In recent years, technological systems and statistical data have become an inherent part of professional football. Goal-line technology that uses cameras to detect if the ball crosses the line is now an integrated element of the game. Similarly, an increasing number of football teams have started to rely upon technological systems and statistics in order to limit risk and manage their team’s performance. Reflecting anthropologically on the way that Danish football team FC Midtjylland calls upon technological systems and statistics can point to some important aspects about the way humans try to manage and control uncertainties.
In 2014, the Danish national league football team FC Midtjylland was the first in Denmark to incorporate a technological system called ZXY into their training. ZXY is a tracking system that uses cameras to detect the positions of all the players within a stadium in real-time. At the same time, players wear a data chip that transmits information about their physical movements and measure metrics like the athlete’s heart rate, speed, position, intensity and impact from collisions. FC Midtjylland coaches use the ZXY system to standardize, evaluate and optimize the way their players perform in accordance with the coach’s tactics and plans. By using the ZXY system, FC Midtjylland also claims that they will be able to limit the injury rate among their players.
Using FC Midtjylland as a case study gives us a specific view into how some modern football teams think about the game. In his acclaimed book Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, political scientist and anthropologist James Scott shows how governments have historically used standardized schemes and simplified planning in order to control, manage and optimize societies. For example, the invention of surnames and censuses helped the state to collect taxes and the production of maps worked as a way for the state to monitor its citizens’ movements. Scott calls all of these methods high modernism, namely the attempt to design and mold societies in relation to standardized scientific systems.
Building on Scott’s argument makes it possible for us to reflect upon the way that FC Midtjylland operates similarly to a modern state. By using the ZXY system, it becomes possible for FC Midtjylland to mold and optimize their athletes by drawing upon quantified science, just like modern states. Similarly to a state, the Danish football team is trying to systematize all aspects of its team’s conduct in order to eliminate bad performance. While there is nothing unusual about a football team that wants to optimize its performance in order to win games, it is interesting that FC Midtjylland attempts to manage uncertainty through quantified science when one considers that throughout the history of football, teams and players have tried to manage uncertainty through personal and ´magical´ pre-match rituals that are seemingly opposed to statistics and scientific methods.
For example, Danish national team captain and former FC Midtjylland player Simon Kjær invented a pre-match ritual, inspired by Viking myths, where all the players gather in a circle and scream Huh Huh Huh before a game in order to bond and increase team spirit. Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has said that he feels like he’s in trance and nothing can destabilize him after he wets the fingertips of his gloves before a match. Famously, before every penalty kick, Argentinean goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea urinated on the field in front of spectators, because he believed that would bring good luck. Such rituals that contain elements of magical and mythical thinking are very hard to account for in a system like ZXY, since there are no measurable indicators that can be quantified. However, these rituals are something players rely on heavily in order to limit risk.
Even in the highly scientific and technological world of space flight, rituals play an important social role as a way of dealing with dangerous scenarios and the unknown. In his fieldwork at NASA, anthropologist Taylor Genovese found that magical and ritualistic behaviors exist among astronauts, even though their work relies on highly scientific and quantified measurements. Such rituals included the meals they eat before a mission, playing certain card games, and – similarly to Sergio Goycochea –urinating on the back bus tire before driving to the launch site.
For the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, the ability to rely on both magical and scientific thinking is one of the most fundamental characteristics of mankind. Looking at the case of FC Midtjylland helps us to realize that magical rituals and scientific schemes are not necessarily contradictory, but actually complement each other as a way for humans to deal with anxious and unknown futures. While they might be grounded in different logic and reasoning, both the quantified ZXY system as well as pre-match rituals rely on systematization and prescribed behaviors. In that sense, we can reflect upon how one of the fundamental struggles that humans face is how to deal with the uncertain future.
Scott, James C (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press.
Weibel, Deana L., and Glen E. Swanson (2006). “Malinowski In Orbit.” Quest 13.3:53.
Genovese, Taylor (2017). “ Casting into the Cosmos: Magic and Ritual in Human Spaceflight (Part 2)”
Photo by Giulio Gigante licence under creative commons