English football fans at the FIFA World Cup in Russia are singing the “3 Lions” song with its refrain, “It’s coming home.” By ‘it’ they mean the World Cup. The ‘coming home’ reference is to the fact that England invented the game, some flickers of the imperial spirit still burn.
The song is one of raised hopes and lamentations. It was written more than 20 years ago and it refers back to the 1966 final in London, 30 years before that, the only time England have won the World Cup. The song then catalogues various heroic English footballing moments that have happened since but never led to the final victory.
I often use top level sport as an example of complex adaptive systems. Complex adaptive systems are unpredictable. There are too many variables to know what will happen. They are also patterned and, in working with them, we look to enable beneficial patterns to emerge.
High level sports, especially those with large fan bases following them on television, depend for their success on being patterned enough to be able to be widely understood and seen to be fair (and not fixed) and also to be unpredictable enough to be full of suspense and excitement. That is what keeps us watching. We just cannot be certain how it will turn out. The manager of the Uruguayan team, Oscar Tabárez, offered an inadvertent definition of complexity last week, after his team had won their first match with a goal literally in the last minute: “The paths to scoring a goal are infinite and they’re all valid.”
Seventy-seven countries have competed in the 20 World Cup tournaments held since it began in 1930. England are one of only eight countries to have won the trophy but they are usually promising ‘also-rans’. They are not one of the dominant group of four elite countries who are almost always in the running. That is why the English fans sing the 3 Lions with more hope than hubris and more lamentation than lionheartedness.
The four elite teams, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Argentina, have a well-established pattern of domination. One of these teams has won the final in 75 per cent of all 20 World Cups. There has only been one final without one of these teams (in 2010 when Spain beat the Netherlands). There have only been three finals since 1950 without Brazil or Germany on the pitch.
Their pattern of domination is clear. And yet. This year only three of these teams qualified; Italy missed out. And while Brazil and Germany are virtually first-equal favourites with the bookmakers, and Argentina is fifth favourite, the first week brought surprises. None of these three dominant teams won their opening matches.
Little Iceland, the smallest country to ever go to a World Cup tournament, drew with the Argentinians, the Swiss held Brazil to a draw, the Mexicans defeated the Germans, the reigning champions.
Unpredictable, but still patterned. One of the things the pattern does is that it creates expectations and, therefore, enables surprises.
Next time you are looking for an example to explain complex systems in action, look to your favourite sport. It may not show this historical pattern of elite team dominance. The English Premier League does but the American Football Leagues do not, for example, and there a probably systemic reasons for this. There may be other patterns at play. Whatever the patterns for your sport, the actual playing of the game needs to be patterned. It has to follow the rules and structures and, preferably, these need to be widely understandable and transparent. Without this patterning the game slips into chaos and it does not work for players or spectators.
Then there is the unpredictability of whether our team might win. They might seem like be duffers and our hopes might have to spring eternal. But we still imagine the reflected glory and we can rue the what-ifs and might-have-beens.
Sports fans everywhere (except perhaps football fans in Brazil and Germany where the expectations are different) understand the lines from the song:
“30 years of hurt [now actually 50]
Never stopped me dreaming.”