidate at University of Trier, Germany, set off to investigate this very effect in 2010. He and his colleagues hypothesized that, given the potential benefits of a red card offense (an illegally stopped goal, for example), losing a player may actually be worth it in some cases.

They found that red cards impact home and away teams differently. If a home team loses a player, they are always disadvantaged. However, for away teams, if the sending-off occurs after the 70th minute of a match, it can actually positively affect the team’s performance and score.

The authors hypothesize that this is the result of several coinciding factors. These can be grouped into three separate categories: The role effect, the substitution effect, and the task effect. They find that all three are relevant to varying degrees.

  1. The Role Effect: A sending-off affects the performance of the penalized team negatively. This is how most football fans might conceive of the red card’s impact. When the 10 remaining players have to compensate for the missing player, they need to not only fulfill their role but an additional one as well. For example, if a defender is sent off, a heavier burden may fall on offensive-minded players to drop deep and defend in addition to their current task. If this effect holds, then the performance of the penalized team will be negative.
  1. The Motivational Effect: a red card affects the performance of the penalized team positively. Social theorists predict that group size is negatively correlated with outside pressure felt by group members. In other words, as a group grows larger, the perceived pressure decreases and effort per member decreases respectively. Imagine if a team is comprised of 11 players, each playing with an effort level of 6, yielding a total group effort of 66. If the team goes down to 10 men and players respond with an effort level of 7, the total group effort increases to 70. By losing a player, players may perceive a greater amount of pressure and respond with higher effort levels, in some cases yielding an improved performance.
  1. The Task Effect: A sending-off has larger negative effects on the performance of the penalized team whenever it is the home team. This hypothesis rests on the notion that away teams play more defensively than home teams. To no surprise, receiving a red card encourages a team to switch to a defensive approach, emphasizing counter-attacking as a primary means of goal scoring. Thus, the theory is that if the away team loses a player, it doesn’t significantly change their tactical approach. On the flipside, a home team whose starting lineup is built around an attacking approach will need to adjust considerably if a player is sent off.

Mechtel and his coauthors indeed observe a stronger red-card effect on home teams than on away teams, indicating the presence of the task effect. However, their results for the motivational effect and role effect are a bit more mixed. By controlling for minutes left until the end of the game, they find that the role effect only begins to offset the motivational effect after the last 20 minutes – in other words, an away team that has a player sent off between minute 71-90 actually experiences a boost to their final score.

The paper is, however, unfortunately riddled with endogeneity problems. Although they repeatedly seek to compensate for these by introducing new controls, these often fall short of being reliable estimators. In particular, Mechtel struggles with finding adequate proxies for team performances and skill. Because he does not have access to the same real-time betting data that Vecer et al. did, he and his colleagues resort to using final league positioning as a substitute. However, league positioning can be unreliable, and in the case of newly promoted teams, he uses previous season standings. To Mechtel, finishing first in the Championship is equivalent to winning the Premiere League. In another test, Mechtel attempts to use numbers of attempts on goal, corner kicks, and yellow cards as an estimator for in-game team performances. While none of these factors drastically change the results, teams that have more yellow cards may be more likely to receive a red card because second yellow offences also count. As a rule of statistics, if you are trying to use a control variable as a proxy for an independent variable (in this case, yellow cards as a proxy for team performance), it should be unrelated to all other independent variables (in this case, red card occurrence). Otherwise, the effect cannot be properly isolated.

These issues should be of concern to the reader, but they should not necessarily jeopardize our consideration of the results. They do suggest that the 70-minute cutoff for receiving a red card is not particularly accurate, but Mechtel went through the effort of repeating his tests with several data sets (one goal-based and one points-based) and found similar results. In all his tests, Mechtel finds the signs on his important coefficients remain the same at a significant level, meaning there’s consistent evidence of a positive effect generated by red cards.

Thus, the results do support a benefit for away teams who go down to 10 minutes late in the game. Ideally, Mechtel’s work could be repeated with a more precise data-set. Maybe Vecer could share his?

A National Team Without a Nation: the Story of the CIS National Team

This is Part 3 of a three part series chronicling the effects of the end of the Cold War on football in Europe.  [Part 1]|[Part 2] 

Between the time that the USSR national team qualified for Euro 1992 and the tournament began, the Soviet Union fell victim to the end of the Cold War.  No longer able to withstand nationalist pressure and economic stagnation, by the end of 1991 the Soviet empire had dissolved into 15 separated independent republics.  There was still a European championship to play, but no team left to play it. And yet, the somewhat awkward circumstances of no longer being a country did not prove to be an impediment to the participation of the Soviet national team in Euro 1992, albeit under a different name.  The curious case of the CIS national represents yet another aftereffect of the End of History on European football.

The league dismantled

Signs that the collapse of the USSR was imminent began to appear as early as the mid-1980s. Mass anti-Soviet protests calling for independence first erupted in the Baltic states, then quickly spread to the Caucasus and beyond.  Tensions inside the football grounds mirrored the unrest on the streets.   In a 1986 friendly between the Soviet Union and England held in Tbilisi the Georgian fans cheered on the English instead of the ‘home’ team.  Crowds in Yerevan chanted ‘Latvia’ and ‘Lithuania’ when hosting teams from Vilnius and Riga as a sign of solidarity with their own independence movements.   It was hardly a shock when in 1990 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost the first free elections held in the three Baltic states, Georgia, and Armenia, foreshadowing their inevitable independence.

Soviet players celebrate their qualification to Euro 92

Soviet players celebrate their qualification to Euro 92

The repercussions of the 1990 elections were immediately felt throughout the Soviet footballing landscape.  The Georgian teams were the first to go.  Dinamo Tbilisi, two time Soviet Top League champions and, with their 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, the only Soviet team other than Dynamo Kiev to conquer a European trophy, withdrew from the league right before the start of the 1990 season.  Guria Lanckhuti, who had been promoted to the Top League after finishing as runners up in the 1989 First League, also refused to participate.

Žalgiris Vilnius soon followed.  Žalgiris were by far the most successful team from the Baltic republics during the Soviet Era, finishing as high as 3rd and participating in the UEFA Cup twice in the late 1980s.  They withdrew from the Soviet championship one match into the 1990 season.

The birth of a national team

On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned from office and the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time.  69 years after its founding, the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist.  The Commonwealth of Independent States had by this point already been formed in preparation for the formalization of the collapse that everyone knew was coming.  The CIS was, and continues to be, a loose association of former Soviet republics who have agreed to cooperate in matters of trade, security, and human rights.  The charter of the organization stressed, however, that all members where sovereign and independent states; a successor state to the Soviet Union, it was not.  By the end of 1991 eleven of the fifteen former Soviet republics had joined the CIS.  The Baltic states and Georgia were the only ones not to sign the agreement, though the latter would end up becoming a member two years later.

The USSR national team had secured their spot at the European Championships in Sweden after going undefeated in their qualifying group.  But suddenly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, their participation in tournament was up in the air.  The question did not linger for long.  On January 11 representatives from nine of the fifteen republics met in Moscow and established the CIS Football Federation.  Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia did not attend but allowed their players to represent the CIS national team on a temporary basis.  The Baltic states were absent altogether.  Two days later FIFA declared the CIS Football Federation to be the rightful successor of the Football Federation of the Soviet Union, effectively ensuring that the CIS national team would be able to compete at the Euros.

Coming to America

Rather fittingly, the first match that the national team of the former Soviet Union played in the post-Cold War era was a friendly against the United States in Miami on January 25. Nineteen American cities were vying to be selected as one of the nine venues to host the upcoming 1994 FIFA World Cup, Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium among them.  The atmosphere was surreal.  Though the Soviet Union was gone, they retained the use of Soviet symbols. Thom Meredith, director of events of the US Soccer Federation, was caught off guard: “They’ve decided to use the old flag and anthem until someone comes up with something new… I’m going out to get a Soviet flag today, and I have other people looking for the anthem.”

During the match itself Marcelo Balboa missed a 60th minute penalty after Kakha Skharadze was called for a hand ball in the box.  Seven minutes later (current ESPN commentator) Janusz Michallik gave the ball away in his own half to Ahrik Tsveiba, whose deflected effort left American goalkeeper Tony Meola stranded and gave the CIS the lead. 1-0 was how the match would finish.  Skharadze and Tsveiba, by the way, were both Georgian, and were playing for the CIS national team despite the fact that Georgia was not yet a member of the organization.

Back home football was not a priority, especially not a friendly whose purpose was to determine venues for a World Cup being hosted by your traditional adversary.  Aleksandr Tukmanov was the head of the CIS delegation who traveled to the United States.  He is quoted in the New York Times as saying:

“It’s very difficult to make any kind of plans or prognosis [regarding the future of the national team].  There are many problems our population faces. One is to alleviate any kind of situation where there’s going to be conflicts with nationalities. Another is how to get food and human necessities to people without the long lines.”

CIS Manager Anatoly Byshovets

CIS Manager Anatoly Byshovets

Charlie Nobles was the New York Times reporter who covered the match.  In his match report he wrote almost exclusively about its political undertones, calling the CIS national team “a product of the commonwealth’s first attempt at capitalism.”  Nobles’ Soviet counterpart Robert Edelman, in contrast, makes no mention of the political situation – the words commonwealth or CIS do not once appear in his report.  He does, however, include a few sly digs at the United States.  Edelman claims that he heard someone in the stands say that Marcelo Balboa should have stuck to basketball and points out that Michallik was a Polish immigrant who received American citizenship just a year prior to the friendly.

CIS national team manager, Anatoly Byshovets, meanwhile, stated that most of his players were competing for “key reserve roles” for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.  What an optimistic view this would turn out to be.

Following the victory in Miami (which in the end was not selected as a venue) the CIS defeated El Salvador 3-0 in a friendly in San Salvador, then returned to the US for another match against the Americans in Detroit.  This time, the US emerged with a 2-1 victory, the first time they ever defeated the Soviet Union in any of its incarnations.  Eric Wynalda, another current pundit on American television, opened the scoring and Balboa atoned for his miss in Miami by converting a 75th minute penalty.  Maybe switching from basketball to football was the right decision after all.

A temporary solution

A trip to the Holy Land for a friendly against Israel in Jerusalem followed.  This was the 400th match for the Soviet CIS national team.  But for journalist Oleh Kucherenko, they were one and the same:

“For our national team this was an anniversary – its 400th match.  And even it is now under a different name, it is still the same team comprising of the strongest former – as it is now customary to say – USSR.  And the players in this team, regardless of what the politicians do, are one family.  Better yet, the national team won its 400th match.  And not just anywhere, but in the holy city of Jerusalem.”


Sergey Kiriakov during the match against Israel

The CIS won 2-1.   The victory over Israel was followed by a series of friendlies to prepare for Euro 1992.  The CIS drew against Spain, England, and Denmark, only managing a victory against German club Schalke 04.  But as much as Kuchurenko wanted to believe that the USSR national team still existed and that nothing had changed since the good old days, history was not on his side.

In between the match against Spain and Schalke the team traveled to Mexico to play two friendlies against César Luis Menotti’s el Tri side.  They lost the first match 4-0 in Mexico City before drawing 1-1 in Tampico.  This friendly wasn’t quite like the others.  In all of the aforementioned matches played by the CIS national team the squad was multinational. Ukrainians and Georgians were always well represented.  The squad that traveled to Mexico, however, was composed entirely of Russian players. Some sources consider this a friendly between Mexico and Russia, not the CIS. It is a match not officially recorded by the Russian Football Federation, nor is it considered an official match of the CIS national team. But whether or not the history books want to acknowledge it, this was effectively the first match of the Russian national team in the post-Soviet era.

Not that the Russians were the only ones to preemptively organize friendlies while the CIS national team was still existence.  The Georgians had already played their first match in 1990, a 2-2 draw with Lithuania.  Ukraine’s first match after independence was a 3-1 defeat to Hungary on April 29, 1992 – the same day that the CIS drew 2-2 with England in Moscow.  By this point it had become clear that the CIS national team was in no way a legitimate successor  to the mighty Soviet sides of years gone by.  It was nothing more than a stopgap measure to allow the former Soviet Union to save face and participate in the 1992 European Championships.

The disastrous Euros

And so, the CIS national team arrived in Sweden for the Euros.  They were drawn in a group with Germany (who were representing a united Germany for the first time since the end of World War II), Holland, and Scotland.  Paul Walters, reporting for The Guardian, wrote a column about the team:

“The CIS may just about exist in political terms.  In sporting terms it is merely a transitional device.  Its one and only – and suicidal – purpose is to bridge the chaos between between the disappearance of the old Soviet sporting structure at midnight on December 31 and the independent emergence of the various republics of the old Soviet empire.” 


The CIS squad before the match against Germany

Their performances on the pitch were about as inspiring as one could expect from “a transitional device.”  When the players stepped on the pitch at Idrottsparken Stadium in Norrköping for their opening match against Germany, they were wearing maroon-coloured kits with the tiny letters CIS emblazoned across their chests, a far cry from the grandiose CCCP that adorned the iconic red kits in the Soviet Era.  The flag that was raised was not the familiar golden hammer and sickle on a field of red, but a plain white flag with C.I.S. written in blue.  The anthem played before kick off did not open with the now-archaic lyrics “unbreakable union of free republics.”  Beethoven’s 9th symphony was played instead.

The CIS took the lead against the reigning World Cup champions in the 64th minute through a penalty converted by Igor Dobrovolski.  They were minutes away from an opening victory, only for the Germans to strike in typically German fashion and equalize two minutes from full time.  In their second match the CIS were thoroughly outplayed by the Dutch and were lucky to hold the Oranje to a 0-0 draw.  Holland outshot the CIS 17-4 and had a van Basten goal controversially disallowed late in the 2nd half.

The flag of the CIS national team

The flag of the CIS national team

To have any hope of advancing to the next round the CIS needed to beat Scotland, preferably by at least two goals in the case of a draw in the other match between Holland and Germany.  Scotland had already been eliminated after two successive defeats and the CIS, despite their mediocre performances, were clearly favorites.

By the 16th minute they were down 2-0. Gary McAllister’s 84th minute penalty was the final death blow for a national team without a nation.  Kucherenko, in his report, compared the fate of the CIS national team to that of the country as a whole:

“I would add another reason for the setbacks at this tournament: a psychological one, a reason to which no one pays attention… we don’t have flag or an anthem – instead the finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony was performed.  For everyone else: the anthem is performed, the players sing, the fans in the stands sing too.  And only we are entirely indifferent.  And how could it be otherwise? For whom are they playing?  Who are they representing?  Yes, this was a heartbreaking defeat. Unfortunately we as a people are getting used to one setback after another, and not just on the football pitch.  And this is something we must learn to accept.”


The defeat to Scotland was the last match ever played by the CIS national team.  It came less than six months after their victory over the United States, which makes them perhaps the shortest-lived national team of all time.  Soon after the Euros FIFA declared Russia to be the legitimate successor of both the USSR and CIS national teams, giving the spot in the 1994 World Cup qualifiers and leaving everyone else to start from scratch.

But before they started from scratch, they sent out a unified national team to a major international tournament for one last time.  The performance of the CIS national team at Euro 92 was an abject failure.  It only came into existence as a result of the End of History, yet it stands out in the history of the European championships.  Not for any footballing reasons, of course.  But for the fact that it was a national team without a nation.

The End of History and the Demise of East German Football

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series.  To read Part 1, click here

The draw to determine the groups for the UEFA Euro 1992 qualifying cycle took place on 2 February, 1990 in Stockholm.  By that point the Berlin wall had already come down and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl had announced a 10-point program aimed at increased cooperation between the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany) and the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany) with an ultimate aim of reunification.  But reunification had not yet been formalized, and thus the East German national team participated in the draw. Sensationally, they were drawn with West Germany in Group 5, along with Belgium, Wales, and Luxembourg.  But before the qualifiers even began, the End of History interfered.

Football culture in the Socialist Fatherland

West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer  shakes hands with East Germany captain Bernd Bransch before the match

West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer shakes hands with his East Germany counterpart Bernd Bransch before their meeting in the 1974 World Cup

Prior to 1992 the head-to-head record between two national teams of East and West Germany was one sided, as one would imagine.  But, surprisingly, one sided in favour of the East Germans.  At the 1972 Olympics East defeated West 3-2 in a second round match in Munich and ended up sharing the bronze medal with the Soviet Union.  Two years later they met again on a more visible and prestigious stage: the World Cup.  And once again the match took place in West Germany, this time in Hamburg.  In a result that no one expected, East Germany beat their estranged compatriots 1-0, a victory that was politically exploited by East German propagandists.  But these results were an anomaly and not even remotely representative of the footballing balance of power between the two countries.  East Germany may have won the match and the group at the World Cup, but it was West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer who lifted the Cup in Munich a fortnight later.

