Eirik asked:

Does there exist objective truths about what football (soccer) team is the best? My friends keep telling me that it’s possible, on the basis of statistics, to say that Spain objectively is the best national team in the world. I say there are no objective truths about these things. It would be extremely interesting to have a philosophers’ perspective on this!

Answer by Tony Fahey

Eirik, I must say that as a life-long and avid soccer fan, I find this question both interesting and tantalizingly challenging. Having given your query some consideration, it seems to me that we should look at this from two perspectives: the first is to determine if there is enough statistical evidence to support your friends claim that the Spanish soccer team is worthy of the title ‘the Best National Team in the World’, (I take you mean the squad that won the 2010 World Cup and the squad representing Spain in the 2014 campaign), and the second to see if one can say that there are objective truths (by which I take it that you mean truths that pertain at all times and in all places).

Let us first consider the statistical evidence that may lead to pundits to the view that the Spanish national soccer squad is the best in the world.

In their opening game of their 2010 World Cup campaign the Spain were beaten 1-0 by mediocre Switzerland, before beating the lowly rated ‘minnows’ Honduras 2-0 in their second game. In their third encounter in this group they overcame a somewhat average Chile to qualify for the quarter finals where they defeated Paraguay 1-0. In the semi-final they defeated Germany 1-0, and in the final, after extra time, they beat Holland by the same score. Indeed, had Holland’s Arjen Robben not missed a glaringly opportunity to score in the 62nd minute, or had the English referee Howard Webb not ignored Spain’s valid claim for a penalty for a foul by Spain’s Puyol on Holland’s Robben, and Holland’s Johnny Heitinga not sent off for an innocuous transgression on Spain’s Iniesta, or had referee Webb not erred by ignoring the legitimate claim for a corner kick to Holland, and instead awarding a kick out to Spain, from which they scored the winning goal, the title of World Champions and ‘best national team’ may well have been gone to the Dutch squad. Thus, whilst the record will show Spain won the 2010 World Cup, it must be argued that scraping narrow victories, many over poor or mediocre opponents, and others which can only be described as fortunate, is hardly evidence of a team that is deserving of the title of ‘best national soccer team in the world’.

It should also be pointed out that Spain’s style of play is not without its critics who describe it a ‘ticky tacka – a style that whilst often great to watch, can also be boring or frustrating in equal measure where players, such as Iniesta, Fabergas and Xavi, insist in trying to walk the ball into the opponents goal by executing too many passes, causing the move to fizzle out. It should also be shown that in a friendly match against Argentina on 9th September 2010, Spain were defeated 4-1, and beaten again 4-0 by Portugal on 18th November. Whilst they had earlier beaten Poland 6-0 in the previous June, South Korea 1-0 in April, and Saudi Arabia 3-2 in May, and in the current 2014 World Cup campaign Spain have only achieved a 1-0 win over a very ordinary Colombia – Such inconsistency in performances cannot be said to be the mark of a great team.

Thus, even on the basis that the Spanish team are current world champions does not qualify them to be deemed the beat national team in the world. In fact all it really means is that they gained enough points in their qualifying group to progress to the finals, and once there, they succeeded in scraping narrow and sometimes fortunate wins over opponents who, in different circumstances or with different match officials, might have gone on to win the tournament themselves. Moreover, objectively, to be worthy of the title of ‘best national team in the world’ it would have to be shown that Spain is capable of defeating each and every other national team in the world. As we have seen with the results against Switzerland, Portugal, and Argentina, the Spanish national team have not done this.

I understand that your friends’ claim of Spain as the best national team in the world may be based on their view that the tactics, overall game-plan, team formation, and individual skills of the players of the present Spanish squad meets their criteria of how soccer should be played. However, it should be said that there have been many national teams employing very different tactics etc., to which the title ‘best team in the world’ has been awarded.

One such team was the Hungarian squad of the 1950s which included many of the most revered payers of that era: Ferenc Puskas, Sanor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti, Zoltan Czibor, Josef Bozsik and Gyula Grosics. Also known as the ‘Golden Team’ or the ‘Magical Magyars’, this team, managed by Gusztav Sebes, was recognised as introducing new coaching methods and tactical innovations that were adopted by many other national and club managers. In 1953, this ‘Golden Team’ astounded the football world by trouncing the England 6-3 in Wembley, the home of British football. Up until that time the WM formation was accepted as the most effective way of playing the game. This formation consisted of a centre forward, in the most advanced position, spearheading the attack of 3 forwards and 2 wingers. Sebes decided to withdraw the centre forward to the mid-field, and the wingers to the same area of the pitch whenever needed – tactics heretofore undreamt of in the history of the game. The result was that this created a more flexible 2-3-3-2 formation, allowing the team to move quickly form defence to attack. Moreover, it drew the opposition’s defenders, particularly the opposing centre half, out of position. Furthermore, where heretofore players’ roles were clearly defined, Sebes encouraged his players to be more versatile and adventurous – the ideal player, he held, should be comfortable in any position.

