For some time now, a multifaceted debate has been raging in economics about the merits of Gross Domestic Product (‘GDP’) as an indicator of genuine value. While few would deny that, as a general rule, it is probably better to live in a high-income country than in one which is characterised by poverty, things start to get a little bit blurry when comparing the quality of life in countries whose average GDPs are less radically different.
For example, 2010 data from the International Monetary Fund (‘IMF’) shows the United States occupying a lofty seventh place in the GDP per capita rankings with an average income of US$46,860.24, considerably ahead of nineteenth-placed Germany (average GDP per capita: US$36,081.29), yet given the incredibly polarised distribution of income in the former and the exceptionally good standard of living enjoyed by most people in the latter, few would posit that life for the average American even comes close to that of his or her German equivalent. In other words, the notion of GDP per capita does not capture the texture of life in a given country with that much accuracy: that many Americans are desperately poor, lacking health insurance, morbidly obese, chronically overworked and socially atomised is not something which could be gleaned from the figures.
Various alternative indices – including the Human Development Index (‘HDI’), the Happy Planet Index (‘HPI’) and Gross National Happiness (‘GNH’) – have been proposed as more satisfactory quality of life measures, and have engendered some remarkable results: the 2009 HPI places most developed nations firmly in the middle of the index, with Costa Rica at the acme. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that working in the pursuit of more stuff is profoundly unsatisfying; there is much more to life than narrowly-defined notions of ‘success’.
Is there an analogous argument to be deployed in the world of football? Watching this evening’s encounter between England and Spain – London’s Wembley Stadium was the venue for this sporting clash of civilisations – did make Mediolana’s blogger-in-chief wonder once again about the precise meaning of goals. Viewing the match through the lens of ‘results’, England scored a stunning victory over the current European and World Cup title holders, with one goal – nodded into the net by Chelsea stalwart Frank Lampard just after half-time – proving decisive. But this captured virtually nothing of the essence of a game where Spain were, for the most part, playing against themselves: with 71% possession and 21 shots to England’s 3, the Spanish gave an exhibition of controlled football which lacked only first-half urgency and tighter finishing. Up against what could generously be described as an 8-1-1 formation, even a supremely resilient central defence of Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka did not ultimately stop Spain running riot in everything but the scoreline.
The history books will record a 1-0 victory for England. Is this really sufficient? One cannot help but be reminded of a similar game at a similar time of year back in 2005, when the English were – to use a refreshingly honest assessment from Ashley Cole, another outstanding performer from tonight’s match – ‘absolutely slaughtered’ by José Pékerman’s Argentina in a Geneva friendly, yet still ended up 3-2 victors in a tie that seemed to bend conventional theories about natural justice. More broadly, the Brazil sides of the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, the Argentina team of 1994, the Dutch pioneers of the 1970s and the ‘Magical Magyars’ of the 1950s all captured hearts without winning any official recognition to speak of.
FIFA has a Fair Play Trophy that is given to the team with the best disciplinary record at the end of each World Cup: how about a measurement that can at least distinguish between high art and low science?