Football never really gained favour amongst the East German sporting authorities.  The GDR was an Olympic force when it came to gymnastics, athletics, and swimming, but apart from their famous victory in Hamburg their record in football competitions was utterly unremarkable, the 1974 World Cup being their only ever appearance at a major international tournament. Manfred Ewald, the East German Minister of Sport and President of his country’s Olympic Committee, remarked that “football has its own special value: individualism and fanaticism are stronger than discipline and rationalism.”

Matthias Sammer lifting the DFB-Pokal trophy with Dynamo Dresden, 1990

Matthias Sammer lifting the DFB-Pokal trophy with Dynamo Dresden, 1990

Such values were looked upon with derision in a socialist state in which the collective was far more important than the individual.  When future Ballon d’Or winner Matthias Sammer began to display a knack for flair and leadership as a member of the Dynamo Dresden youth academy, his superiors quickly moved to discourage such dangerous attitudes, which in their eyes were symptomatic of the larger decadence of capitalistic society.  As Sammer recalls: “one day the squad members were given new boots… mine were the only ones that didn’t fit.  They were three sizes too large.  It was pure harassment, as individualism wasn’t tolerated.” After all, as Ewald proclaimed, “sport isn’t private amusement, it is social and patriotic education.”

Admittedly East German clubs did achieve modest success on the European stage.  1. FC Magdeburg defeated AC Milan in the 1974 Cup Winners’ Cup Final and Carl Zeiss Jena narrowly lost to Dinamo Tbilisi in the final of the same competition seven years later.  But the integrity of the DDR-Oberliga was shattered when the Stasi decided that the club under their patronage, FC Dynamo Berlin, should dominate the East German football league from there on out.  After Dynamo Dresden clinched the league title in 1978, Minister of State Security and chief of the Stasi Erich Mielke allegedly paid a visit to Dresden’s dressing room and informed that it was now Berlin’s turn to win. Dynamo Berlin, derisively labeled the elf Schweine (eleven pigs), proceeded to win the next ten titles without even attempting to maintain any semblance of fairness.  The biased refereeing was so obvious that the press, public officials, and even fans –  average home attendance at matches fell from 15,000 to 5,500 through the 80s – publicly voiced their disapproval, but to no avail.  

Considering the blatant match-fixing and complete lack of competitiveness in the Oberliga, it is not surprising that many East German football supporters looked instead to the other side of the Iron Curtain.  Television, and along with it access to Western channels, made it relatively easy for the dedicated fan to follow a Bundesliga club instead of suffering through the futility of supporting a local side.  Overly enthusiastic support, however, could draw the attention of the Stasi.  In Football Against the Enemy Simon Kuper recounts the story of Helmut Klopsfleisch, a resident of East Berlin who at every opportunity traveled to Eastern Bloc countries to back “any Western side against any Eastern side.”  Especially if the Western side happened to be his beloved Hertha Berlin, from which he was exiled by the Berlin wall. Klopsfleisch was so fanatic in his support that the Stasi had an entire file on him, and in 1989 he was even permitted to emigrate to the West, a testament to just how much of a thorn in the side of the East German authorities he had been.

The fact that Klopsfleisch was allowed to emigrate was a clear sign that the times were changing.  In May of 1989 Hungary removed its border fence and hundreds of East Germans on holiday took advantage of the opportunity and escaped to Austria.  The iron curtain had been breached.  After months of protests, the Berlin wall finally fell on November 1989.  But the collapse of the wall was not synonymous with reunification, as the constitutional process to absorb the GDR into the FRG would take almost a year.  So with East Germany still legally a sovereign state, its national team continued to participate in official competitions.

In the league, meanwhile, Dynamo Berlin’s monopoly on the championship was finally broken in 1988-89, as Dynamo Dresden regained their title eleven years after the Stasi had decided that their time was up.  But the influence and power of the Stasi was waning, and they could no longer fix matches and intimidate referees with such impunity.  Sensing that the tide was turning, Dynamo Berlin changed their name to FC Berlin during the 1989-90 season.  FC Karl-Marx-Stadt followed suit and became Chemnitzer FC the following year.  Dresden defended their title in 1990, but the next season was declared to be the last one of the DDR-Oberliga.  The top two finishers in the 1990-91 campaign would be granted entry into the Bundesliga the following season.    Hansa Rostock won their first ever East German title and were joined in the Bundesliga by runners up Dynamo Dresden.

A generation unfufilled, or the arrival of capitalism

The late 80s were the closest East German football ever got to a ‘Golden Generation.’  At the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championships in Chile (now known as the FIFA Under-20 World Cup) the East Germans, led by the likes of Matthias Sammer and Rico Steinmann, won their group and defeated Bulgaria 2-0 in the quarterfinals.  They were narrowly defeated by eventual champions Yugoslavia in the semifinals, but then beat the hosts on penalties to take 3rd place. Then, during the tail end of the qualifiers for the 1990 World Cup, the senior side came back from behind to defeat the Soviet Union 2-1 and set up a final match against Austria where all they needed was a win to qualify.  But it was not to be.

Just one week before the match the wall came down.  4,000 East German fans traveled to Vienna for the match, though it is unclear how many of them actually came to support their national team and how many were simply taking advantage of the sudden loosening of travel restrictions.  The  East German players had barely arrived at their hotel when “they were swamped by agents, scouts and managers from Bundesliga sides” who sensed an opportunity to poach talent from the GDR.  Whether this sudden attention had any effect on the players is unknown, but they lost 3-0, ruining any chances of a second World Cup appearance.  Before long Sammer, Steinmann, and Andreas Thom were all swept up by Bundesliga clubs.

West Germany, meanwhile, qualified easily and after breezing through the group stage they defeated the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and England to set up a final against defending champions Argentina.  Many Ossis, as East German residents were commonly called, openly supported the West German side, no longer fearful of arousing the suspicions of the Stasi.  In a memorable scene from the German film Good Bye, Lenin! an Ossi is desperate to get a satellite dish set up it time to watch the semifinal against England.  Frustrated by the lack of progress, he storms off to his neighbour’s flat instead.  The final, an incredibly dour match, was decided by a controversial 85th minute penalty dispatched by Andreas Brehme.  On paper, this was West Germany’s third World Cup.  But in reality this World Cup belonged to all the German people, Wessis and Ossis, separated for 44 years by a barrier both literal and figurative.  It wasn’t quite Das Wunder von Bern, but it was certainly a seminal event that has gained a spot in German football lore, more for its symbolic value than for the performance on the pitch.

A national team disappears…

So what, then, became of the East German national team?  Though the lengthy legal reunification process was well underway by the beginning of 1990, the GDR remained a nominally sovereign state and thus its national team continued to play international matches. Their first match after the 3-0 loss to Austria was a defeat to a Cantona-inspired France side by the same scoreline in a friendly tournament in Kuwait.  But that result would prove to be the last loss the East German national team ever suffered on the pitch.  They beat Kuwait 2-1 in the final match of the tournament and then on April 1 defeated the United States 3-2 at the Berlin Sportforum, the ground of Dynamo Berlin, in a match devoid of the political undertones that surely would have clouded it had it taken place even a year earlier.  A week later Egypt was beaten 2-0 at the Ernst-Thälmann-Stadium in Karl-Marx-Stadt.  By the summer Karl-Marx-Stadt reverted to its former name of Chemnitz and the Ernst-Thälmann-Stadium, named after a communist leader active during the Weimar Republic, was renamed Sportforum Chemnitz.

The matches against the USA and Egypt were the last ever that the GDR national team played at home.  But interest in the national team had long been waning.  In the 70s East Germany regularly drew crowds in the tens of thousands to their matches, including an astounding 100,000 that packed into the Leipzig Central Stadium in 1971 to witness the home team lose 2-1 to Yugoslavia in a Euro 1972 qualifier.  But by the late 1980s the national team struggled to fill the stadiums.  Only 16,000 fans saw the GDR register an impressive victory over the USSR in a 1990 World Cup qualifier.  At the last two home matches attendance was pitiful.  Only 4,000 showed up for the friendly against the USA; barely 1,000 saw East Germany’s last ever home match.  In May East Germany was invited to play a friendly at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro for what would be a World Cup tune-up for the Brazilians.  The host nation paid for the flights and accommodations of their visitors, who came back from 3-1 down to claim an impressive draw.

The East German national team salutes the crowd after their last ever match, Anderlecht, 1990

The East German national team salutes the crowd after their last ever match, Anderlecht, 1990

The friendly against Brazil took place on 13 May.  Five days later West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl signed a social and economic unification treaty with his East German counterpart Sabine Bergmann-Pohl.  But the Euro 92 qualifiers had already been scheduled.  East Germany was supposed to start their qualifying campaign away to Belgium on September 12.  As reunification was imminent. the match was reclassified as a friendly.  In the last match that the East German national team ever played, they defeated Belgium 2-0 in Anderlecht.  Captain Matthias Sammer scored both goals.  Fittingly, Sammer was already playing for Bundesliga club VfB Stuttgart.

On October 3 the German Democratic Republic officially ceased to exist.  The match between East and West Germany was scheduled for 21 November in Leipzig, but by that time the former had been incorporated into the latter.  Instead, the footballing authorities decided to make the fixture a ‘friendship match’ to celebrate reunification, not entirely unlike the ‘friendship match’ that took place between Germany and Austria after the Anschluss.  Matthias Sammer already had his sights on a spot on the West German squad team for Euro 1992, but he promised his teammates that he would turn out one last time for East Germany.

The match never took place.  Hooliganism and skinhead culture had emerged in the stadiums of the Oberliga in the 1980s and by the end of the decade had become a widespread phenomenon.  Anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi chants were a common occurrence.  By the late 80s arrests related to football had reached 1,000. In a particularly nasty incident hundreds of skinheads marched through Berlin before the 1998 FDGB-Pokal final, then chanted neo-Nazi slogans throughout the match.  The West German authorities, fearing for the safety of the players, called off the match.  The East German national team, like the country, ceased to exist.  Its history ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, a bureaucratic decision made in response to hooliganism.

Post-Reunification Struggles

Matthias Sammer received his call up and was included in the [no longer West] German squad for Euro 92, along with fellow Ossis Thomas Doll and Andreas Thom.  Sammer went on to become one of the best German players of his generation.  He became a European Championship winner in 1996, starting every single match en route to a 2-1 victory over the Czech Republic in the final.  He was named Player of the Tournament and the following year added a Ballon d’Or to his impressive trophy haul after captaining Borussia Dortmund to Champions League glory.

But Sammer’s successful career is hardly a typical experience of an East German player in a united Germany.  Twenty two years removed from reunification, the gulf between West and East German football remains vast.  East German clubs were ill-equipped for the transition to a market economy.  Their best players were quickly sold off to Western clubs.  Corruption was rampant, as club officials were eager to line their own pockets rather that reinvest in their squads.  Dynamo Dresden were fought against relegation battles for the entirety of their brief stay in the Bundesliga and finally succumbed to their fate in the 1994-95 season.   But by then they were so far in debt that they were denied a license for the 2. Bundesliga and were demoted to the 4th tier Regionalliga Nord.  They have not made it back to the Bundesliga since. Dynamo Berlin, meanwhile, currently compete in the fifth tier, drawing crowds of 900 die-hards.

Other than Dynamo Dresden the only former Eastern clubs who have played in the Bundesliga are Hansa Rostock, Energie Cottbus, and VfB Leipzig.  Of those three the most successful has been Hansa, finishing 6th twice.  Energie Cottbus has never finished higher than 13th, while Leipzig finished dead last in their only top flight appearance.  In 2004 Leipzig, the first champions of German football, went bankrupt.  They have since been resurrected by a group of dedicated fans as 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig, reverting to the name used during the socialist era. Red Bull Leipzig are now the big boys in town.

The footballing disparity between East and West remains massive.  As Uli Hesse writes in Tor! “the former GDR was quickly becoming a barren footballing wasteland instead of the ‘blooming landscape’ Chancellor Kohl had promised.”  Many grounds remain decrepit, racism is rampant, and attendance figures are poor.  The divide is visible when looking at the national team as well: at Euro 2012 just two of the squad were born in the former East Germany: Toni Kroos and Marcel Schmelzer.

The End of History led to the downfall of the German Democratic Republic, as well as of East German football.  East Germany was never a footballing powerhouse able to compete with their West German counterparts, but it did have a proud footballing tradition.  Some of its most historic clubs are now toiling in the lower divisions, and very few players from the East are called up by the Nationalmannschaft.  Not that there is no reason to be optimistic. Infrastructure is gradually being improved new stadiums are being built, and “the time may finally come for these well-supported, traditional sides to return to former glories.”  Nevertheless, the effect of the End of History on the East German national team and on East German football as a whole cannot be overstated.  But while in the case of East Germany a national team disappeared, further East a national team was invented…

Part 3: Collapse and Invention, will be published shortly.

Sources and Recommended Reading

Tor! The Story of German Football by Uli Hesse is the preeminent history of German football.

Ostklassiker , a fantastic blog about East German football run by @valedave.  This article was used as source material, but everything on there is well worth your time.

The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football by David Goldblatt is, as always, an invaluable text when it comes to the history of the beautiful game.

Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper

Special thanks to John Fisher for his help in translating several German language articles that were used as source material for this piece.

The End of History and the 1990 World Cup

This is Part 1 of a 3 part series.  Part 2 is here.


In the midst of the 1989 revolutions that toppled Communist regimes all over Central and Eastern Europe, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously wrote that the end of the Cold War was a harbinger of what he deemed “the end of history.”  With Communism thoroughly discredited, he argued, the Western liberal democratic model would be the final form of human government.  Considering the euphoria that was sweeping through Europe and the World during the Autumn of Nations, it is not difficult to see where Fukuyama was coming from. Starting in Poland and quickly spreading to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the rest of the Warsaw Pact states, the sudden, unexpected wave of revolutions quickly razed to the ground the iron curtain that had divided the continent in half since the end of the Second World War, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Two years later even the Soviet Union, the ‘evil empire’ which for 40 years had kept all of its so-called ‘allies’ on a tight, often bloody leash, collapsed and disintegrated into 15 different states.  These were turbulent times in world history that drastically altered the global geopolitical balance. But it was not just geopolitics that were affected.  The End of History was certainly not the End of Football, but the beautiful game was not left untouched.  Two tournaments, the 1990 World Cup and the qualifying cycle for the 1992 European Championships, reveal to what extent the 1989 revolutions and subsequent political instability affected the European footballing landscape.

Italia 90: The Last Throes of Socialist Football

Six months after the peaceful Velvet Revolution toppled the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, the national team participated in their first major tournament since the 1982 World Cup. A select few Czechoslovak players were allowed to ply their trade abroad before the events of 1989.  The most prominent one was without a doubt Antonín Panenka, immortalized in history by the cheeky penalty that now bears his name, who moved to Austrian club Rapid Wien in 1981.  But by 1990 the situation had changed drastically; 8 of the 22 player squad now played in Western Europe, including Luděk Mikloško at West Ham and František Straka at Borussia Mönchengladbach.  The national team, who had clinched qualification the day before the mass protests in Bratislava signaled the beginning of the end for the Communists, performed admirably in Italy, going out 1-0 to eventual winners West Germany in the quarterfinals.


Romanian defender Gheorghe Popescu and Cameroon striker Roger Milla in a group stage match

Romania, curiously, also ensured their qualification to the 1990 World Cup on the day before the Timișoara uprising set off a chain of events that culminated with the summary trial and execution of the General Secretary of the Romanian Communisty Nicolae Ceaușescu. Coincidence?  Probably. Unlike the peaceful revolution in Czechoslovakia the Romanian uprising was anything but, with casualties numbering in the thousands.  But football went on as usual.  The scheduling of the season was not affected as the Divizia A, the top division of Romanian football, was on winter break at the time of the revolution.  But two teams, FC Olt Scorniceşti from Ceaușescu’s home town and Victoria Bucureşti, the club backed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, were dissolved.  All of their matches in the second half of the season were awarded as 3-0 victories to the opposition.  After the dust settled, the national team made their way to Italy for their first World Cup appearance om twenty years.  Every player in the squad that traveled to Italy was based in Romania.  Though some Romanian footballers were allowed to play abroad, and others defected, the national team was always made up exclusively of domestically based players, and 1990 was no exception.  Romania got off to a fantastic start in Italy with a 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union in Bari but were dumped out on penalties by the Republic of Ireland in the second round.  Only in 1994 did Romanian players based in Western Europe represent their country in a major tournament.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was a shadow of its former self by 1990, both in its footballing prowess and in its prestige and influence.  By the time of the World Cup the Communist party had been soundly defeated in the Baltic States, Moldova, and Armenia in the first competitive elections in Soviet history.  Nationalist movements were on the rise in every republic, and Party leaders in Moscow were struggling to retain control of the Union. The disappointing performance of the national team at the World Cup mirrored political developments back home.  Just two years removed from reaching the final of the Euro 1988 Final, they were unceremoniously dumped out in the first round in Italy.  After losing to Romania and Argentina in their first two matches, the Soviets needed to beat Cameroon by at least four goals and hope that the Argentina-Romania match did not end in a draw.  It was not an inconceivable scenario.  Cameroon had shocked the world and defeated Argentina 1-0 in the tournament’s opening match, then proved that it was no fluke with a 2-1 victory over Romania.  They had already booked their passage to the next round and were obviously not at their best against the Soviet Union, who did what they needed to do and won 4-0.  Their fate was not in their hands, however, and a 1-1 draw between Argentina and Romania eliminated them from the tournament.

