The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, or How to Scare the Hell Out of Your Superherosturdy Opponent

 12 September 1990. In an internationally heeded football match a bunch of goatherds whacked a team comprised of sonorous names like Michael Konsel, Andreas Herzog, or Toni Polster. Sonorous, because they neither were farmers nor goatherds, but professional football players of distinction in the German Bundeslige or the Italian Serie A. The mother of all defeats. Since then no one in Austria feels secure any longer, to make ends meet even though they should be one goal ahead even against an eenie-meenie-opponent. Thus, it doesn’t surprise, that ten years a one month after that defeat the Faroe Islands achieved a 1-1 against Austria, and three months before HB Tórshavn gave Red Bull Salzburg an, inconsiderable, but a defeat.

 The goal shot by Torkil Nielsen…

…like the first stone thrown by David:

Merkið reytt og blátt og hvítt, / veittrar frítt um heimin vítt. / Fjøllini, fólkini stolt standa rætt, / Dávid her feldi Goliat. / Dávid her feldi Goliat. / Koyrið á… / Koyr á Føroyar…”

The flag red and blue and white, / waves free around the whole wide world. / The mountains and the people are standing proudly there, / David upset Goliath. / David upset Goliath. / Go it!… Go it!, Faroe…”

 Speaking of David, the dwarfish father of all superheroesconquerors, he proofed to be an originator with mighty genes. Ivan Arreguín-Toft, so to speak, did some genealogical research. Thereby he discovered: If an underdog fought like David he usually won. If not, then he lost. Meaning, if an underdog fights by the same means and with the same strategy like his superior opponent he is not without a chance, because he can win nearly one of three fights. But its just nearly one third, namely 28.5%. However, this relation can be tipped over. If the underdogs chooses an unconventional strategy he can win two out of three fights, namely 63.8% (cf. Malcolm Gladwell, “How David Beats Goliath”)


 But why, if every child knows the dictum “”David Vs. Goliath” and the outcome of the clash, why do underdogs forgo such promising strategies? Why?

 The conviction is that technical abilities, trained automatism are precious. By that means you become a technico-mechanical superwarrior. But relentless effort is just seen as a commodity. But it can be shown that it is otherwise: effort can trump ability.

 So the question is, how an underdog in football and basketball can win a game.


 Concerning football there is Swansea City, a Welsh football team playing in the English Premier League, showing how it does work. They, for instance, defeated Manchester City, Arsenal London, and Fulham. That Swansea City is an underdog becomes apparent when looking at their squads budget on the on hand, on the other hand when recognising their experience with the Premier League. Swanseas most expensive player costed £ 3.5m, whereas Manchester Citys substitute bench was fomented by bums worth a £ 110m when they lost their game against Swansea.

 Their success rests, generally, upon Brendan Rodgers, their team manager. He analyses the weaknesses of their richer opponents and building a considering game-plan. “Their performance at Fulham was a perfect ecample of how to build a game-plan and then execute it”, writes Paul Campbell.

 On they focus on the two aspects that are important for the play of Swansea: pressing for the defence and using space for the offensive.

 Campell describes their pressing. Fulham started with five highly gifted attacks. But Fulhams weakness is their defenders not being the safest distributors of the ball.

To stop Fulham emerging up the field, where their expensive and talented players could hurt Swansea, the visitors pressed the Fulham defence. They hunted the cumbersome Hangeland and Senderos, swarming around them and forcing them into mistakes. Swansea’s goals resulted from hurried, misplaced passes made by Fulham players struggling in tight defensive positions. Fulham’s attackers were taken out of the game, as the home side couldn’t get the ball out of their own half.”

 In short: “They attacked relentlessly from the front, even testing the feet of Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.”

 The background is put in a nutshell with Pep Guardiola: “You win the ball back when there are 30 metres to their goal, not 80.”

 By the way Guardiola, the second characteristic of Swansea is them being oriented to have a high ball possession like FC Barcelona. The only difference is that they dont have that technically highly gifted players. Yet they have a good control of the ball, and therefore high ball possession. The reason is that they their play on the pitch is structured. The intelligently use its space. For that only average technical abilities are in need of. By that means they have the possibility to drive more managed attacks, which are therefore more promising.

