Why football is better than rugby
“Football is the only sport you can have 30 chances to 2 and still draw or even lose,” said a frustrated Pep Guardiola after a 2-2 draw with Tottenham in August. “In basketball, tennis, golf if you do what we did against Spurs, you win. That’s why this sport is so fascinating.”
Guardiola isn’t wrong – and on the weekend of the Rugby World Cup final it is worth reflecting on just how different football is to any other sport.
On Saturday, it’s unlikely that either England or South Africa will dominate the final and end up losing the game. There are sufficient scoring opportunities in rugby such that a team in control will eventually start accumulating points, even if their weaker opponents manage to steal a few up the other end. The excitement comes, in part, from not knowing which team will dominate, or if they will be evenly-matched.
The same can be said of basketball, an even higher-scoring sport. Of course there are closely-fought matches that could go either way, but dominant displays that still rest on a knife-edge until the closing moments – like Man City vs Spurs – are rare, if they happen at all.
In tennis, we can easily quantify the frequency of ‘unlucky’ defeats or ‘lucky’ wins. In fewer than 5% of best-of-five-set matches does the losing player actually win more points, and in the 2016 men’s majors any player who won 54% of points or more always won the match. It’s impossible to dictate the play and end up the loser.
But in football, we estimate that a team that should have ended up on the losing side – according to the balance of play of chances created – actually end up getting a draw or win 35% of the time. With scoring opportunities, and scores themselves, being so rare compared to other sports, there’s a fascinating level of unfairness that adds to football’s appeal. Whereas most sports have one degree of uncertainty – who will control the game? – football has another – will the team that controls the game actually win?
That’s all well and good as fans of football, but as key decision makers it is vital not to get misled by our team not getting the results we deserve. While in rugby a handful of results are a good enough barometer of performance, that simply isn’t true in football – and yet countless decisions on the head coach and players are made under this framework. Clubs that are most in control of their long-term destiny are actually the ones that recognise they have, compared to other sports, some of the least control of their short-term results.