Is it possible to make a connection between the crumbling USSR and the poor play of its national team?  Perhaps one could argue that the Perestroika-induced exodus of some of the squad’s brightest talents to Western clubs upset the team chemistry.  Lobanskyi’s 1988 squad was constructed around a core of Dynamo Kyiv players; Dynamo fans often joked that the Soviet national team was “Dynamo Kyiv weakened by the presence of players from other clubs.”   By the time of the World Cup there was much more diversity in terms of represented clubs in the starting eleven.  More realistically, however, the squad simply was not as good as it had been in 1988 and, as Lobanovskyi made sure to point out, refereeing decisions didn’t go in their favor. Though the players did not know it at the time, 1990 was the last time the USSR would appear at a major international tournament.


Zvonimir Boban becomes a hero

Whereas the sluggish, bloated Soviet Union was hobbling along toward a drawn out but largely peaceful demise, Yugoslavia was on the verge of  a violent breakup that would turn out to the deadliest European conflict since World War II.  After the death of Josip Broz Tito in 1980 the republic descended into a decade of economic stagnation and rising nationalist sentiments among the various ethnicities.  By January of 1990 the all-Yugoslav Communist Party was dissolved and in the coming months nationalist parties swept elections in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia.  Football was not immune to the increasing politicization of the country according to ethnic lines.  On May 13, 1990, Dinamo Zagreb took on Red Star Belgrade at home in a match that took place just weeks after pro-independence Croatian parties won the majority of the votes.  The match is sometimes considered to be the symbolic beginning of the Yugoslav wars, especially by Croatian nationalists.  By this time both Dinamo and Red Star had become associated with the Croatian and Serbian nationalist movements.  A massive riot broke out between the Bad Blue Boys and the Delije, the organized supporters groups of Dinamo and Red Star, respectively.  Dinamo midfielder Zvonimir Boban famously kicked a police officer who was attempting to arrest a Dinamo supporter and as a result was suspended from the national team, instantly becoming a Croatian national hero in the process.

Despite simmering tensions at home Yugoslavia sent a multiethnic team (though without the suspended Boban) with players from both Dinamo and Red Star.  Against Spain in the round of 16 the starting XI was composed of five Bosnians, two Serbians, a Croatian, a Montenegrin, a Slovenian, and a Macedonian.  In the words of Jonathan Wilson, this Yugoslavia side was “the embodiment of Yugoslavia’s federal ideal.” A 2-1 victory set up a quarterfinal match-up with Diego Maradona’s Argentina, but at that point domestic politics began to interfere with the harmony of the squad.  Slovenian midfielder Srečko Katanec received death threats from back home warning him not to play and begged to be left out of the squad, fearing for the safety of his family in Ljubljana. Yugoslavia still put in a brave performance against Argentina and held out for a 0-0 draw despite being reduced to ten men after just 31 minutes, but went out on penalties. As their manager Ivica Osim said, “The team was far, far better than the country. This was to be Yugoslavia’s last appearance on the world stage, both as a football team and as a nation.     

Events off the pitch had already clearly made their mark on football during the 1990 World Cup, but it took place in relatively quiet circumstances, with politics taking a back seat.  But during the qualifiers for the next European Championships, the normalcy would be shattered.

Part 2: The End of History and the Demise of the GDR

Myth Busting: Does Playing the Second Leg at Home Actually Matter?

The Myth

Most football fan will tell you that when it comes to double-legged knockout tournaments, it’s better to play at home in the second leg than away. The idea is simple – the away team has the option (luxury) to play it safe (park the bus), aim for a draw, and then bank on winning the home game. Not the most elegant approach, but an effective one nonetheless.

Proponents of the strategy are not limited to fans and pundits – players and coaches can be just as guilty. Iker Casillas thinks it will give them an advantage over Schalke 04 in the Champions League this February. Dougie Freedman, former Crystal Palace striker, once attributed a victory against Charlton in the second leg of a promotion play-off semi-final to the incredible atmosphere. Patrick Kluivert, former Dutch international, believes it’s better to “make your mistakes in the first leg away from home because there is still time to put things right in the second match.”

"Maybe we have a slight advantage because we are playing the return match at home" - Carlo Ancelotti

“Maybe we have a slight advantage because we are playing the return match at home” – Carlo Ancelotti

But while the story is written by the pundits, the truth is written in the numbers. A 2007 paper by Lionel Page and Katie Page, of the University of Westminster and University of Queensland respectively, looked to find just that. The first academic research of its kind, the study made significant advancements but ultimately fell short of conducting a proper analysis of the phenomenom. It wasn’t until a follow-up study was conducted by three researchers from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich that the truth was uncovered: playing the second leg at home is, statistically speaking, irrelevant.

Evidence From the Champions League

It’s not hard to see why this myth has so much traction. On the surface, data from the Champions League fits the narrative: teams play conservatively in the first leg and open up in the second. This is reflected in the increase in goals scored in the return leg.

1st leg goals

2nd leg goals

1st leg goals per game

2nd leg goals per game

2012 (group)





2012 (knockout)





2011 (group)





2011 (knockout)





2010 (group)





2010 (knockout)










Additional calculations by Michael Cox of Zonal Marking for the 2007-2009 Champions Leagues confirm the findings above. That is, with the exception of 2010, more goals are consistently scored in the second leg of CL knockout rounds than in the first.

This phenomenon can work for and against a team playing at home during the second leg. On one hand, the away team is less likely to sit back and park the bus. This lets the home team exploit their home advantage and take control of the deciding match. On the other hand, in a game that’s decidedly more ‘open’, a goal for the away team counts for double. Ideally these two effects would balance out and we would observe a 50-50 chance of advancing, even if more goals are scored in the second leg (e.g. if a team goes 1-0 at home and then loses 1-2 away, the away goal rule would outweigh the home field advantage).

Since we know more goals are being scored, the question becomes: for whom?

The First Study

Between 1994 and 2009, 56 percent of teams which played the second leg of a Champions League tie at home advanced to the next round. On the surface, this suggests home-field advantage frequently outweighs the benefit of the away goal rule.

But these findings are not sufficient. They do not take into consideration that the order of home-away matches for the CL round of 16 is not random.

In fact, group winners first play away, then at home. This was instituted as an added incentive for group winners, based on the very myth itself. This creates a sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Seeded teams play at home in the second leg, and it’s not clear if they win because they’re the better team, or because of their home-field advantage.

In their 2007 paper, Lionel Page and Katie Page look examine this specific aspect. Together, they use data from three different European Cup football competitions over 51 years in order to assess the accuracy of the second-leg advantage myth.

One solution they assess is to simply not look at data from the round of 16. Later rounds no longer seed home-away match order, randomizing the process and eliminating possible bias. But they find that this approach considerably reduces the sample size, and makes it harder to obtain meaningful results.

Page and Page instead use team-coefficients to adjust for round of 16 seeding. By controlling for team-quality based on UEFA rankings, they attempt to separate the effect of playing at home in the second leg and the effect of being a better team. Their results produce the following:


This graph shows an overall decrease in second-leg home advantage, both adjusted and unadjusted for team coefficients, over time. Interestingly enough, the decrease in the late 60s in this advantage can be traced to the introduction of the away-goals rule. By increasing away-goal value, the tactic of parking the bus away and winning at home was no longer as effective. For a team playing away, losing wasn’t the end of the world, but scoring an away goal could be the difference that would send them through.

The temporary decrease in advantage between 1984 and 1990 coincides with a five-year ban on English club participation in European competitions as a result of the Heysel Stadium disaster. This suggests that, at the time, English clubs exhibited a more significant second-leg home advantage than their European counterparts. In fact, seven out of eight previous European Cup winners were English. It’s possible that part of this success was the ability to exploit the second-leg home advantage in either the form of favorable refereeing or by employing the ‘defend away, win at home’ strategy.

The Away Goal Rule

At this point, readers would be right to ask: what about the away goal rule? Why does everyone believe there’s an advantage to playing the second leg at home when the away team has the opportunity to play an extra 30 minutes where their goals count double.

Page and Page actually look into this. They analyzed 186 European cup ties which go into extra time and found that the probability of winning the second leg at home is 66.42%. These results are adjusted for team ability, regardless of the fact that ties going into extra time might reflect equally-skilled teams. Page and Page also find that matches that go to penalties on the home ground result in the home team winning 57.33% of the time.

Simply put, the advantage of playing at home for an extra 30 minutes considerably outweighs the advantage of having goals count for double for the same period of time. Note that, whether or not there is an advantage to playing at home first, home advantage is a very real phenomenon.


“Statistically it is not proven. We like to think in our job that to play at home in the second leg is an advantage, but it is not proven at all in the statistics. It is 50:50” – Arsene Wenger

Busting the Myth

Page and Page make one crucial mistake that jeopardizes their conclusion that second leg at home advantage remains today. They only control for team UEFA coefficients, but this is not sufficient to isolate the advantage effect. Think about it this way: In Page and Page’s model, they attempt to separate the following effects:


However, in order for their model to work, the two effects cannot be correlated outside of their impact on the dependent variable (in this case, the round of 16 performance).

If you’re a little confused right now, you should be. This is the same problem Page and Page thought they were solving. But their analysis was rudimentary: you can’t simply control for correlated effects in order to isolate them.

Suppose you have three variables A, B, and C. You hypothesize that A and B both positively affect C. The data shows as much: A, B, and C all rise together. You could jump to conclusions and assume you were right from the beginning. But really, B is positively affecting A and C, giving the illusion your initial hypothesis was correct when in fact A is completely unrelated to C.

For example, imagine that the US government introduces a new anti-smoking campaign. The campaign is a success, and raises the population’s life expectancy. The government also chooses to raise taxes to fund the campaign. One might observe taxes rising and mortality rates decreasing and falsely conclude that paying more taxes means you’ll live longer.

Likewise, Page and Page observe a lot of teams play the second leg at home because they’re good and win their group, and falsely assume that they win the next round because they played the second leg at home. In reality, a better team will have a higher coefficient going into the tournament, and will not only do better in the round of 16, but is also more likely to have the second-leg at home. This leads them to overestimate the effect match order has on the outcome.

Three researchers from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich took a closer look at the data, and noticed what Page and Page did. To solve for this issue, they controlled for group stage performance in order to completely isolate the home-away match order effect. Any effect team coefficients have on match order is now funneled into the group stage performance variable, giving them clear results.

The researchers found that, once they controlled for group stage performance, playing the second leg at home had no impact on a team’s chances of success. It turns out that the team that progresses is usually just better than their opponent, contrary to the superstitions of some of football’s greatest minds. Maybe this is the reason Wenger has been so successful – he knows when to listen to the numbers.

The Anschluss Match and the Martyrdom of Matthias Sindelar

In footballing circles, the term Anschluss Match generally refers to one of the most shameful moments in the history of the World Cup. Algeria, debutantes at the 1982 World Cup, shocked the world with a 2-1 victory over West Germany in their opening match.  Only a West Germany victory over Austria by a one or two goal margin would see Algeria eliminated in the final match of the group.  And that’s exactly what happened.  After Horst Hrubesch gave the Germans a 1-0 lead early on at the El Molinón Stadium in Gijón, both teams effectively stopped playing, content with the result.  The West German commentator lamented “What is happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football.”  The match ended 1-0, and Algeria were out. Spanish newspapers denounced the match as “El Anschluss,” a reference to the unification of Germany and Austria in 1938.   In Algeria it is still known as by this name.  But forty four years prior to the Anschluss match in Gijón, the actual Anschluss occurred.  

Anschluss is a German term whose literal definition is ‘connection,’ but its political connotation exclusively refers to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938.  The idea of unifying all the German peoples into one state was not a new one.  German nationalists throughout the 19th century argued for such a state, but Otto von Bismarck, the architect of German unification, opted for a Prussia-dominated “Little Germany” solution that excluded Austria and its vast Central European lands.  But the belief that Austria and Germany should be united never died out and became fashionable once again in the interwar years.   Though unification of Germany and Austria was explicitly prohibited under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the reaction to Hitler’s increasingly assertive foreign policy was meek and non-confrontational.  The proponents of appeasement, the diplomatic trend of the day, asserted that by making concessions and avoiding conflict, Hitler’s territorial ambitions would eventually be satisfied. Therefore the reaction to the Anschluss did not exceed a mild rebuke from the international community.   

In celebration of the long-awaited unification, the German and Austrian authorities, recognizing the popular appeal of football, planned a friendly match between the two national teams.  What was supposed to be a celebratory draw turned into an unexpected victory for the Austrians and an outpouring of Austrian nationalism. One player, Mathias Sindelar, the magician at the heart of the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s, stood out in his resistance to the Nazification of Austria and its national team.  His performance in the Anschluss match and his refusal to play for the combined German national team made him an icon of Austrian defiance, and his untimely death made him a martyr of Austrian football. The story of the Anschluss Match and the defiance of Sinderlar is one that deserves to be remembered, for it serves as yet another reminder of how football transcends the boundaries of the pitch and takes on a mythical narrative of its own.

Red Vienna and Coffeehouse Football

Football first made its mark in Austria in the Styrian city of Graz, where it was introduced by a medical student named Georg August Wagner who had been “infected by the football bacillus” in his native Prague, where the sport had already attained a modest level of popularity.  Wagner organized the first football match in present day Austria in 1894 and quickly became a popular pastime amongst the city’s students.  While the game was first incorporated into the existing institutional framework provided by the city’s cycling club, the sport soon became too big and an independent football club was established in 1898.

But it was in Vienna where football would truly make its mark.  Fin de siècle Vienna was home to a sizable contingent of British diplomats, businessmen, and engineers who brought their sports with them to the continent.  The first match in the Habsburg capital took place in 1894 between members of the Vienna Cricket Club and a team of Scottish gardeners of the Rothschild estate.  In 1897 a cup competition open to all teams from the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Der Challenge Cup was created, though nearly all teams came from either Vienna, Budapest, or Prague.  The game’s popularity skyrocketed.  English clubs regularly toured the city; a 1905 match between Everton and Spurs drew a record crowd of 10,000 people.  A Viennese football league was founded in 1911, and shortly before the outbreak of the First World War 20,000 fans attended a match between Austria and Hungary.

After the war the Habsburg monarchy collapsed and the Empire was dissolved.  Vienna the capital of a vast multi-ethnic Empire, was suddenly transformed into the capital of a small nation-state populated predominantly by ethnic Germans.  The postwar years saw the rise of left wing politics in the Austrian capital.  Jakob Reumann was elected the first Social Democratic mayor of Vienna in 1921; the party would remain in control of Vienna for over a decade.  This period of Viennese history saw the construction of public housing, the expansion of youth and social services, and the implementation of a progressive tax.  During this time the city earned the moniker Rotes Wien, or Red Vienna.  The American journalist John Gunther wrote of this period:

The disequilibrium between Marxist Vienna and the clerical countryside was the dominating Motiv of Austrian politics until the rise of Hitler. Vienna was socialist, anti-clerical, and, as a municipality, fairly rich. The hinterland was poor, backward, conservative, Roman Catholic, and jealous of Vienna’s higher standard of living.”

This disequilibrium applies not just to the political atmosphere and the standard of living, but to football as well.  The popularity of the sport continued to grow at a rapid pace.  In 1914 there were 14,000 registered players in Austria.  By 1921 this number had more than doubled to 37,000, and in 1924 the first professional league outside of Britain was established.  But the vast majority of these players were from Vienna and the Austrian national team was effectively a Viennese XI.  The ‘national’ league was exclusively a Viennese league in all but name.  It was not until 1949 that a true national league was formed.  In interwar Vienna football was emblematic of the city’s exceptionalism in a wider Austrian context and “clearly stood against the ‘idiocy of rural life.'”