However, although this style of play, now entitled ‘total football, was taken up by many other coaches, its popularity was not universal, and many other national teams, such as England, still preferred the WM formation where a tall and robust centre forward, such as Nat Lofthouse of England, was served by fast and skillful wing players like Stanley Matthews or Tom Finney. Of course today we see that there is no ‘universally’ popular formation with coaches alternating between 2-3-3-2, 4-2-4, 5-4-1, often in the course of a single game.

Having seen how tactics and team formations have changed over the history of the game, we should also consider how the rules of the game have been revisited and amended over time. For example, where once the goalkeeper could only run take three steps before hopping the ball (and then he could only do this three times before being obliged to kick it), he/she can now run freely within his goal area without bouncing the ball. Also, whereas once the opposing players were allowed to shoulder charge a goalkeeper holding the ball over the goal-line (this rule was changed after the 1958 English Cup final when Nat Lofthouse, of Bolton Wanderers, barged the Manchester United ‘keeper, Harry Gregg, into the net and knocking him unconscious – in the 1957 Cup Final a similar, if not worse incident had left the united keeper Ray Wood with a broken jaw having been struck in the same manner by Aston Villa’s left-winger Peter McParland), now the goalie is the most protected player on the pitch.

Furthermore, although substitutes for injured players was introduced in the qualifying rounds of the 1954 World Cup, it was not the 1965/66 season that substitutes were not allowed in English football. Before this time teams who lost players through injury were forced to continue with whatever players remained uninjured – now, as you know up to three players can be taken off if they is playing badly, or for tactical purposes. Moreover, where once there were only three officials, the referee and two linesmen, now it is possible, in some games, to have as many as six officials: the referee, two assistant referees (or linesmen or women), a fourth official on the sideline, and an official at each end-line of the pitch. The rules on the sliding tackle has also been changed, and where once the coaches of each team were free to roam the ‘encourage’ their team from anywhere on the sideline, they are now confined to a specific ‘box’ which is supervised by the fourth official – and surely it is only a matter of time before technology similar to that used in tennis and rugby to settle questionable calls is introduced to eliminate disputes such as calls on whether the ball has crossed the goal-line, red-card issues, penalty claims by players diving in eighteen yard box, and so on.

On the above evidence it seems fair to conclude that looking for a universal standard (objective truth) against which national soccer teams approach to the game might be measured is fruitless. There is no platonic ideal form of the ‘beautiful game’. Whilst there may be some justification for looking at the evolution of the game from a Hegelian ‘dialectic process’ perspective, it seems to me that the Aristotelian view that whilst universals may derive from empirical experience, these are never to be understood as concepts or ‘truths’ that are written in stone, but as ‘general conclusions’ that have their genesis in the mind/s of the conceiver/s in accordance with his/her/their experience with the natural world. As Aristotle famously says, ‘nihil in intellectu nisi prius in sensu’ (‘there is nothing in the mind that is not first in the senses’). Thus, as already inferred, the view that there are ‘objective truths’ by which national soccer teams might be deemed worthy of the title of ‘best national team in the world’ is unsustainable.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

We are not talking about an easy objective truth here. You can tell if its raining by looking out of the window but you can’t tell which football team is best in the same way.

However just because a judgement is complex that doesn’t mean that it is impossible. Every day bookmakers have to make judgements about the relative probability of racehorses winning a particular horse races. Their judgements are based on past performance and a great number of other things, the jockey, the race distance and the strengths and weaknesses of the other horses. If a bookmaker just said there is no objective truth here, any horse could win, then he is not going to make a living as a bookmaker.

Its the same with football teams. We have to make a complex judgement but that doesn’t mean its an impossible judgement. The judgement is based on the performances of players in the team, the manger and the playing style. So for the the 2010 world cup the bookmakers and the smart money were on Spain. Spain didn’t win by accident their players and their playing style were just the best. Now of course the best team doesn’t always win, accidents play a part. However the best team will win most of the time and Spain did. That is why we say that at present Spain are the best team in the world.