Messi, Rob Green, and How Outcome Bias Clouds Our Judgement

by Dom Smith

Lionel Messi is the best footballer of all time and that was already the case before he won the World Cup in December. For the last five years, the number of people who instead fly the flag for Pelé or Diego Maradona or Cristiano Ronaldo has slowly decreased as Messi continues to produce extraordinary moments well into his mid-30s. More people than ever were starting to see the light, starting to buy the line that Messi is indeed the greatest ever. 

And then the 2022 World Cup in Qatar started to approach. Suddenly the line changed. Messi was no longer the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) as people had for so long been calling him. Now the line was: Messi will be the greatest ever if he wins the World Cup.

Simple question: why? Why on earth would a single tournament comprising seven games or even fewer for his beloved Argentina outweigh the 1,000 matches he’d played before the World Cup in determining the little Argentine’s standing in the history of the world game? In what other world do seven of something outweigh 1,000 of the same something?

In no other world. Because maths doesn’t work like that.

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The silly thing about asserting that his GOATness depends on whether he wins the World Cup is that football is not an individual sport. What if Messi had scored six goals in the group stage but Argentina’s defenders had somehow conceded ten in those games and they’d crashed out? What if they’d reached the final, as they did, but their crazy goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez had scored three accidental own goals? Surely failure to lift the trophy in these circumstances would not be embarrassing? In that hypothetical situation, why should Messi be held responsible for Martínez’s errors? How could his stature be beholden to the mistakes of others?

The answer is that they couldn’t and shouldn’t. It was a special sort of nonsense to say that winning the World Cup would change his standing in the world game. He was either already the greatest ever or he wasn’t. Seven games, no matter how important, were not going to change that. The evidence base of his previous 1,000 matches should have been illuminating enough. Thinking otherwise falls into the trap of a psychological bias called Outcome Bias. In football and in life, we must be aware of its ability to cloud our thoughts.

Outcome Bias is a cognitive bias that refers to the tendency to judge a decision based on its outcome with the benefit of hindsight, rather than basing it on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.

England and their fans are well-versed in Outcome Bias. Even if they don’t know it. Perhaps the finest example of Outcome Bias in football came in 2010 when Rob Green spilt Clint Dempsey’s limp shot against the United States, ensuring England were held to a 1-1 draw in their World Cup opener. Dempsey struck an effort that lacked vigour from range. Green got down to try to gather but the ball bobbled off his glove and crept over the line with the goalkeeper scrambling but failing to claw it away.

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Green was dropped by England manager Fabio Capello for their next game due to the mistake, with 39-year-old David James taking his place and in doing so becoming the World Cup’s oldest ever debutant. For Green it was a humiliating moment and tragically the defining moment in an otherwise successful career. But Capello was consumed by Outcome Bias when he decided to drop Green.

Green was England’s best goalkeeper at the time, and the difference between him and the second-best goalkeeper, James, was larger than the difference between Green making the howler and not making the howler. There is no way that that one single moment (the shot going in) was the only distinguishing factor between Green’s and James’s abilities to do a better job than each other in the next game. Saving the shot was broadly in Green’s control. OK, he didn’t save it. But this was not a serious enough offence or a significant enough indicator of his goalkeeping weakness to merit a change of goalkeeper. Had he not made the mistake, he would have been picked to play again. Nevertheless, he did make the error — and James was called in. England crashed out of the tournament at the round of 16.

At the same stage in Moscow eight years later, England won a World Cup penalty shootout for the first time in their history. They won it 4-3 but both teams had five penalties each, meaning England scored four of their five and Colombia just three of theirs. Jordan Henderson was the only England player who failed to score. He powered the ball to the right but goalkeeper David Ospina made an excellent save. England’s final penalty saw Eric Dier shoot low to the other side, and the ball just escaped the goalkeeper’s reach and went in.

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Because of the importance of Dier’s penalty in sealing passage to a World Cup quarter-final, it is more fondly remembered than Henderson’s penalty and understandably so. But purely on technique and precision, Henderson’s was a better penalty. It was struck more powerfully and was heading further into the corner. 

Ospina saved brilliantly and Henderson felt he’d let his country down, but he hadn’t. Whether Ospina reached the ball or not was out of Henderson’s control once he’d struck such a convincing penalty. He had been a victim of Outcome Bias. His penalty would always be remembered without fond memory because of the extraordinary save. But it was… extraordinary. All that a pressured and shattered Henderson could take care of he had taken care of. His tasty consolation was that Ospina’s tournament ended there, while Henderson could look forward to the quarter-finals.

The take-home point is that sometimes things go well in sport that are not praiseworthy. And sometimes things go wrong that are not blameworthy. A large proportion of what happens on a football pitch is out of a player’s control. It is worth remembering that when you next blame the losing team’s best player for the defeat. Or when you next see a goalkeeper save a penalty. Sure, maybe it was a poor penalty. It often is. Or maybe it was just a really good save. Fine goalkeeping does not equal poor shooting. Justice for Jordan.

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