Vienna contained a multitude of football clubs – by 1935 no fewer than 25 professional Viennese teams competed in the top two divisions.  Austria Wien and Rapid Wien were the two of the most culturally and socially significant clubs and are representative of the wider divisions in Viennese society.  Rapid Wien was founded as Wiener Arbeiter in 1898 by the employees of a hat factory and acquired a reputation as the team of the proletariat.  Despite being forced to change their name by the authorities, they remained true to their working class roots.  Their base of support came from the Vorstädte, the newly constructed industrial suburbs populated by factory workers who, after the enactment of the eight-hour work week, suddenly found themselves with a lot of free time.  Much of that free time was dedicated to watching football as countless new clubs sprung up in every district of Vienna, though Rapid remained the archetype of the Viennese working class team.  An article from the Illustriertes Sportblatt dating from 1927 writes of Rapid:

“They have never disappointed their audience since they never give up and fight right up to the end. Their players are nearly exclusively ‘home brewed’; the management is conservative; and adventurous business politics are not their cup of tea.  Rapid has its roots within the population and it never loses contact to the home ground. The ‘Green and Whites’ constitute a suburbian club in the best sense of the word.”

Austria Wien were cut from an entirely different cloth.  They were founded as Wiener Amateur by players and officials of the Vienna Football and Cricket Club and changed their name to Austria Wien after the professionalization of football.  In stark contrast to Rapid, Austria became the team of the flourishing bourgeoisie who frequented coffeehouses to discuss politics, art, and, increasingly, football.  The same article of Illustriertes Sportblatt referenced above describes the club as playing “salary football” clouded by “dense coffeehouse smog.”  The coffeehouse was at the center of all things Austrian football and fans of all teams, not just those of the bourgeois Austria Wien, congregated in coffeehouses to socialize and discuss the affairs of their club.  But Austria epitomized this coffeehouse culture associated with the intelligentsia, and were even headquartered in various coffeehouses of the Innere Stadt, Vienna’s historic city center.

Der Papierene and the Rise of the Wunderteam

The dichotomy of the two Vienna clubs is summarized by the social scientist Roman Horak, who writes that “”If ‘SK Rapid’ stood for proletarian toughness and the suburb, then ‘Austria’ stood for the city, coffeehouse, and the liberal Jewish middle class.”  It is somewhat ironic, then, that the hero of Austria Wien and of the Viennese bourgeoisie was of decidedly proletarian stock.  Matěj Šindelář was born in 1903 in a small Moravian village into a family of modest means. His father was a bricklayer and his mother struggled to take care of their four children.  In 1905 the family moved to Vienna and settled in the Favoriten district, a heavily industrialized area.  He began playing football in the streets and quickly stood out out for his uncanny dribbling ability.  After his father was killed on the Isonzo Front during the First World War, young Matthias, as he was known by then, began an apprenticeship as a locksmith.

But his future was to lie in football, not in the gritty factories of the Vorstädte.  In 1918 Sindelar joined the youth team of ASV Hertha, whose stadium was located next to his house in Favoriten.  He played for Hertha while continuing his apprenticeship, and by the age of 18 he debuted with the senior team in the Austrian championship.  An uncharacteristic forward with a slight physique and an aversion to physical play, Sindelar quickly earned the nickname Der Papierene, the Paper Man.  In 1924 Hertha slid into a financial crisis and Sindelar signed for Austria Wien, then still known as Wiener Amateur.  Within a season he broke into the first team.  He was part of the side that won the league and cup double in 1926 and by 1927 was the club’s leading goalscorer, though Austria Wien dropped to a disappointing 7th in the league table and would not win another league title until after the Second World War.

Sindelar earned his first international cap at 23 years old and promptly scored on his debut, a 2-1 friendly victory over Czechoslovakia.  Despite playing well he soon fell out of favor with national team manager Hugo Meisl, a strict disciplinarian who, in spite of Sindelar’s obvious talents, favored a traditional center forward.  For several years Sindelar couldn’t get a cap.  Then, in 1931, a group of journalists purportedly confronted Meisl in Vienna’s Ring Café and demanded that he reinstate Sindelar into the side.  Meisl relented and Sindelar started as an unconventional center forward in Austria’s next international fixture against Scotland.  He was magnificent, and Scotland were swept aside 5-0 in a way that simply was not supposed to happen when the Home Nations went up against continental opposition.  At that moment, the Wunderteam was born.

An Illustration of the Wunderteam

With little but grainy black and white footage available, it is difficult in this day and age to form an accurate picture of Sindelar’s style. But his contemporaries were fervent in their praise of the Paper Man.  Friedrich Torberg, a mainstay in Red Vienna’s coffeehouse scene, wrote:

“He was endowed with such an unbelievable wealth of variations and ideas that one could never really be sure which manner of play was to be expected.  He had no system, to say nothing of a set pattern.  He just had… genius.”

With the unorthodox but incredibly talented Sindelar leading the line, the Austrian national team became a European footballing force.  Germany were defeated 5-0 in Berlin and 6-0 in Vienna, with Sindelar scoring a hat trick in front of the home fans.  He scored in an 8-1 victory over Switzerland and again in an 8-2 thrashing of Austria’s old imperial rival Hungary.  Their fluid play earned them the nickname “the Danubian Whirl” and in 1932 they won the second edition of the International European Cup, a Central European international competition open to Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland that was contested in a similar manner to the British Home Championship.

Their true test was to come in December 1932, when the Wunderteam traveled to London to take on the mighty England. The English national team was, despite the proclamations of the media, hardly the standard bearer of the sport and had been beaten by continental teams on numerous occasions.  But at home they retained a certain aura and were unbeaten on their own soil against foreign opposition.  England won 4-3 at Stamford Bridge, but the Times awarded the Austrians the “moral victory.”  The English papers raved about the intricate passing and fluid movement of the Wunderteam, with the Daily Mail calling their performance “a revelation.”  Though they could not break the spell of English domestic invincibility – that task would be left to their spiritual successors, the Hungarians, two decades later – they gained plenty of admirers for their style of play.  Sindelar was at the center of everything, and after the match against England he was reportedly offered a contract on the spot to sign for Arsenal, though like many of the tales surrounding the Paper Man it may well be apocryphal.

Austrofascism and the Death of Red Vienna 

Red Vienna may have been a bastion of liberalism and Social Democratic governance but it was hardly representative of the entire nation.  The Christian Social Party dominated politics at the national level; every Chancellor of Austria in the 1920s was either a member of or governed in coalition with the party.  But underneath this superficial stability the country was becoming more and more polarized.  Paramilitary forced were organized by both the right and left.  Tensions between the two escalated into a full blown crisis during the July Revolt of 1927, when a protest against the acquittal of three right-wing paramilitary members charged with the murder of a World War I veteran and a young boy resulted in the deaths of 89 people.  Violence continued to escalate, and the fragile First Austrian Republic was unceremoniously dismantled in 1933 when Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss took advantage of a loophole in the parliamentary voting procedures, dissolved the legislative assembly, and moved toward establishing a dictatorial regime.

A Fatherland Front rally in 1936

Cursory histories of twentieth century Europe focus on the Fascist triumvirate of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, ignoring similar developments elsewhere.  But interwar Europe witnessed the establishment of right-wing dictatorships in states as diverse as Portugal, Hungary, Romania, and of course Austria, which adopted its own peculiar version of the ideology that historians have since dubbed ‘Austrofascism.’  By May of 1934 Dollfuss, having emerged victorious in the Austrian Civil War, established a one-party state with all parties other than the Fatherland Front banned.  While an explicitly anti-Nazi party with close links to the Roman Catholic Church and a strong opposition to unification with Germany, the iconography and aesthetics of the Fatherland Front clearly borrowed some elements from National Socialism (see image above).  The symbolic death of Red Vienna came in the form of the destruction of the Karl Marx Hof, the public housing estate that was as a monument to the city’s socialist leanings.  Red Vienna was no more.

Political developments in Vienna inevitably affected the national selection.  As David Goldblatt writes in The Ball is Round, “it was therefore a tired and troubled Wunderteam that arrived in Italy and it showed.”  Their performances in the early matches were underwhelming.  Extra time was needed to defeat the French in the first round and a narrow victory over Hungary in the quarterfinals ensured a semifinal date with hosts Italy.  Austria was at a disadvantage before the match even kicked off. A swampy pitch following heavy rains hampered the style of the Austrians, who relied on quick, short passing. Furthermore, suspicion of referee favoritism toward the home side and even direct intervention by Mussolini himself put the integrity of the tournament into question.  The BBC documentary Football and Fascism alleges that before the match Il Duce had dinner with the Swedish referee Ivan Elkind and instructed him to ensure an Italian victory.  Elkind is said to have turned a blind eye to the blatant, incessant fouling of the Italians, and after a dismal 90 minutes during which the Austrians could barely even muster a shot on goal the Azzuri ran out 1-0 victors.

It is all too tempting to draw a direct connection between internal political developments and the disappointing results of the national team at the 1934 World Cup.  But the extent to which the tumultuous events on the home front affected their performances in Italy is an entirely speculative matter.  Perhaps, as Jonathan Wilson suggest in Inverting the Pyramid, the Wunderteam was simply past its peak by 1934.  Vittorio Pozzo’s legendary Italian side was less technical and less fluid than the Austrians but their tactical awareness and physical preparedness was second to none.  Pozzo’s decision to have Mario Monti man mark Sindelar was a stroke of genius; the Paper Man’s influence in the semifinal was negligible. Though their victory in 1934 was stained by the allegations of corruption, they proved that it was no fluke by repeating as World Cup Champions in France four years later.

But while there may be no direct link between politics and football results, the decline of the Wunderteam parallels the fate of the country.  For both the Wunderteam and independent Austria, 1934 was the beginning of the end.  After defeat against Italy in the semifinals Austria surprisingly lost 3-2 to Germany in the third place match.  Two months later Dollfuss was assassinated by Austrian Nazis in response to his crackdown against the Nazi Party, whose popularity was rapidly rising.  In the ensuing crisis, Italy’s support was essential in preventing Austria’s annexation by Germany.  After the World Cup the previously invincible Austrians suffered friendly defeats against Hungary, Italy, and Poland, and on two occasions could only muster a draw with Czechoslovakia.  A victory over England in Vienna in 1936 provided a cathartic moment, but by that points the Wunderteam, if it could even be called that, was in an irreversible decline.  In both football and geopolitics Austria was being outmaneuvered by its more powerful neighbors.

Anschluss and Resistance

On March 12, 1938, German troops triumphantly entered Austria.  Cheering crowds greeted the Nazis in Vienna, and 200,000 gathered at Vienna’s Heidenplatz on March 15 to hear Hitler proclaim the incorporation of Germany’s eastern province into the Third Reich.  This time, there would be no Italian diplomatic intervention on behalf of Austria. Fatherland Front politicians were powerless in the face of German panzers.  An independent Austrian state ceased to exist.

German troops enter Vienna

One week before the scheduled plebiscite to ratify what had already occurred, a celebration match was scheduled between the national teams of Austria and Germany before they united into one.  The ‘Anschluss Match’ has been subject to such romanticization over the years that it is impossible to discern fact from fiction.  But as the story goes, Matthias Sindelar, a committed Social Democrat, reluctantly took part in the match, which was supposed to end in a conciliatory draw.  David Goldlbatt’s description of the match brilliantly captures its mythological narrative:

“In the first half Sindelar misses a hatful of chances, some say with such exquisite touch that they could only be read as gestures of defiance.  After halftime his patience snaps and he scores.  A second goal, an audacious lob from Sesta, seals the game and Sindelar wheels away to dance before the Nazi functionaries and their Austrian satraps in the VIP box.  The crowd roar ‘Österreich! Österreich!'” 

Austria won 2-0 thanks to Sindelar’s audacious, inspirational performance in the last match Austria would play until after the war.  After the match the Reichssportführer, the Nazi official in charge of sport, expressed surprise at the patriotism of the Austrians.  Similar expressions of anti-German sentiment at the football ground continued sporadically throughout the war. Simon Kuper in his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War, recounts how “When the German club Schalke visited Vienna… the SD (the intelligence agency of the SS) reported anti-German chants, fights, stone-throwing, and fanatical support for the home team among the tens of thousands of spectators.”

But these incidents should not be interpreted as being emblematic of a wider pattern of resistance.  The Anschluss match was not the catalyst for an anti-Nazi movement, but “a swansong for the great Viennese football culture and the fragile metropolitan social ecology that had sustained it.”  99.7% of the Austrian population voted in favor of Anschluss, and though these figures are obviously inflated in general most Austrians were in favor of union with Germany.  Viennese football culture was destroyed.  Hakoah, Vienna’s Jewish club, was immediately disbanded.  Other clubs with significant numbers of Jewish members and officials, FK Austria among them, also faced the wrath of the Nazis. Though powerful in its symbolism, Sindelar’s act of defiance was a fleeting gesture, Austria’s last moment of pride before it was turned into Ostmark, the Eastern realm of the Third Reich.

A Mysterious Death

As for Sindelar himself, the Anschluss match was the last time he ever played football. Already 35 and with bad knees, he refused the entreaties of Sepp Herberger to turn out for the new, combined national team.  It is doubtful that his presence would have made much of a difference.  Herberger was under strict orders for the national team to be composed of six Germans and five Austrians or vice versa for every match.  Theoretically combining two of the best teams of the era should have yielded fantastic results, but in reality the tensions between the two sets of players and the differences in their playing styles were too much to overcome in such a short period of time.  At the 1938 World Cup in France, Germany only managed a 1-1 draw with Switzerland and was embarrassingly eliminated after a 4-2 defeat in the replay.

Sindelar in action

Sindelar quietly retired to a civilian life.  He purchased a café from a Jewish man who was forced to give it up because of the new anti-Semitic laws and settled into his new life as a coffeehouse owner. On the night of January 22, after a night of heavy drinking and gambling, Sindelar returned to his apartment with his girlfriend.  The next morning, after he was nowhere to be found, his friend Gustav Hartmann broke down his door and found him naked and dead.

The death was officially ruled an accident due to carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective heater, a theory given credence by the fact that the neighbors had been complaining of a smell in the days before Sindelar’s death.  But that version of events was not accepted by the public, 20,000 of whom turned out for his funeral.  Two days afterwards the Austrian newspaper Kroner Zeitung alleged that “everything points towards this great man having become the victim of murder through poisoning.” Sindelar’s friend Egon Ulbrich, who was with him the night before his death, claimed that the death was declared an accident only so that he could receive a state funeral.  Under Nazi law, such funerals were not allowed for those who had been murdered or committed suicide.  Suicide was touted as another possible explanation.  In his obituary of Sindelar the theater critic Alfred Polgar wrote:

“The good Sindelar loved the city, whose child and pride he was, to its death.  He was so inextricably entwined with it that he had to die when it did.  All the evidence points to suicide prompted by loyalty to his homeland.  For to live and play football in the downtrodden, broken, tormented city meant deceiving Vienna with a repulsive spectre of itself… but how can one play football like that?  And live, when a life without football is nothing?”

Whether this version is accurate, or whether it is simply a refusal to admit that someone like Sindelar could die such a mundane death, is a question whose answer is lost to history.  But the theory that he committed suicide is so cathartic, so tragically beautiful that it is no surprise that it is preferred to the explanation of death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Sindelar, the symbol of Red Vienna and its football culture, died alongside his beloved city.  He has since been named both the best Austrian footballer and the best Austrian sportsman of the 20th century.  But his enduring reputation cannot be simply explained by his prowess on the pitch.  In death, Sindelar became a martyr of the Viennese football culture that had been destroyed by the Anschluss.  As Jonathan Wilson writes, “to its end, the football of the coffeehouse remained heroically romantic.”

Sources and Recommended Reading

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson, especially the chapter ‘How Fascism Destroyed the Coffeehouse.’

The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt

Ajax, the Dutch, the War by Simon Kuper

Football and Fascism a BBC documentary available on YouTube

The chapter ‘Germany vs. Austria: National Identity’ by Roman Horak in the book German Football edited by Alan Tomlinson and Christopher Young

‘Viennese Football Culture: Some Remarks on its History and Sociology’ by Roman Horak in Volume 5, Issue 4 of the journal Innovation in Social Sciences Research

Research Roundup Part 1 – The Best Sub Strategy, Will Financial Fair Play Ruin Man City, and Why You Shouldn’t Always Fire Your Coach

Welcome to the first installment of a new Café Futebol series – The Research Roundup. In these posts, we take a long look at the newest and most interesting soccer literature and let you know what’s going on. We walk through the papers and then highlight key insights and concerns we have. 

In the first installment, we’ll take a closer look at research on three major questions:

  1. Is there an optimal substitution strategy?
  2. Will Financial Fair Play be good or bad for your Premier League team?
  3. Does sacking your manager really lead to a temporary increase in performance?

