Entertaining Opinions

Sport is a unique form of entertainment.  For the fan it is an opportunity to put the realities of life to one side and immerse oneself in an alternative reality.  The footballing reality of 2012 will no doubt be entertaining, will fuel opinion and spark debate – hopefully ‘thebigman’ will help this along its ceaseless trajectory.

It struck me whilst reading through some statistics of the Premiership season thus far that as emotionally contracted recipients of this entertainment our opinions of players, their abilities and their importance (as fans, bloggers, journalists and pundits) is far from objective.  From time to time we have all witnessed the hyperbole surrounding the rise in prominence of the latest football talent and questioned its validity, but to a large extent our opinions of players are all innately and beautifully subjective.

It is impossible to watch a player’s every move, or even every game, yet we as fans, consciously or otherwise, build an opinion or (more fatally) a judgement of their ability and worth to their/our team.  In doing so, and with the assistance of selective highlights shows, we can’t help but form opinions based as much on entertainment value as value to the team.

The aim of football is to score goals to win games and it is easy to form a high opinion of someone you see banging in the goals game after game.  Yet to do that doesn’t seem to satisfy the judges in the stands.  A prime example is Darren Bent.  He has consistently found the net for whichever club he has played for but somehow he has never earned more than mere acknowledgement of this.   There are no “big” teams chasing after him and only Fabio Cappello blandly championing his cause.

Perhaps our collective opinion of Bent is not higher because he fails to entertain?  We all acknowledge he is productive in-front of goal and that that is what wins games, but on the pitch he doesn’t sparkle, give us hope of something unexpected or show brilliance of trickery.  He just scores goals.  Unfortunately for Darren Bent’s reputation but fortunately for all us fans there is so much more to the entertainment of football than the scoring of goals.

It is even harder to form a factually based opinion of the importance of a creative midfielder or a winger precisely because creativity can be wonderful to watch without ever being productive.  Gareth Bale can terrorise a full back, rattle the woodwork 3 times, send in cross after dangerous cross in a ‘Man of the Match’ performance without once scoring or assisting a goal.  We would still, quite rightly, coo at his brilliance.  His entertainment value is high therefore our opinion of his ability, performance and importance is equally high.  However statistically, in this hypothetical scenario, his productivity is low and Jermaine Defoe’s hypothetically scuffed finish that won the game 1-0 in the 4th minute is much more valuable.  But it’s not.  Because we as fans, subconsciously or not, place higher value in entertainment.

In doing so we hold up Modric as a talent worth tens of millions, a creator of goals so important to the Spurs cause that he is not for sale at any price.  It is marvellous to watch him play and few would argue that he would ‘walk into’ any premiership midfield.  However, a look at the stats tell you that Arteta, Nani, Downing, Mata and even Leighton Baines have created more chances for their respective teams so far this season.

What is becoming clear is that the emphasis we place on the importance of our players relies not only on what they produce by way of tackles, saves, passes, assists and goals but how well they entertain us.  It is also important to note that a player’s true importance cannot be found purely in the stats they produce because the value of their each and every action is nuanced and ultimately immeasurable.   Having said that, provided they entertain in a way that appears positive towards our team’s progress we will form high opinions of our players, and rightly so.  After all, we watch to be entertained and in sport the entertainment and the beauty is often in the trying.

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