April was jam-packed with games as the final stretch of the season bears down on us. The players battled through games in all competitions — from Serie A to Coppa Italia to the League of
Shadows Champions. It’s time, then, to discuss the most interesting trends of April!
April could easily have been a month where the season came crashing to a sorry end. The extraordinarily topsy-turvy Coppa Italia game against Napoli could have ended in heartbreak. Barcelona could have mounted another record-breaking comeback at the Camp Nou in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal. Napoli could have caused a real scare in the title race had they mustered a second goal at the San Paolo in the league game against Juventus.
But none of that happened.
Instead, here we are in May looking at a Champions League final in Cardiff, on the verge of a sixth consecutive Scudetto, and ready to battle against Lazio for the honor of this season’s Coppa Italia. I absolutely didn’t expect us to be in such a stellar position in May, so I’m sincerely grateful for and proud of this team of champions; this team of greats that sacrifice themselves for the will of the collective. Then again, we could still blow it all in a matter of weeks, so celebrating an almost-achievement is as meaningless as, well, whatever the opposite of that is.
Nevertheless, it’s only right that I recognize and commend the team’s — and Max Allegri’s! — performances over the last month after fighting through a whopping eight games in 26 days. Not all the performances were a joy to behold — ahem, Atalanta and Napoli, ahem — but given the circumstances and relatively thin squad, the team maintained an admirably high standard of play throughout their fixtures. Granted, it helped that Juve faced the likes of Pescara, Chievo, and Genoa along the way, but hey, if you so convincingly and beautifully beat a phenomenal team like Barcelona in the process, I think I can cut you some slack.
The Availability Cascade
Speaking of Barcelona, I was un-surprised to see a sharp increase in the number of discussions regarding referees in the buildup to that quarterfinal tie. This wasn’t helped, of course, by a rather controversial second-leg encounter elsewhere across the continent, but it was still inevitable regardless of that. The public’s distrust of the governing authorities (seems to be a common theme these days, no?) and cries of rage, conspiracies, and fear after that first leg between Real Madrid and Bayern actually got me thinking about a book I’ve reading lately.
In the typically eccentric and bewildering way my brain works, I discovered a connection between parts of this book by Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, and the worryingly malicious levels of anger felt by fans during those Champions League fixtures. This connection stems from a term called “the availability cascade.”
An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic … This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by “availability entrepreneurs,” individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news.
Thinking, Fast and Slow; Page 142
Now I know what you’re thinking: That referee performance in the Madrid-Bayern game was anything but “a relatively minor event” man! What about all the times Barca had referee favors, especially that crazy game against PSG?!
From my perspective, these events were relatively minor in their frequency, relative to the number of games that have occurred without referee controversies. But the times that these unfortunate events did happen, they managed to stand out powerfully in our memories such that “our emotional reactions to them become a story in itself.” The pattern unfolds rapidly in the way Kahneman describes in the passage above — also thanks to “availability entrepreneurs” (i.e. mainstream sport media outlets that continue to talk about the controversies — and before you know it a majority of fans distrust referees. It’s more of a public uproar instead of a public panic.
I know it seems like I’m some kind of noble warrior that intends to glorify and protect the integrity of referees and turn a blind eye to their deficiencies, but I can assure you that this is not the case. My intention, one which has grown stronger and stronger in other areas of my life as I’ve gotten older, is to bring as much reason and rationality to this discussion as possible. Why are we so scared of refereeing controversies in big games like these? Why do we always suspect them of conspiracies? Why do we let relatively infrequent occasions dominate our memories and perceptions of the world around us?
I’m not a betting man, but for once I dare to venture a bold guess: if you were to objectively assess every single refereeing decision in the Champions League and/or La Liga over the last five seasons to see how many were “correct” and how many were “incorrect”, you would easily find no systematic bias in favor of either Barcelona, Real Madrid, or the flippin Tooth Fairy for that matter. To paraphrase Don Draper, the universe is indifferent, so nobody is “out to get” your team. Kahneman sums it all up beautifully (with my notes in brackets):
We are pattern seekers, believers in a coherent world in which regularities appear not by accident but as a result of mechanical causality or of someone’s intention [UEFA]. We do not expect to see regularity produced by a random process [the occasional refereeing screw-up], and when we detect what appears to be a rule [UEFALONA CONSPIRACY!], we quickly reject the idea that the process is truly random.
Random processes produce many sequences [big teams getting the occasional rub of the green] that convince people that the process is not random after all.
Thinking, Fast and Slow; Page 115
In appreciation of defense… and balance
After the glorious victory against Barcelona, it was quite a sight to see the media shower Juventus with lavish praise after their display of defensive prowess against the Spanish giants. As much as I loved basking in the glory of our remarkable victory, I finally realized something that, honestly, I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me so long to realize that defending really can be as beautiful as attacking.
As I write this, I can’t help but have a wry grin on my face of “Wow, it really took me that long to realize this, didn’t it?” To be fair, I don’t necessarily adore the ‘beauty’ of seeing a defensive unit shift across the penalty area. No, I realized that I developed a true admiration for the brilliantly-timed, crunching tackle; for the clairvoyant foresight to step up to intercept a pass before the opponent even realized you were there; and, of course, for the fantastic save by the goalkeeper to save his team. More than anything, I finally realized that it’s ok – better yet, it’s feels amazing – to celebrate a brilliant piece of defending as much as it is to celebrate a glorious goal.
Maybe the reason that I feel so conflicted about this issue is because I feel like I’m treading the fine line of hypocrisy. It’s only fair to admit that I despised, utterly despised, the notoriously defensive Chelsea team of 2012 and, tribal allegiances aside, the even more defensive treble-winning Inter of 2010. Granted, I was only a young,
innocent, wishful, love-seeking 18- or 19-year-old kid around that time and thus very prone to emotional extremes, but I still remember siding with those that viciously criticized the spirit/intention of those two teams’ styles of play. How could any lover of football ever, EVER, remotely like defensive football?
That being said, as I’ve grown older and matured over the last few years, another skill that has tremendously impacted every area of my life is that of emotional temperance or, if you will, balance. As favor has it, this has also greatly helped me to perceive football in a more sane, humane, and holistic manner.
Defensive football isn’t bad. Offensive football isn’t good. A country isn’t good; a country isn’t bad.
It simply is.
Change is neither good nor bad. It simply is.
– Don Draper
Taking that theme of emotional temperance further, I realized how much more beautiful and admirable it is to balance both sides of the madness than it is to just play defensively or just play gung-ho offensive football. Plus, I succeeded in reconciling that uncomfortable feeling of hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance.
Earth. Fire. Air. Water.
Only The Avatar can master all four elements
And bring balance to the world.
At the end of the day, it’s ok to celebrate a bruising Chiellini tackle or an intelligent Bonucci interception. You’re not a “champagne football drunkard fanboy” if you’re exhilarated by a blitzing 5-0 victory filled with bicycle kicks and no-look passes. But imagine how much better off you would be if you could appreciate and harness all those elements into one wholesome perspective.
You probably won’t reach the Avatar State just yet, but you’ll definitely have a much healthier view of this beautiful game we call football. And perhaps too, of this other curious game we call life.