If you have a paper you’d like us to cover, send us an email through the Contact Us page or reach me at @Cafefutebol on twitter!

Is there an optimal substitution strategy?

Paper Information:

  • Title: A Proposed Decision Rule for the Timing of Soccer Substitutions
  • Author, Institution: Bret R. Myers, Villanova University
  • Journal: Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports
  • Date of Publication:  March, 2012
  • Link to Paper

The flow of soccer makes it difficult for managers to have a direct impact on the outcome of the match. Once the first whistle blows, the game is, for the most part, decided entirely by the players on the field. The manager is left with only a handful of options should the game go sour. A half-time motivational speech or a slight tactical adjustment may be of importance, but any major changes lie in the substitutions made. These three players remain the manager’s most critical in-game decision for affecting the outcome of a game.

It’s quite surprising then that very little progress has been made on optimal substitution strategy – until now. Bret Myers, an assistant professor of management and operations at the Villanova School of Business, seeks to fill this gap. In his paper, he sets out on inventing the first practical use of academic substitution research for managers’ use. Using data from the major European leagues, the MLS, and the 2010 World Cup, Myers describes his optimal substitution strategy (dubbed the “Decision Rules”):

Proposed Decision Rule:

  • If down at half time
    • Make 1st sub prior to 58th minute
    • Make 2nd sub prior to 73rd minute
    • Make 3rd sub prior to 79th minute
  • If tied or ahead
    • Sub at will

Myers writes:

As the game approaches the first critical point of the 58th minute, a coach should make at least the first substitute if behind. As the game approaches the next critical point of the 73rd minute, if still behind, a coach should make at least the 2nd substitute. If the team is able to equalize or go ahead once the critical point is reached, then it is allowable for the 2nd substitute to be withheld. However, if the team returns to a state of being behind prior to the last critical point of the 79th minute, then a coach should use both the 2nd and 3rd substitution prior to the 79th minute. If a team that was previously tied or ahead falls behind after the 80th minute, there is no specific recommendation on how a coach should use the remaining substitutes if still available.

He concludes that, if a team is in a position to follow the Decision Rule (i.e. if they are behind or tied by half-time), that they can maximize their chance of winning by doing so. He finds that teams that follow his guidelines improve (defined by scoring at least more goal) roughly 36% of the time. The results are less encouraging for teams that are tied or ahead by half-time. In these scenarios, the manager’s substitution timing has little impact on the result of the match.

Additional Charts and Graphs:


Italians were by far the most capable in using their substitutes at maximum capacity, evidenced by their success following Myers’s decision rule. La Liga had the lowest, indicating a league-wide lack of bench depth despite an overall willingness by managers to send in their substitutes before their German or English counterparts. Perhaps La Liga coaches aren’t as afraid to experiment with formations or lineups when behind, even if it doesn’t always work out.


Traditionally, substitution literature has remained largely descriptive in nature, without offering much practical managerial use. Myers’s research is a refreshing initiative towards implementable tools, and regardless of his conclusions, represents an important step in gaining traction in the locker room.

Furthermore, Myers’s results suggest that coaches tend to underestimate the significance of a fresh set of legs on the field. Managers largely “overvalue starters and undervalue the role of substitutes” in a match. If this is one of the few metrics by which we can reasonably evaluate a coach, then further research and application is warranted.


Myers potentially muddles correlation and causation in a manner that might jeopardize his research. Myers believes that early substitutions reduce the effect of player fatigue and lead to an increase in team performance.  However, it is possible that managers are more willing to sub off starters early if they are confident in their replacement. A manager may only be willing to send in a higher quality substitute and a lower quality substitute for 30 and 20 minutes respectively.

For example, Myers notes that, in 2009, Bayern Munich followed his decision rule 5 out of 8 times while Dortmund only did so 2 out of 9 times. Bayern Munich has a much deeper bench than Dortmund. It’s possible that Bayern’s coach simply trusted his substitutes more, leading him to send them in earlier.

If early substitutes are endogenously correlated with higher quality players, then this may be responsible for the observed increase in results. If this is the case, then Myers’s conclusions become more fuddled. Timing is still important – a team with a deeper bench sends in their substitutes early precisely because they are aware of the physical toll on starters – but then the decision rule is no longer universal. It may only apply to teams with a deep bench.

The only substitute you always put in early

There is also a chance that a large score deficit indicates an opportunity to send in youth players for additional experience, knowing that the match has already been decided. Take the case of Barcelona – Bayern Munich 0:3 at the Camp Nou during the 2013 CL semi-finals. Barcelona was down 5-0 on aggregate before Tito sent in his first substitute in the 55th minute: Alexis for Xavi. Ten minutes later, Iniesta was subbed for Thiago Alcantara. No coach in their right mind subs off Xavi and Iniesta when there’s still a chance of winning. In the cases like that of Barcelona, who conceded two more goals following these substitutes, early substitution may be correlated with lower team performance.

Further analysis could isolate this effect by controlling for score deficit and team-season fixed effects based on the quality of the bench in relation to the starting lineup. In the meantime, Myers’s decision rule is insightful, but should be taken with a grain of salt.

What does Financial Fair Play mean for the Premier League?

Paper Information:

  • Title: Vertical restraints in soccer: Financial Fair Play and the English Premier League
  • Author, Institution: Thomas Peeters, University of Antwerp & Stefan Szymanski, University of Michigan
  • Journal: Working Paper from University of Antwerp, Faculty of Applied Economics
  • Date of Publication:  March, 2012
  • Link to Paper

In their paper, Peeters and Szymanski construct a profit model for club teams as a function of their wages, costs, and revenue generated from winning games. Once they have a model and verify it using empirical data, they simulate the effects of FFP. They find that the FFP’s break-even rule has a salary-cap effect similar to the one present in American sports. However, unlike in the US, the rule has not been negotiated as part of a collective bargaining agreement with unions and may not be exempt from competition law in the EU. If the FFP does have a salary-cap effect, it may not be compliant with EU regulations.

The basic premise of their model is that football clubs are not profit maximizing, but are instead constrained by a limited negative profit-line that their owner is willing to cover. In other words – football clubs consistently operate at a loss, only to be bailed out by their wealthy owner. Financial fair play is going to limit the loss any one football club can take. This effectively reduces a club’s budget.

The model of Peeters and Szymanski has three components: revenues, wages, and other costs (stadium maintenance, advertising, etc).  They assume that revenues are already being maximized and that other costs are already being minimized. The only variable that can be cut in order to fit into a smaller budget constraint is player wages.

The next step is to estimate the parameters of the model using data gathered from the top three tiers of English soccer from 1997 to 2008. This allows the researchers to verify that their model holds against real, empirical data, and that it can be explained intuitively. The results are positive – all of the model’s parameters fit their expected values at a statistically significant level. Essentially, the model is well-behaved, suggesting that it can be reasonably used to estimate the impact of a new budget constraint. Finally, Peeters and Szymanski simulate the effects of FFP under their model. They find that the new rules lead to an overall reduction in league player wages over time, although the winners and losers are mixed.

Several major powerhouses will likely remain unaffected. In particular, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool are all able to “consolidate their position in prediction point totals” due to their high revenue capacity and a statistically strong ability to convert wages to results. On the flip-side, Manchester City and West Ham look to lose considerably more than other teams. Although Chelsea follows a similar strategy to Manchester City in terms of exorbitant spending at the owner’s expense, they have established themselves as a preeminent club and do not “appear to face the same difficulty in sustaining its position under FFP.” The teams set to receive the highest degree of benefit are largely those located at the bottom of the table. They will gain a considerable advantage from the decreased cost of success in terms of player wages.

Additional Charts and Graphs:


You can see for yourself the results of the duo’s FFP simulation. The four scenarios presented correspond to an average accepted deviation of €15m, €10m and €5m per season, and the “final” scenario with a total acceptable deviation of €5m over three seasons. The deviations represent the amount by which clubs are allowed to overspend their budget during the first years of adjusting to FFP. They increase in leniency when read from left to right in the chart above.


Financial Fair Play may not be such a bad rule if you support Liverpool or Arsenal. It will certainly take a hit at relatively wealthy newcomers such as Manchester City, PSG, and Monaco. It’s entirely possible that within a few years of FFP implementation we will see a resurgence of ‘historic’ teams. Tottenham, surprisingly, will still not qualify for the Champions League.

It would be interesting to see how further simulations play out over other European leagues. My guess is that La Liga and the Bundesliga would remain largely intact, while the French league may return to its classic free-for-all.


The profit model constructed leaves out an important factor from the equation: player transfer fees. As these fees increase over time, they become a more significant proportion of club costs and may not be actually be minimized, as Peeters and Szymanski assume. In this scenario, it is entirely possible that tightening a club’s budget will lead to a reduction of player transfer value instead of wages.  It is not surprising this effect is omitted – in Soccernomics Szymanski found that player wages, and not transfer fees, are essential in predicting league success. Nevertheless, when deciding a revenue equation, it is over-simplistic to assume clubs are ‘minimizing’ transfer fees.

Nevertheless, even if transfer fees are reduced instead of wages, it’s unlikely to change the results of the study. Successful, established clubs would remain largely unaffected, given that their prestige and winning-record means the club is attractive enough to entice players without paying inflated prices (i.e. their costs are already minimized). Meanwhile, clubs such as Manchester City would be forced to reduce the payments they can offer for player transfers, and teams at the bottom of the table would face a less inflated player transfer market.

Not Pictured: Wenger on the left, Moyes on the right

It should also be noted that this piece is a working paper and has thus neither been accepted to any academic journal nor officially peer-reviewed. I would normally avoid discussing working papers, but Stefan Szymanski is co-author of Soccernomics and a prominent author in the world of soccer economics and sports management. For this reason, I make an exception.

Does sacking your manager really lead to an increase in performance?

Paper Information:

  • Title: The Effects of Managerial Turnover: Evidence from Coach Dismissals in Italian Soccer Teams
  • Author, Institution: Maria De Paola and Vincenzo Scoppa, University of Calabria, Cosenza
  • Journal: Journal of Sports Economics
  • Date of Publication:  March, 2011
  • Link to Paper

If you follow soccer, you’ve probably heard of the ‘five game bump’. The bump is usually a streak of wins following the sacking of a manager. Players are so shaken by the departure of their coach that, the bump-advocate would argue, they become much more focused in upcoming matches. It is essentially a slap in the face, a well-meaning shake, meant to bring sleeping footballers back to the real world.

Scoppa and De Paola are more skeptical of the phenomenon. They know that positive results observed after a series of losses can be misleading. The new manager could even win more games and still be statistically worse than the last. The two use 1997-2008 Serie A match data to measure the effects of coach changes on team performance, while controlling for two major challenges: the tendency for random data to converge towards its mean and the variation of opponent quality.

The ’regression to the mean’ phenomenon states that if we observe an extreme initial measurement, then a subsequent measurement will tend towards the mean. In a footballing context, if we observe a string of ‘below-average’ club performances, then subsequent performances will tend towards the average, and we will observe an increase in performance. A team could do poorly, fire their coach, and do well, and none of this would be due change in management. Of course, the actual team average performance is unobservable, but if it exists at a higher level than what it takes to get a coach fired, then changing coaches may have no effect at all. Not accounting for this phenomenon could lead to a serious overestimation of managerial impact.

The second issue that Scoppa and De Paola must deal with is that coaches are not fired randomly. Since their dismissals are typically decided after a series of poor performances, weaker teams tend to replace the coach more often. In this case, coach changes are negatively correlated with team quality. This could lead to a serious underestimation of managerial impact.

Gareth “regression to the mean” Bale

In order to compensate for the two, Scoppa and De Paola devise a model based on team and season fixed effects. This model looks at all matches during a given season pre- and post-managerial change. Note that they are not looking at a ‘5-game-bump’, but an entire season. No inter-seasonal managerial changes are recorded since those may actually reflect a good run (good managers are poached by larger clubs). The fixed effect accounts for the fact that the old coach and the new coach do not play against the same opponents. This allows the model to correct for tough schedules and the impact they may have on managerial record.

The results of the analysis are mixed. The model estimates that changing coaches does not positively affect overall team performance, with the exception of number of goals scored. This suggests that firing the coach may not have anything to do with improving team performance, but may be the unfortunate side effect of team boards overestimating their ability to make optimal replacements, or may even serve to brand the coach as a scapegoat. In any case, despite observing an improvement in results post managerial switch, this paper suggests it has little to do with the switch itself.

Additional Charts and Graphs:


In case you were wondering, there is indeed an average increase in points per game following the sacking of a manager. You can see so here! The only thing that’s up for discussion is whether or not it has anything to do with the new manager, or if it’s simply a statistical phenomenon. As it turns out, it’s probably a statistical phenomenon. The data suggests that firing Andre Villas-Boas isn’t going to save Tottenham and that perhaps Manchester United’s board is wise to keep David Moyes on contract despite recent performances.


Although firing the manager doesn’t seem to have any real impact on team performance, it does not mean it’s a completely useless action. Actually, they very fact that firing still occurs indicates that it serves a different purpose entirely. It can relieve pressure on players and on the board of directors. If the board is voted on democratically by club members, or chosen by stock holders in the event that the club is publicly traded (see: Manchester United), it may be in the interest of the board to find a scapegoat. Firing managers also relieves pressure on the managerial side. An incoming manager may find himself with a terrible situation and, often enough, nowhere to go but up. This may make it easier for the new manager to establish his team and methodology without worrying about immediate gratification.


The fixed-effects the authors choose to measure in their paper are confusing and often inconsistent. For example, the authors make a point to consider both rank difference and point differential, despite representing the same implicit factor: a difference in recent performance between teams. Nevertheless, they choose to gauge a team’s quality by their previous year’s rank as opposed to their points per game. It is also unclear as to why the authors choose to use previous-season rankings as an indicator for current form. These can be misleading given inter-season developments including management changes and transfers. A better indicator might be player wages and transfer fees, which previous studies have argued play a major role in determining league performance.

Lastly, there are two additional factors that ought to be addressed: tough scheduling and home field advantage. Although this typically affects higher-quality teams who engage in multiple tournaments, clubs faced with fixtures in a smaller time frame may experience a lag in performance due to stress and lack of adequate rest. It is worth investigating potential effects this has on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ streaks as a consequence of their manager. Additionally, soccer literature largely agrees that home-field advantage is a real phenomenon. If an incoming coach has more home games than away, he may appear to get better results when in fact he is useless. It is not clear whether or not this effect is accounted for in the study due to the vague wording, but I was unable to find any explicit mention of it, so I assume it was overlooked or is endogenous in another variable which was not clearly explained. In any case, it is a simple effect that deserves attention due to the general consensus of its reality.


Thanks for reading!

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The Absurdity of MLS Nomenclature

By European standards, Major League Soccer, the highest level on the footballing pyramid in both the United States and Canada, is still in its infancy.  After countless failed leagues plagued by infighting, mismanagement, and disorganization, the idea for Major League Soccer emerged as part of the USA’s successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup.  The league was launched in 1996 with ten teams, expanding to twelve two years later.

At first the league struggled with both attendance figures and television ratings.  Attempts to ‘Americanize’ the game by instituting rules such as shootouts in which a a player started 35 yards away from goal and had five seconds to beat the keeper and score to resolve ties and a clock that counted backwards from 45:00 down to zero failed to attract interest from new fans and alienated traditional ones.  In the first five years of its existence MLS lost $250 million and in 2001 two teams were forced to fold, reducing the number of teams back the original ten. Most teams played in stadiums rented from American Football teams, the capacities of which dwarfed the average attendance.  The pitiful performance of the United States at the 1998 World Cup, when the squad made up mostly of MLS players lost all of their first round matches, was a testament to the league’s poor quality.

Fifteen years on, things are looking up for Major League Soccer.  The league now has nineteen teams and all but five have “soccer-specific” stadiums.  As of 2012 the MLS is the 8th best attended football league in the world.  The best-supported team, the Seattle Sounders, have an average attendance of nearly 43,000 and their derby with the Portland Timbers has drawn around 67,000 fans in both of the past two seasons, figures that would be considered impressive in the top European leagues.  A recent article from Forbes mentions that attendance figures have steadily risen over 35% since 2000 and more and more Americans are identifying themselves as fans of the sport.  The growth of MLS has not been ignored on the other side of the pond; even the BBC recently published an article entitled ‘Can the MLS Revolution Survive and Thrive’, pointing out that the MLS is now the third most popular league in the United States in terms of average attendance, trailing only the NFL (American football) and the MLB (baseball).

