Football

Franck Leboeuf and the ‘Forgetting Curve’

I have a memory of reading an interview with former France defender Franck Leboeuf, in which he discussed his view of that goal scored by Zinedine Zidane in the 2002 Champions League Final against Bayer Leverkusen.

I have watched that goal hundreds and hundreds of times. I watched it at least a dozen before writing this.

Leboeuf has only seen it once, in Glasgow, that night. He explained in the interview that his memory of that goal is his personal memory, his own individual truth, and while he is able to hold on to that, he doesn’t need to share everyone else’s view. It’s quite a French way of thinking; confident in one’s own perception and unsure that the wider world is able to add anything to it.

A mental victory

As a general rule, Italians view football differently. For them, the game is to be won, and they have long found pride in the fact that Italian sides (both club and country) can pull off completely unexpected results by what is viewed as superior tactics.

Perhaps more than any other major European league, Serie A has always had a level of microcosmic analysis, their coaches held up to more scrutiny for their decisions, even referees held accountable week on week.

In a league dominated by a relentless Juventus side, statistics are everything, numbers are everything and victories are a prize of their own. As recently as last week, veteran defender Andrea Barzagli was taunting their second-placed rivals.

“We could never play like Napoli,” he explained, “nor could they play like us. They are different, and have a different style, and a different look. In the end, the record books count; we remember who wins, not how they played”.

It is not difficult to understand that those two approaches are at different ends of the spectrum.

Moneyball style

At one end come those numbers wrapped up in statistics and deep analysis. This is a valuable aspect to the game, and there are people who are paid to understand these details, to extract the best value for money for their clubs and try to keep ahead of the curve – Moneyball style. There are pundits, who are paid to explain in-game happenings and find their profile raised by advised by brushing up on the new ideas.

I used to obsess about Huddersfield Town statistics. This was when the club were in the third tier, and analysis had barely progressed beyond listing goals and assists.

I kept up diligently with the numbers, and still have reams and reams of spreadsheets from this era. Eventually, I came to the realisation that I’d lost what I loved about football in the first place. It didn’t matter how many goals Jordan Rhodes was likely to score, so much as that I took pleasure in them when he did.

Czechoslovakia in 1990

Then there is the opposite; Leboeuf’s end, where the romance has never really left the game.

When you first fell in love with football, it was almost certainly because of a piece of unexpected magic by a forward player – something that analysis would advise against, but paid off on that occasion. For me, it was Roberto Baggio, and his run against Czechoslovakia in 1990. I was eight years old and transfixed by that tournament. At that moment, I was lost.

I don’t remember whether Italy won that game or not. I can look it up, I can apply facts to it, but in my mind, it doesn’t matter whether they did or not.

At the start of one’s affair, football has an innocence and a thrill. There is a wonder in seeing players do things on a field that are a little bit like those you do on a playground, but faster, but better, and with more invention.

If you watch an A League match, you get quite a strong feel for the statistical side of the game. The build-up play is slow, and deliberate, more so than Italy, more so than Japan even. It is as if a lot of the players have been told how they can be most effective and they stick resolutely to that plan. There is little in the way of creativity and little risk-taking.

When it comes, it is almost unwelcome; as though Muggles have been defeated by the wave of a JK Rowling wand. Think of Aaron Mooy. Think of Beshart Berisha. Neither is Lionel Messi, but neither has had to be.

The forgetting curve

Football is increasingly a game played in spreadsheets and in simulations. Players are signed not because they have been stars at smaller clubs but because their numbers fit into what is required by their new clubs (Andy Robertson at Liverpool is a prime example of this).

I don’t watch football on paper, though. I don’t see goals in spreadsheets. I have found it possible to watch the game without that knowledge. I know its there and I know what it’s doing and why, but I don’t care.

At the end of a game I watch, just as with any book I read, or film I see, I don’t remember all of it, and I’m comfortable with that; scientists call it the ‘forgetting curve’. I’ve been to hundreds of football matches, it’s natural that not all of it is retained.

As I accept that, I want to reconnect with my own feelings about what I see, whether it is the most advantageous pass to play or best spot to shoot from. I close my eyes and remember the glory of unexpected magic, whether it is exactly what happened or not. I could talk for hours about Danny Schofield’s lob against Nottingham Forest in 2006, yet my version would be different to everyone else who was privileged to see it.

Increasingly, I want my own truth of every game, of every goal, of every moment.

As for that interview with Franck Leboeuf, I’ve got my own memory of that, too, but I couldn’t find it again to draw any quotes from. Maybe I should have kept it written down.

In short, I’m happy watching football in the Emerald City and I don’t need to know what the Wizard of Oz is doing behind the curtain – I’m happy to believe in the magic.

As we go forward, and more and more wizards are hired, you’ll have to decide whether you trust them or not.

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