The league has had undeniable success, but it is impossible to overlook the numerous idiosyncrasies that set it apart from its European counterparts.  First of all, the champion is determined not by points total at the end of the season, but by a playoff system (though this is not unique to the MLS as several Latin American leagues also utilize a playoff system).  There is no promotion or relegation.  The league has a salary cap of $2.95 million dollars to ensure relative parity, but teams are also allowed three ‘Designated Players’ whose salaries do not count toward the salary cap.  Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane of the Los Angeles Galaxy are two such designated players, and their salaries take up two thirds of the entire wage bill. Meanwhile, teammate Kafi Opare toils for the league minimum yearly salary of $35,125, less than 1/100th of what Donovan earns.  Because the teams are all ‘franchised’ and effectively owned by the league, the transfer system is an incredibly muddled affair.  For example, in Clint Dempsey’s highly publicized move from Spurs to Seattle Sounders, the $9 million transfer fee was covered by MLS, not Seattle.

While these issues are well documented and oft-discussed, there is another rather distinctive aspect of MLS that is rarely brought up: the naming practices of certain clubs.  In recent years there has been a noticeable trend of ‘Europeanization’ when it comes to the way the teams are named: Dallas Burn changed its name to FC Dallas, the Kansas City Wizards became Sporting Kansas City, and a new team in Salt Lake City adopted the name ‘Real.’  This pattern is not universal, of course.  Traditional American naming practices which are so looked down upon in England (just look at the recation to the decision to rename Hull City to Hull Tigers) are still prevalent.  You still have your Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, Los Angeles Galaxy, etc.  But the Europeanization is impossible to ignore because of its sheer absurdity. Not that there is anything wrong with European influence on the league.  The rise of organized fan groups and the culture of the tifo, especially in the Pacific Northwest clubs of Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland (see this Portland Timbers tifo for an example), are a testament to the passion and dedication of American and Canadian supporters who take inspiration from their continental counterparts.

But there is a distinction between inspiration and wholesale appropriation of cultural institutions with which a club shares no connections.  The former is an inevitable process of cross-cultural exchange; Italian Ultra culture, for example, has influenced supporter groups from the Iberian peninsula to the Balkans and beyond.  But the latter is a hollow attempt at mimicry.  Here, then, are the three teams which best exemplify this unfortunate phenomenon.

Sporting Kansas City

We begin with the least egregious offender.  Sporting Kansas City were founded as the Kansas City Wiz in 1996 before changing their name to the Wizards the following year.  They were a moderately successful side who won their first MLS Cup in 2000 and the US Open Cup in 2004. But they were among the least popular clubs in the league, with very poor attendance, low television ratings, and merchandise sales that were dead last in the league.  Then, in 2010, the club’s ownership decided to entirely overhaul and rejuvenate the organization.  This project included a new stadium, a forceful marketing offensive to get locals interested in the team, and of course, a name change. In a New York Times article on the Kansas City renaissance, Sam Borden discusses the name change:

“Among the top suggestions was the Kansas City Bees because, the consultants said, the bee is the official insect of both Missouri and Kansas.  Instead, the club opted for Sporting Kansas City, a European-sounding name that was emblematic of its hope of becoming more than just a soccer team. The Sporting name also dovetailed with the club’s European-style soccer stadium and concerted effort to appeal to the serious soccer fan.”

The word choice is important here: it is a “European-sounding” name, not a European name. The justification of the name by alluding to becoming “more than just a soccer team” is a noble but misguided effort.  As of now, Sporting Kansas City are just that: a soccer team.  The name Sporting actually means something more.  Sporting Clube de Portugal, commonly known outside of Portugal as Sporting Lisbon, are the most widely recognized club who are known by that name.  And unlike Sporting Kansas City, they are actually a multi-sports club, fielding teams and supporting athletes in sports as diverse as archery, handball, and weightlifting.  It is, true to its name, a sporting club.  Admittedly, not all clubs that bear the Sporting name are still multi-sport clubs.  Sporting de Gijón of Spain currently only fields a football team, but in the past also fielded hockey, rugby, and handball teams.  The Sporting name is therefore not a misnomer but a continuation of the club’s historical legacy.  A legacy which Sporting Kansas City is trying to fabricate.

To be fair to the Kansas City club, their president announced plans to add rugby and lacrosse teams to the club to make it reflect its name.  As of now, however, these plans have not yet come to pass.  The Kansas City Blues rugby team does play the football team’s training facility as its home ground but is not formally a part of the Sporting club.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Sporting’s effort to adopt a more European sounding name or to market itself as “more than just a soccer team.”  But when this marketing strategy involves co-opting a piece of cultural heritage which has no connection to your own club, the entire project begins to feel forced and artificial.

Houston Dynamo

The merits on which Houston Dynamo made this list probably have more to do with ignorance as opposed to deliberate cultural appropriation.  The club was founded in 2005, when the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston, and began play in 2006.  The team was originally to be named Houston 1836 in reference to the year of the city’s founding.  The name was plagued by controversy, however, as 1836 is also the year of the Texas Revolution and the proposed crest featured a silhouette of General Sam Houston, a prominent figure in the revolution and Texas’s subsequent independence from Mexico.  The issue quickly became politicized and the 1836 name was dropped as a result of protests from the city’s substantial Hispanic majority.

In the midst of the fallout from the 1836 controversy, the Houston ownership opted for a new name for the nascent club: the Houston Dynamo.  President Oliver Luck explained the choice and apologized for the 1836 debacle:

“Dynamo is a word to describe someone who never fatigues, never gives up.  The new name is symbolic of Houston as an energetic, hard-working, risk-taking kind of town.  We never intended for the team’s name to offend any member of the Houston community.  We listened hard to the fan reaction and believe that the Houston Dynamo name is an exciting, appropriate and locally relevant new team brand.”

The name was also an homage to the Houston Dynamos, a team that played between 1983 and 1991 in various failed leagues before folding itself.  But dropping that last letter was significant. Dynamo, according to the Houston Chronicle, is “popular in European soccer, with teams such as Dynamo Moscow (Russia) and Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) among the most popular in the continent.”  The blatant hyperbole notwithstanding, the Chronicle makes a fair assessment. Dynamo, or Dinamo depending on the country, is a very common name for European teams. In addition to the two teams listed above, there is a Dinamo Tbilisi, Dinamo Minsk, Dinamo Bucharest, Dinamo Zagreb, Dynamo Dresden, and countless others.

What the chronicle fails to mention is that all of these clubs happen to be from the Soviet Union or the Soviet Bloc.  This is no coincidence.  Dinamo Moscow, a multi-sports club which was the first to bear the name, was founded by Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1923.  Dzerzhinsky is best known for establishing the Cheka, the notorious Soviet secret police agency that was a forerunner to the KGB.  In subsequent years, new Dynamo club were established with affiliations with either the Ministry of the Interior or the secret police in their respective countries.  In East Germany, for example, Stasi chief Erich Mielke was also the chairman of Sportvereinigung Dynamo, which ran many sporting clubs including the football club Dynamo Dresden.

It is highly doubtful that Oliver Luck had repressive Communist regimes or mass executions in mind when he unveiled the name ‘Dynamo’ for his Houston club.  Nor is it likely that the now defunct Soviet Ministry of Interior Affair has managed to clandestinely establish a football club on the Gulf of Mexico coast.  But the name Dynamo is inextricably linked to clubs with certain political connections which are hardly the sort that Houston – or any Western side for that matter – want to associate with their club.  Accidental appropriation is perhaps the best way to describe the situation, but it does not lessen the absurdity of the fact that a Texan team has adopted a name reserved for clubs in Communist countries affiliated with brutal, repressive organizations.

Real Salt Lake

The most flagrant example of this regrettable trend can be found in the quaint Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, Utah, which Real Salt Lake call home.  Real Salt Lake was founded in 2004 and there is no mystery about the origin of the name.  Then owner Dave Checketts explained that:

“In Madrid, I was looking at an organization that was amazing. I wanted to draw on Real Madrid’s brand credibility. And we wanted a name where no one would question what sport the team is playing, and that’s what Real Salt Lake is.”

He does have a point.  Real Madrid are, in terms of revenue, the biggest team in the world and sit comfortably in first place in Deloitte’s Football Money League.  Their brand is unmistakable, and there’s no question about what sport is the team is playing.  Even the most casual sports fan knows that Real Madrid = football.

But is brand recognition and marketability enough of a reason to name your club?  Let’s start with the obvious.  Real is a Spanish word meaning Royal.  Think about that for a second.  First off, the name is Spanish.  One might think that this could be a strategy to  increase the club’s appeal among the Hispanic community, but only 22.3% of the population of Salt Lake City is of Hispanic origin.  In comparison, in Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles, the three other cities in the Southwest with MLS teams, the percentage of Hispanics is 44%, 42.4%, and 48.5%, respectively.  Of course, these figures do not disprove the idea that the Spanish language name was chosen with the Hispanic community in mind.  But there is no evidence to support the idea that this thought crosses the minds of the executives making the decision.  No, it’s highly unlikely that the Spanish word Real was picked for any reason other than its association with Real Madrid.

Second, the translation of the word is Royal.  Royal.  In a country whose revered Declaration of Independence is essentially a big ‘fuck you’ to the King of England.  In a country founded on the explicit rejection of the institution of monarchy.  A country whose Constitution prohibits the government from granting titles of nobility.  What possible relevance does the name Royal hold to Salt Lake City, Utah, or anywhere in the United States for that matter?

Finally, the name Real does not just apply to Madrid.  Real Madrid wasn’t even the original name of the Madrid club; they were founded as Madrid FC and only became known by their modern name after being granted the title ‘Real’ by the Spanish King Alfonso XIII in 1920. Real Madrid were far from the only team to receive the patronage of the Spanish King, nor were they the first.  That honor was bestowed upon Real Club Deportivo La Coruña in 1907.  The clubs that received patronage tended to be from geographically diverse areas of Spain, e.g. Real Betis in Andalucia, Real Sociedead in the Basque Country, Real Club Deportivo Español in Catalonia, etc.  No word on whether Alfonso XIII ever made it out to the shores of the Great Salt Lake, however.

Admittedly Real Salt Lake have established an agreement with Real Madrid which involves biennial friendlies, annual training for RSL players at Real Madrid’s facilities, and the creation of a youth academy in Utah.  Though considering the nature of Real Madrid’s ‘special relationship’ with Spurs, it may not be long until we see Angel di Maria or Karim Benzema shipped off to the Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake’s major regional rival.

The christening of the Salt Lake club as ‘Real’ for explicitly business and branding purposes represents the most glaring example of cultural appropriation by MLS clubs.  The name has literally nothing to do with the community, with the city, or with the people.  It is simply a marketing ploy to increase the club’s brand recognition.  And while it is true that Real Madrid is an instantly recognizable brand, it is far, far more than that.  It is a club with deep roots in its community, an institution with a name that carries a legacy that far outweighs any marketing gimmick.

Final Thoughts

This article should not be taken as a condemnation of the MLS as a whole, but rather of the specific practices of cultural and historical appropriation mentioned above.  The sad irony of the situation is that this attempt at importing tradition and prestige is entirely unnecessary.

Teams such as the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers are drawing on the culture and history of their own locales while taking inspiration from European fan groups, and by doing so establishing a burgeoning tradition of supporter culture.  Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, and Houston Dynamo are all popular, successful clubs with impressive attendance figures.  Is this success really dependent on their names?  Would they not be better off adopting names that better reflect the cultural traditions of their cities?

As it stands, this is hardly an issue.  But, if, as senior spokesman Dan Courtemanche mentioned in the aforementioned BBC article, the goal of the MLS is to be among the best leagues of the world, surely nourishing a homegrown tradition and history is a better option than attempting to import pre-manufactured legacy and prestige from overseas.

Barrilete Cósmico: Malvinas, Maradona, Argentina & England

The scoreline is familiar, as is the fateful date, but surely the title for this article should be ‘The Hand of God’? Everyone knows that this was the game when England’s brave Three Lions and the hapless officials were slyly deceived by the diminutive Argentine, and thus any retrospective of the game must take this key moment as its starting point? Or perhaps not…the moment we always hark back to, with a characteristic tone of moral indignation, is remembered quite differently outside England.

The Quarter Final game may occupy a similar space in the Argentine collective memory in terms of its significance, but the epithet that is more commonly used in the Southern Cone, invoking the Uruguayan commentator’s interest in cosmology, refers predictably to the ‘other’ moment of otherworldly intervention that day.

The nature of knockout football dictates that any country’s success or defeat can and often is traced back to just a few seconds which decide a tense and even game and that these seconds ultimately go a long way to deciding the media narrative for the whole game or indeed the team’s entire campaign. All the hard work undertaken in qualifying and the group stage can very quickly be undone by just one moment of idiocy, genius or simply ill-fortune.Diego_Maradona_1_1017079c

For Argentines 1986 represents a moment of catharsis against a nemesis which far transcends the concerns of the football pitch, striking an especially raw nerve in the post-colonial Argentine psyche.

British colonial interest in Argentina dates back to the 19th Century when the British, with more than a smidgeon of self-interest, were among the first to acknowledge the independence of Argentina. From the early days of independence British interest in Argentina was significant (providing more than a third of all investment) playing a key role in the development of railway and tramway lines, agriculture, processing, refrigeration and export. One of the most indelible marks left, of course, was football, a legacy clearly visible in the nomenclature a number of Argentina’s biggest sides, ranging from River Plate and Boca Juniors to Newell’s Old Boys and All Boys (who currently play their football at the Estadio Islas Malvinas – The Falklands Isles Stadium).

Over time, Argentina have accrued a number of rivals in international football, ranging from five-time world champions Brazil to their smaller cousin Uruguay.

In the previous round, played at Estadio Cuautemoc in Puebla, Argentina deservedly overcome their River Plate neighbours and historic rivals by a goal to nil. However they are far from satisfied, for there are higher matters on their minds. One might think, in light of the historical bête noire role that the upstart buffer state has played in the history of both Argentinian and Brazilian football, that victory over their nearest neighbours would taste sweet.

Such is the superiority complex and sense of pride that Uruguayans feel with regard to their theoretically more powerful neighbour that the following phrase remains common on the streets of Montevideo ‘ataca Argentina, gol de Uruguay’ (Argentina attack, goal to Uruguay). As with any rivalry between two forces of unequal size, the rivalry means much more to the smaller adversary (think Wales and England at Rugby Union, or of any other surprisingly even David vs Goliath you see fit). Argentines feel more relief than joy at ousting Uruguay, a dangerous team and a firm rival.

However, I digress: The next round puts them on collision course with the real enemy: England. In football terms, 20 years on from Argentina’s controversial quarter final exit in 1966 at the hands of hosts and eventual winners England, there is a strange symmetry to be found – especially as the South Americans too would go on the lift the great trophy.

In 1966, of course, for those unfamiliar with the minutiae of England’s successful campaign, the Boca Juniors midfielder Antonio Rattin was famously dismissed for ‘looking at the referee the wrong way’ and/or ‘violence of the tongue’ by German referee Rudolf Kreitlein. Rattin was so incensed that it took at least eight minutes to convince him to leave the field and upon doing so he proceeded to sit on the Queen’s red carpet. Alf Ramsey, enraged at the Argentines’ performance, infamously labelled the South Americans ‘animals’ – a crassly chosen (or well-chosen if you are of the Alex Ferguson school of niggling) barb that further riled the already fuming Argentines. This comment came hot on the heels of Ramsey having instructing his players to break with protocol and refuse to swap shirts with their opponents.

Indeed the collective South American memory of the 1966 World Cup is one of particular bitterness, viewing the competition as a conspiracy of European bully-boy tactics and intimidation, most blatantly exemplified by holders Brazil and Pelé being (literally) kicked out of the tournament by their ex-colonial masters Portugal.

Of course, much of the popular feeling surrounding the game was linked to occurrences beyond the football field. With the Falklands War (Guerra de las Malvinas) fresh in the mind, the Argentine players felt an enormous responsibility to win a game that meant far more to their people than football. England still had to overcome Paraguay a day later, but the feeling was that it is meant to be. England were slowly improving after their traditional false start, qualifying second to an unfancied but talented Morocco side.

Whilst the Malvinas issue remains a potent force for populist unity and nationalism it is fair to note that the issue wasn’t of universal importance to all Argentines. Avant-garde Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges famously labelled the conflict as ‘una guerra de dos calvos por un peine’ (a war of two bald men fighting for a comb). The giant of Latin American literature, who like many of his contemporaries spent large chunks of his life in the spiritual homeland of Europe, incidentally, would pass away in Switzerland just a week before the game.

For those closer to the coal-face, wounds from the tragic war were still raw, and a burning sense of injustice colours the mere mention of the colonial antagonist. This could only be sated by a victory against the smug, superior colonial power personified by the crass, overzealous leadership of Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady famously offered a thumbs-up gesture to the British Press upon learning that 323 Argentines had perished following an attack on the ARA General Belgrano, which was moving away from the islands and was outside of the Malvinas Exclusion Zone.

It was quickly proved that Britain’s military might could not be matched by the Argentines deeming the invasion a pointless exercise for all concerned, but on the football field Argentina had long matched or outclassed their European neighbours with a nexus of guile, flair and the individualism of the criollo style.

The mid-eighties found Argentina lurching from crisis to crisis battling against hyper-inflation, a cause of the countries commitment to Washington Consensus driven neo-liberalism, whilst recovering from a macabre period of state-sponsored terror and disappearances under the military dictatorship and its participation in the trans-national repression of Operation Condor. Football, as always, provided a release valve for the beleaguered Argentine masses.

Outside of more local ‘derbies’ and ‘clásicos’ the Argentina – England rivalry is surely the most deep-rooted antagonism between teams from different continents.

Within the Americas Argentines are not noted for their popularity. A popular Latin American joke asks how an Argentine commits suicide, explaining that he climbs to the top of his ego and then jump  (¿Cómo se suicida un argentino? ¡Se sube a su ego y luego salta!). Any notion of Latin American solidarity is often utopian and misplaced. The subtle nuances of each nation state prevent it and often actively encourage the opposite. The existence of terms like ‘boliguayo’, a derogatory catch-all portmanteau used to refer to immigrants from Bolivia and Paraguay, goes some way to explaining the unpopularity of Argentina in those two countries. On a more general level, large swathes of the continent tend to see themselves as ‘mestizo’ (mixed-race), owing to miscegenation in the early colonial period. Argentina’s historical development was closer to that of the United States, importing a European middle class from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.

Despite all this however, one point of continent-wide unity is the Falklands issue. Lula da Silva of Brazil questioned the ‘geographical, political and economic explanation for the islands sovereignty’, whilst Ecuador’s Rafael Correa suggested that Latin American countries should actively pursue economic sanctions against the British.

With this in mind Latin Americans outside Argentina found themselves faced with a strange dilemma, of the sort every football fan is often faced with: that of which side represents the lesser evil? It’s probably fair to say that the quarter-final game, between Argentina and England, carried a significant political edge to it. It’s a game where Bill Shankly’s tongue-in-cheek old adage about the game being more important than life and death, for a short while, in certain places, seemed to have a ring of truth to it. Nationalist sentiment was augmented by the fact that only three of Argentina’s side were playing their club football in Europe. A largely Argentine-based squad were united by their shared experiences of life in their home country.

After much fanfare the game began with Argentina controlling the early stages without managing to make the vital breakthrough. Significantly Terry Fenwick deservedly received an early booking for hacking Maradona, a common theme throughout the tournament. Persistent intentional fouling ostensibly is as much an infringement of the game’s rules (and spirit) as using a hand, but somehow within the strange hypocrisy of English footballing values isn’t. The first chance saw Beardsley hit the side-netting after Nery Pumpido clumsily spilled the ball, way off limits. Argentina came out liberated from the cautiousness of previous games, with Olarticochea particularly causing problems for the English defence. Argentina had clearly done their homework on England with Hector Enrique deployed to shackle the classy Glenn Hoddle and Jose Cuciuffo and Oscar Ruggeri tight on Lineker and Beardsley.

Half time came with the sides deadlocked, little does the watching world know that two of the most remembered moments of World Cup history will come in a whirlwind six minutes. Both incidents, inevitably, involve the player of the tournament and arguably the greatest player of all time: Diego Maradona.

The first goal is described with bumbling inaccuracy by Barry Davies. The familiar received pronunciation of the Englishman faithfully representing the Corinthian values of the game that took root over a century ago and remain dominant to this day, much to the chagrin and bemusement of the rest of the world.

‘Maradona just walked away from Hoddle then,  Valdano….Hodge….. and Maradona….they’re appealing for offside, the ball came back off the foot of Steve Hodge, and Maradona gives Argentina the lead, the England players are protesting, but the little man who started it by walking past Glenn Hoddle, there’s where the ball by Hodge, Maradona had continued the run forward and the goal is given. At what point was he offside? Or was it a use of a hand that England were complaining about?’

Quicker off the mark, however, was the most famous narration of the ‘Argentinian’ side of the game, which actually came from a Uruguayan, Victor Hugo Morales. Morales quickly realises what has happened and instinctively takes the side of the Argentines, or perhaps more accurately is against the colonial nation. Morales at least acknowledges that his stance is no dodgy moral ground, pleading for the forgiveness of God for what he has said:

‘Ahí tiene la pelota Argentina y el partido, ¿para cuando Argentina y el gol?, Vamos muchachos..La pelota viene para Batista, Batista para Henrique, Henrique cambia para el vasco, allá vino para Olarticoechea, que lo tiene a Diego como número diez, a Giusti como número nueve, a Burruchaga de ocho y Valdano de siete. La pelota va para Maradona, Maradona. Puede tocar para Henrique, siempre Maradona y su dribbling ,se va, se va entre tres siempre Diego, Genial Genial! Toco Para Valdano! Entró Maradona, Saltó frente a Shilton… Cabeceoooó… mano… Goooooool, goooooool, goooooool, goooooool, arrrrrrgentino. Diego, Diego Armando Maradona, entro a buscar después de una jugada maravillosa. Un rechazo para atrás. Saltó con la mano, para mí. Para convertir el gol, mandando la pelota por arriba de Peter Shilton. El línea no lo advirtió, el árbitro lo miró desesperadamente, mientras los ingleses entregaban todo tipo de justificadas protestas, para mí. El gol fue con la mano, lo grito con el alma, pero tengo que decirles lo que pienso. Solo espero que me digan de Buenos Aires, si están mirando el partido en televisión ahora mismo, por favor, si fue válido el gol de Maradona, aunque el árbitro lo dio. Argentina está ganando por uno a cero. Que Dios me perdone lo que voy a decir: contra Inglaterra, hoy, aún así, con un gol con la mano, que quiere que le diga.’

‘Argentina have the ball, and in this match, when will the goal come? Come on boys! The ball comes to Batista, Batista to Enrique, Enrique to the Basque, then on to Olarticoechea, who has Maradona the number 10, Giusti wearing 9, Burrachaga 8 and Valdano 7. The ball goes to Maradona. He could give it to Enrique, still Maradona and his running, he goes on, he goes on past three, incredible, incredible, touches it for Valdano, Maradona goes on, he jumps with Shilton, he heads…..handball! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal for Argentina! Diego, Diego Armando Maradona, went in after a fantastic piece of play. A backpass and he led with a hand for me, to score the goal, sending the ball above Peter Shilton. The linesman didn’t spot it, the referee looks desperately at him, while the English make their justified (for me) protests known. The goal was scored using a hand, I celebrate it with all my soul, but I must say what I think. I hope you tell me, from Buenos Aires, if you’re watching the game, if the goal was fair, though the referee has given it. Argentina are leading 1-0. God forgive me for what I’m going to say: against England today, even like this, with a goal scored with the hand, what do you want me to say?’

The inquest, and analysis of the incident, are still going on of course, with sporadic bursts of bile and bitterness from the English side and occasional exaggerated and absurd invocations of otherworldly intervention from the Argentine side.

Indeed the bloody personification of the English Corinthian spirit, Singapore-born Terry Butcher suggested that he would love to see Maradona again in order to ‘stick one on him’. Presented with two opportunities to do so (at friendly and testimonial games) Butcher did nothing, presumably too busy foaming at the mouth with self-righteous indignation.

The narrative of the ‘darker arts of Southern Cone’ football only tell half the story of course. Coach Carlos Bilardo set the tone for the way the 1986 team played. Whether the Cesar Luis Menotti team of 1978 would have approached the game in the same way. Regardless of this, the ‘good-bad’ dichotomy which the previous comment suggests and the whole Menotti-Bilardo debate is often presented as, is surely a gross oversimplification of many complex issues, and therein lies the problem.

The infamous incident was best captured by Mexican photographer Alejandro Ojeda Carvajal, who perfectly caught the moment Maradona ‘beats’ Shilton to the ball. Worse was to come for England of course. Just a few minutes later, still reeling from the first goal, they were beaten by a goal more fitting of comparison with higher powers.article-1087774-0050F98700000258-255_468x306

Accounts of Victor Hugo Morales Spanish language commentary for this goal, uncannily, are much easier to find, as the goal provides a perfect example of the emotion that the game can bring at its best. The once in a lifetime moment was described like this:

“Ahí la tiene Maradona, lo marcan dos, pisa la pelota, Maradona, arranca por la derecha el genio del fútbol mundial. Y deja el tercero, puede tocar para Burruchaga… siempre Maradona. ¡Genio, genio, genio! Ta, ta, ta, ta, ta … ¡Gooooooool gooooooool! ¡Quiero llorar! ¡Dios santo, viva el fútbol, golaaaazo! ¡Diegoooool!!! Maradona! Es para llorar, perdónenme. Maradona, en una corrida memorable, en la jugada de todos los tiempos, barrilete cósmico, ¿de qué planeta viniste para dejar en el camino a tanto inglés?, para que el país sea un puño apretado gritando por Argentina. Argentina 2 – Inglaterra 0. ¡Diegol, Diegol!, Diego Armando Maradona. Gracias, Dios, por el fútbol, por Maradona, por estas lágrimas, por este Argentina 2 – Inglaterra 0.”

Maradona on the ball now. Two closing him down. Maradona rolls his foot over the ball and breaks away down the right, the genius of world football. He goes past a third, looks for Burruchaga. Maradona forever! Genius! Genius! Genius! He’s still going… Gooooal! Sorry, I want to cry! Good God! Long live football! What a goal! A memorable run from Maradona. The greatest solo goal of all time. Cosmic Kite, which planet did you come from leaving so many English players behind, and in this process turning the country into a clenched fist shouting for Argentina! Argentina 2 England 0. Diego Diego! Diego Armando Maradona! Thank you God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears and for this scoreline: Argentina 2 England 0.’

The goal is immortalised and always referred to on the other side of the ocean as ‘barrilete cósmico’, the spontaneous reaction of Victor Hugo Morales that day, who explains his comment by saying that at that time he had taken an interest in cosmology and often used its imagery to describe otherworldly moments. The words alone do the commentary little justice, it’s worth a listen just to hear the primal scream of joy at bearing witness one of football’s seminal moments.

A goal of similar quality is not beyond the realms of possibility, but to produce it at a crucial moment in a World Cup Quarter Final against high-quality opposition seems less likely. It is also noteworthy that a couple of opportunities to bring Maradona down were passed up. In the name of the Corinthian spirit and being committed to trying to win the ball cleanly, the English players mentality was not given to simply chopping the player as a recourse within the games rules and regrouping. Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it does seem inconceivable that a more pragmatic nation would concede the same goal.

Amongst a plethora of analysis for the goal comes a bit of humour (that could almost be English) from Hector Enrique, one of the many anonymous mere mortals who shared a pitch with Maradona in 1986. Enrique deadpanned the following:

‘Con el pase que le di a Maradona, si no hacía gol era para matarlo’  (‘With the pass that I gave Maradona, we’d have killed him if he didn’t score’)

Stunned by the stellar events of the few minutes after half time, belatedly Bobby Robson tweaked his line up bringing on Chris Waddle for Peter Reid on 65 minutes and  unleashing John Barnes in place of Trevor Steven. The width of Barnes, who produced a fleeting glimpse in an England shirt of what he produced so often in the red of Liverpool, made for a great finale to the game as he carved out a stereotypically English goal for Lineker. Indeed with a carbon copy cross from Barnes minutes later Lineker came desperately close to making it 2-2. Rumours abound that Barnes was unable to produce his club form as Bobby Robson insisted he remain closer to his full-back fulfilling a defensive role. The truth of this, and whether it was necessary to be more cautious at international level, could long be debated.

Returning to the significance of the game, and the strong link between football and national identity in the popular mind-set, years later the Argentine sociologist Eduardo Archetti recalls a chant steeped in the pervasive machismo of Latin American society that became popular in Argentina in the aftermath of the game ‘Thatcher, Thatcher donde estas? Maradona, Maradona te anda buscando, para metertela por detras!’ (Thatcher, Thatcher where are you? Maradona is looking for you to screw you from behind!’) Aside from its rather unsubtle but entertaining imagery, the chant neatly ties together the importance of football to national pride and the link Argentine fans saw between the game and real life.

On a slightly more serious level, perhaps the most meaningful analysis of the game, and its larger symbolic meaning, came from a player Maradona was not especially fond of, Jorge Valdano.

En un partido de un grandísimo valor simbólico, Maradona mostró las dos formas de ser del argentino. En el primer gol muestra la trampa, la picardía criolla o la viveza. Argentina es un país donde el engaño tiene más prestigio que la honradez. Pero también tiene otra cara. Es la del virtuosismo y la habilidad. En el segundo gol Maradona corona el partido con una obra de arte. Es la habilidad, la gambeta, la nuestra

‘It’s a game which has huge symbolic value, Maradona showed the two sides of being an Argentine. The first goal shows the deceit, the creole cunning and the sharpness. Argentina is a place where deceit has more prestige than honesty. But it also has another face and that is one of virtue and ability. With the second goal Maradona crowns the match as a work of art. It is flair, the gambeta (Latin American style dribbling), our style)

Valdano touches upon the great dichotomy in Argentine football which differentiates between the style exemplified by Argentina’s two World Cup winning coaches Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo. Menotti, the chain-smoking left-wing bon vivant favours an artful, high-tempo interpretation of the Argentine passing game, with a strong emphasis on entertaining and playing the game the ‘right’ way whereas Bilardo shamelessly draws heavily on the darker arts of the game privileging victory above all else. For further information on these two please see Futebol Forca vs Futebol Arte.

The conclusion that Argentina is a country where deceit holds more prestige than honesty is backed up by the man himself – Diego. Maradona speaks of his pride on having put one over on the English in this way. The idea of resorting to cunning to put one over on the oppressor is deep rooted in the mentality of the downtrodden Latin American underclass.

A veces siento que me gustó más el de la mano, el primero. Ahora sí puedo contar lo que en aquel momento no podía, lo que en aquel momento definí como La mano de Dios…qué mano de Dios, ¡fue la mano del Diego! Y fue como robarle la billetera a los ingleses, también’ (At times, I feel like I liked the goal with the hand more. Now I can tell you what I couldn’t at that time, what I defined as the hand of God: what hand of God? It was the hand of Diego, and it was like pickpocketing the English too)

Maradona’s visceral description of the moment sat well with Uruguayan romantic poet Mario Benedetti, who felt fit to chip in with the following observation:

Aquel gol que le hizo Maradona a los ingleses con la ayuda de la mano divina, es por ahora la única prueba fiable de la existencia de Dios’ Mario Benedetti (‘that goal that Maradona scored against the English with the Hand of God is, for now, the only conclusive proof of the existence of God’)

Even in Europe, one of Italy’s greatest ever strikers Silvio Piola felt that all was fair in love and war, saying that he too had scored with his hand against England, whilst representing Italy, and celebrated the goal. Piola suggested that Italian fans should remember this when Maradona returned to Italy after the World Cup.

The essentialisation of such national characteristics, of course, is foolish and misleading. The likes of Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Sampaoli for example, are unlikely to have taken such pride at having ‘pickpocketed’ the opponent. The common belief that a sense of fairness is an innate characteristic unique to the Corinthian spirit of the English, which other nations are unable to comprehend, is one that surely holds us back.

Argentina, of course, would go on to defeat Belgium in the Semi-Final and finally West Germany in a memorable final. The last truly great World Cup ended with Burrachaga slipping the ball past Harald Schumacher to trigger a wave of celebration across Argentina, and who knows, maybe even elsewhere in South America.

Of course, not all were pleased to see Argentina lift the trophy in 1986. In fact a couple of decades later, still boiling with rage and jealousy, Pelé acerbically observed that ‘O único gol de cabeça importante que marcou foi com a mão’ (the only important header he scored was with his hand). The petty feud between two of the world’s greatest ever players (notice the word order – not THE two greatest) does neither player any credit, but is symptomatic of the violent emotions which football unleashes.

George Orwell was quick to dismiss the game offering the following analysis ‘Football has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disegard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’

Whilst part of his statement is hyperbolic and rather contentious, one could argue that the idea of football being war minus the shooting could equally be used to defend the game. Even the most partisan football fan tends to accept things for what they are after a time. (Almost) no English fan disputes the genius of Maradona’s second goal, even the man himself owned up to his misdemeanour and generally speaks positively of English football. Many subjective debates rage on in football, but surely in a generally harmless and innocuous way.

History is nearly always written by the victors, giving rise to dominant epistemologies of meaning, which define our understanding of our surroundings in terms dictated by those who emerge victorious. Argentine anthropologist Walter Mignolo underlines this in his ‘Idea of Latin America’ text, which brings into question our geo-political understanding of the world.

In footballing terms, a game which exemplifies the way different narratives are conveniently produced to represent historic events, it would be Argentina’s 1986 victory over England, which to this day feeds into our historic understanding of what is to be expected from a football team from both nations. The English understanding of the game cultivates and feeds into our holier-than-thou moralism along with the accompanying assumptions that good honesty industry will win out. Alf Ramsey’s ‘animals’ remark and the much-talked about first goal also nourish the xenophobic notion of ‘dirty Argies’ and/or countries of less moral fibre than the British. Of course the Argentine perspective, as represented by a Uruguayan commentator, is also highly subjective and is steeped in its own historical prejudice and/or a persecution complex. Football, at least, provides an arena to debate and understand these partialities and prejudices however, and surely isn’t as bad for international relations as George Orwell suggests.

Glorious Failures: Hungary’s Golden Team

This is part one of a three-part series.

The Glorious Failure Phenomenon

As a rule, success in football is measured by trophies.  Setting aside all ideological arguments over the merits of beauty over efficiency aside, the teams that have gone down in history are those that have won when it counts: World Cups, European Championships, European Cups, League Titles, etc.  Greatness requires victory.

And yet, there are exceptions.  A select few international sides have been able to transcend their failures on the pitch to take their place among the pantheon of greatness.  The 1954 Hungary, 1974 Holland, and 1982 Brazil sides are emblematic of this ‘glorious failure’ phenomenon.  Over the next several weeks Café Futebol will examine these three legendary sides and attempt to understand the reasons for why their reputations arguably outweigh their accomplishments.  This will not be a general history of these sides; more than enough has been written on that front.  Instead, this series will focus on why history has been so kind to these glorious losers, when so many others have been cast aside and forgotten.  We start with the Magical Magyars.

The Legend of the Aranycsapat

To anyone well-versed in footballing history, the Hungarian side of the 1950s needs no introduction. Boasting such star names as Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, and, Nándor Hidegkuti, and with the innovative Gusztáv Sebes at the helm, the Aranycsapat (Hungarian for Golden Team, as they are known) were the best team in the world in the early 1950s.  They eased to an Olympic Gold Medal in 1952 and the following year gave England a footballing lesson and shocked the English football establishment to its core.  The 6-3 victory at Wembley is considered one of the greatest performances of all time, and they followed it up with a 7-1 victory over the Three Lions in Budapest the following year.  From 1950 through 1956 they accumulated a record of 42 victories, 7 draws, and just one defeat.  That defeat, however, happened in the 1954 World Cup Final.

The Aranycsapat

Despite their failure to win when it mattered most, the Aranycsapat is widely recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time.  In his fantastic blog Football Pantheon, journalist Miguel Delaney places them 7th in his list of the greatest international teams of all time, a full 17 slots ahead of the West German side which defeated them in that fateful final.  From a purely results-oriented perspective, it is obvious that the Magical Magyars were awfully impressive; their record contains just one blemish, albeit a very prominent one.  Nevertheless, to truly understand their significance in football history and lofty reputation as one of the greatest sides of all time, we must look beyond just results.

Tactical Innovation

In stark contrast to the rigid traditionalism which hampered tactical evolution in England, footballing attitudes on the continent were much more conducive to change and experimentation.  Vienna was a hotspot for such innovation and it gave rise to what has since become known as the ‘Danubian School’ of football.  Jimmy Hogan, an expatriate Englishman who stressed the merits of passing and movement, found the Central Europeans much more receptive to his ideas than his compatriots. Hugo Meisl’s success with the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s and their exhilarating style of play reinforced the Danubians’ belief in the tenets preached by Hogan, and a tactical tradition was established. Though Meisl was essentially a conservative and a did not stray from the 2-3-5 formation, his use of Mathias Sindelar as a withdrawn centre forward proved prophetic.

Hungarian football was firmly within the Viennese sphere of influence and its coaches tended to be adherents of the Danubian School.  By the time the second World War had ended the 2-3-5 has been replaced as the dominant formation by the W-M, effectively a 3-2-2-3.  The focal point of this system was a centre forward who was usually big, powerful, and neither particularly skillful nor technical. The legendary journalist Brian Glanville characterized the classic English conception of the #9 as “the brainless bull at the gate.”

Márton Bukovi, manager of Hungarian club side MTK, lacked such a player, and thus decided to improvise.  He took one of his wing-halves, Péter Palotás, and put him in the centre forward role.  He was a centre forward in name only.  In reality, he was withdrawn into the midfield and played effectively as an attacking midfielder.  The experiment was succesful, and Palotás went on to start for the national team and was a regular for the side that won gold at the 1952 Olympic Games.  But in September of that year, Hungary manager Gusztáv Sebes made a fateful substitution.  During a friendly which Hungary was losing 2-0 to Switzerland, he brought on the 30 year old Nándor Hidegkuti to replace Palotás.  Hungary came back to win 4-2, and Hidegkuti’s performance was so impressive that he became the undisputed starter. Though often referred to as a withdrawn centre-forward, Jonathan Wilson argues in his exhaustive history of football tactics Inverting the Pyramid that “he was, in modern terminology, simply an attacking midfielder.”

The ‘invention’ of the attacking midfielder as a re-imagining of the role of the centre forward was just one of the tactical innovations pioneered by the Hungarians.  The two full backs, Mihály Lantos and Jenő Buzánszky, were given license to roam down the flanks.  In the midfield, József Bozsik advanced forward to support Hidegkuti while his midfield partner József Zakariás sat back and was played almost as an auxiliary centre back.  According to Wilson, this set up was “a hair’s breadth from 4-2-4.”  Considering that the 4-2-4 was the formation so successfully adopted by the Brazilians.  It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the early advocates of 4-2-4 in Brazil was Béla Guttman, a Hungarian manager who introduced the formation during his spell at São Paulo in 1957-58.   

It is important not to view the tactical innovations of the Magical Magyars in isolation from tactical development as a whole.  Bukovi, Sebes, and Guttman, were all heavily influenced by the Danubian School and their tactical philosophies represent a historical continuity with their predecessors, not a break with the past.  The withdrawn centre forward, after all, was not even a Hungarian invention. Hungarian managers took already existing ideas and tweaked them according to their own needs and to better suit the circumstances.  Nevertheless, few tactical developments have resonated so heavily in the world and especially in the home of football.  The impact of the Aranycsapat would have been impossible without one sterling performance at Wembley.

Glory at Wembley…

On their way to the Gold Medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Hungary met Sweden in the semifinals.  Sweden were supposed to be one of the favorites, but were cast aside 6-0. Stanley Rous, secretary of the FA and future FIFA President, was in attendance and extended an invitation to his Hungarian counterpart to come play a friendly at Wembley.  The game was set for November 1953.  Sebes prepared his side meticulously.  They used heavier British balls and practiced on a pitch the size of Wembley.  The world had by now taken notice of the Hungarians, but few could have expected what was to come.

England was not unbeatable, as their embarrassing defeat to the USA in the 1950 World Cup demonstrated, but still the English media were unyielding in their belief that they were the best side in the world, theirs was the right way of playing the game.  Up until 1953 England has only ever lost one match against foreign opposition, and that was to Ireland four years prior.  England’s perceived domination in that match and Ireland’s status as a former colony probably mitigated the reaction to that result.  The world had been catching up to England for a long time, but they were oblivious.  Journalist Frank Coles wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “Hungary’s superb ball-jugglers can be checked by a little firm tackling.”  Here it was, the pervasive attitude that a bit of English grit and determination was all that was needed.

Billy Wright exchanges pennants with Puskás before the famous match (source: BBC)

“How long does it take for am empire to die? How long does it take to lose a match?” asks David Goldblatt in The Ball is Round. Forty-five seconds.  That is how long it takes for the Hungarians to take the lead in a fluid passing move.  Hungary dominates the match. England’s defense has no idea how to to deal with Hidegkuti’s withdrawn position.  They are unable to keep up with their quick passing, their impeccable technique.  One moment in particular starts out. In the 24th minute, with Hungary up 2-1, Puskás collects a low ball from Zoltán Czibor at the edge of the 6-yard box.  With England captain Billy Wright bearing down, Puskás calmly drags the ball back and beats the England keeper on the near post.  Wright ends up slide tackling empty air.  The final score was 6-3, but the consensus was that the result was very flattering to the English.

No other match has so thoroughly shocked England and so upset their conception of the balance of power in world football.  The myth of English superiority was dispelled in such a convincing manner that Brian Glanville dubbed it a defeat “that gave eyes to the blind.” According to Sir Bobby Robson, “That one game alone changed our thinking. We thought we would demolish this team – England at Wembley, we are the masters, they are the pupils. It was absolutely the other way.”

It is hard to exaggerate the impact of the defeat in England.  A 7-1 result in Budapest the following year, to this day England’s worst ever result, confirmed Hungary’s superiority. Coaching methods were overhauled, archaic tactics called into question, and continental training regimens adopted. The 6-3 is perhaps the single most significant moment that explains the enduring legacy of the Aranycsapat.  Obviously they were a fantastic side, but the 6-3 demonstrated just how good they were.  Whether England were even worthy opponents is irrelevant; the shock they gave to the establishment and was enough to forever cement their place among the greatest sides of all time.

…And Tragedy in Bern

Nevertheless, as significant as the 6-3 was, it was still just a friendly result.  The World Cup the following summer would allow the Aranycsapot the opportunity to confirm what many already thought: that they were the best team in the world.  Hungary were the favorites in the tournament and started off brilliantly.  In the first round they hammered South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3.   After getting past Brazil in the quarterfinals in an ugly, violent encounter that has come to be known as “The Battle of Berne,” the Hungarians defeated defending champions Uruguay 4-2 in the semifinals to set up a rematch with West Germany.

The final was supposed to be crowning moment of all of their achievements over the past two years. Everything was going according to plan, as Hungary took a 2-0 lead just eight minutes into the match.  But just ten minutes later the scores were level, and six minutes from time West Germany took the lead.  Puskás had a goal controversially disallowed for an offside and that was that.  In Germany this match is known as the “Miracle of Bern,” the match that has come to symbolize the country’s emergence from the post-war depression and its development into an economic power in the years to come. But in Hungary, it was a tragedy.

The match and the reasons for the defeat have been subject to endless analysis.  Having already beaten the Germans so easily in the opening round, they were clearly the favorites in the final.  So what went wrong?

Only five of the players who started in the 8-3 defeat for West Germany featured in the final.  As the story goes, Sepp Herberger decided to rest his players and study Hungary while not showing his hand, as he was confident of a win against Turkey in the ensuing playoff.  The veracity of this version of events is still disputed, but Herberger’s assistant Helmut Schön insists that it is true.

In the 8-3 against West Germany Puskás was tackled from behind by Werner Liebrich and was taken off injured.  He missed the next two matches with what was later revealed to be a hairline fracture.  In a book published the following year Puskás claimed that Liebrich set out deliberately to injure him, though in later years he retracted this accusation.  Whether Liebrich was trying to injure Puskás or not, when he returned for the final he was clearly not at his best.

To accomodate Puskás, Sebes was forced to switch Csibor to the right, Mihály Tóth played on the left, and Lászlo Budai was dropped.  In the subsequent inquest into Sebes’s tactical decision, some claimed that Tóth was only selected due to being the Sebes’s son-in-law, despite the fact that Sebes’s only daughter at the time was 10 and definitely not married.

West Germany celebrate their improbable victory (Source:

Though questionable tactics may have contributed to the result, ultimately Hungary were simply unlucky.  Their best player was injured.  It rained heavily in Bern the day before the final and all throughout the match; the waterlogged pitch severely impeded Hungary’s passing game.  Most importantly, Puskás’s 88th minute equalizer was disallowed by the Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths in what is generally believed to be the wrong decision.  “I could have murdered him,” said Puskás, “to lose the World Cup on such a decision just isn’t right.”

The Aranycsapat were denied their moment of catharsis.  The perception of their defeat as tragic and unjust has contributed to their legend.  The innovative, brilliant side that thrashed England at Wembley ended up agonizingly short of their final goal.  Perhaps the romantic idealization of the side is only possible as a result of their ultimate failure.  The narrative is made all the more alluring by the unjust and unlucky nature of the defeat to the West Germans.

The Political Aspect

Unlike the hero’s welcome they received after the 6-3 in Wembley, the reaction of the Hungarian public to the defeat in Bern was that of disappointment, anger, and violence.  The apartments of some players were ransacked, and wild allegations of the players throwing the match for a fleet of Mercedes were widely circulated.   Puskás bore the brunt of the public’s discontent and was dropped from the national team for his own safety.

The protests and demonstrations against the side that soon escalated into open discontent with the Communist regime.  According to Gyula Grosics, the goalkeeper of the Aranycsapat, “in those demonstrations… lay the seeds of the 1956 uprising.

Sebes, a trade union organizer in interwar France and thus a man with impressive socialist credentials, claimed that “if Hungary had won the football World Cup there would have been no counter revolution but a powerful thrust in the building of socialism in the country.”

It is all too tempting to conflate Hungary’s failure on the pitch with the subsequent political events of the 1950s, and such a view is a vast oversimplification of the obviously complex geopolitical situation.  Nevertheless, for better or worse the fate of the Aranycsapat and the Hungarian regime are inextricably tied together.  Grosics, a man with questionable political leanings who had a reputation as a loner and intellectual, was arrested several months after the Bern debacle and was imprisoned for 15 months.

Sebes was retained as national team manager and Hungary then went on an unbeaten streak for 18 months.  But after a string of poor results in early 1956 – a 3-1 defeat in Turkey, a 4-2 home loss to Czechoslovakia, and then throwing away a 3-1 half-time lead against Belgium – Sebes was publicly condemned by the Ministry of Sport for his bourgeois leanings and dismissed from his post.

As the national team disintegrated, so did the regime.  After Stalin’s death the reformist Imre Nagy became the Prime Minister in 1953 but just two years later he was deposed and expelled from the Communist Party, replaced by the Stalinist Mátyás Rákosi.  The hardline Stalinism of Rákosi, however, ran counter to the overall trend of de-Stalinization east of the Iron Curtain.  Rákosi was eventually removed in June of 1956 and there were popular calls for the reinstatement of Nagy.  In September the growing sense of self-determination and independence felt by the Hungarians was supplied with a footballing parallel as Hungary beat the Soviet Union for the first time ever in a friendly in Moscow.

But the Hungarian awakening would soon come to a violent end.  On October 23, 10,000 protesters met in the center of Budapest to march in solidarity with the Polish workers’ movement.  The protest soon escalated into a street battle between protesters and sympathizers against the secret police and Soviet loyalists.  A statue of Stalin was destroyed and by the 25th Nagy was reinstated as Prime Minister.

Less than two weeks later the Soviets invaded and crushed the Hungarian resistance.  Nagy was captured and eventually executed and a new puppet regime established.

During the revolution two of Hungary’s leading clubs, MTK and Honvéd, left the country and eventually embarked on tours of Western Europe and Latin America.  Most players returned home but three of the Honvéd squad: Puskás, Kocsis, Czibor, chose to remain in Western Europe and found new clubs.  Without these three players, the Aranycsapat was no more.  Though the Golden Team way have already been in decline since Bern, the Revolution ensured that there would be no renaissance.

Hungarian football has never reached the heights of the Golden Team.  As former Hungarian striker Tibor Nyilasi remarked, ‘it is as though Hungarian football is frozen at that moment, as though we have never moved on from then.”

Enduring Legacy

To return to our original question, why is Hungary’s Golden Team considered one of the best teams of all time, despite their failure to win a World Cup?  Why are they often ranked ahead of such victorious teams as the Uruguayans in 1950, the Brazilians of 1994, and even the West Germans of 1954, the team that defeated them in the final in Bern?

First and foremost, the Aranycsapat were simply a brilliant footballing side.  Their performances at the Olympics and especially at Wembley resonated throughout the footballing world.  Their tactical innovations paved the way for the legendary Brazilian sides of 1958 and beyond.  Their quality is beyond question.

But they never won the World Cup.  The juxtaposition between the glory of the 6-3 and the tragedy of Bern is what makes the Magical Magyars such a fascinating example of the glorious failure phenomenon.

Finally, the dismantling of the squad and of Hungarian football in general as a result of the Hungarian Uprising has cemented their status as the ultimate example greatness unfulfilled.  They may not have won the World Cup, but their place among the greatest sides of all time is completely understandable and justified.  Their story has everything but the catharsis of a World Cup victory.


Jonathan Wilson’s books, Inverting the Pyramid and Behind the Curtain, provided invaluable source material for this article, as did Davild Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round.