 But this tactics has one disadvantage. The space they opened for building up their own play, can be used for fast breaks after stealing the ball.


 In basketball it was Vivek Ranadivé who brought an innovation: non-stop full-court press, especially the inbounds pass, “the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one” (Malcolm Gladwell).

 How did Ranadivé get to this idea?

Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?”

 The goal is, as Campbell writes, “to harry players in possession and make them feel uncomfortable in their own technique.”

 By the defensive work of pressing the girls of Redwood City were allowed to conceal their weaknesses in attacking. Therefore they scored by stealing the ball allowing easy layouts. For this is only one thing necessary: attitude. The attitude that effort trumps ability.

 But this strategy has two weaknesses. On the one hand, if applied against oneself. On the other hand, this non-stop full-court press is felt to be “socially horrifying” by the other teams. Not uncommonly opponent coaches started to shout at their players (12 year old girls) or even threatened Ranadivé to bash him. And there even was one case in which a partial referee avenged their actions as fouls.

 Well, whats the Ranadivés particular tactics? (At this juncture I give some citations from Malcolm Gladwells “How David Beats Goliath”, a highly interesting article about Ranadivé and his followers, Lawrence of Arabia, and a computer program called “Eurisko”, because Im not familiar with basketball. With that I also finish this entry.)

Is it any wonder that Ranadivé looked at the way basketball was played and found it mindless? A professional basketball game was forty-eight minutes long, divided up into alternating possessions of roughly twenty seconds: back and forth, back and forth. But a good half of each twenty-second increment was typically taken up with preliminaries and formalities. The point guard dribbled the ball up the court. He stood above the top of the key, about twenty-four feet from the opposing team’s basket. He called out a play that the team had choreographed a hundred times in practice. It was only then that the defending team sprang into action, actively contesting each pass and shot. Actual basketball took up only half of that twenty-second interval, so that a game’s real length was not forty-eight minutes but something closer to twenty-four minutes—and that twenty-four minutes of activity took place within a narrowly circumscribed area. It was as formal and as convention-bound as an eighteenth-century quadrille. The supporters of that dance said that the defensive players had to run back to their own end, in order to compose themselves for the arrival of the other team. But the reason they had to compose themselves, surely, was that by retreating they allowed the offense to execute a play that it had practiced to perfection. Basketball was batch!”

Redwood City’s strategy was built around the two deadlines that all basketball teams must meet in order to advance the ball. The first is the inbounds pass. When one team scores, a player from the other team takes the ball out of bounds and has five seconds to pass it to a teammate on the court. If that deadline is missed, the ball goes to the other team. Usually, that’s not an issue, because teams don’t contest the inbounds pass. They run back to their own end. Redwood City did not. Each girl on the team closely shadowed her counterpart. When some teams play the press, the defender plays behind the offensive player she’s guarding, to impede her once she catches the ball. The Redwood City girls, by contrast, played in front of their opponents, to prevent them from catching the inbounds pass in the first place. And they didn’t guard the player throwing the ball in. Why bother? Ranadivé used that extra player as a floater, who could serve as a second defender against the other team’s best player. Think about football, Ranadivé said. The quarterback can run with the ball. He has the whole field to throw to, and it’s still damned difficult to complete a pass. Basketball was harder. A smaller court. A five-second deadline. A heavier, bigger ball. As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldn’t make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. Ranadivé’s girls were maniacal. The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponent’s end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood City’s opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and trap her. Anjali was the designated trapper. She’d sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe she’d steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panic—or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle. When we first started out, no one knew how to play defense or anything, Anjali said. So my dad said the whole game long, ‘Your job is to guard someone and make sure they never get the ball on inbounds plays.’ It’s the best feeling in the world to steal the ball from someone. We would press and steal, and do that over and over again. It made people so nervous. There were teams that were a lot better than us, that had been playing a long time, and we would beat them.

One response to “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, or How to Scare the Hell Out of Your Superherosturdy Opponent

  1. Pingback: FC Barcelona: The Movie (Part 1) « Lunki and Sika – Movie, TV, Celebrity and Entertainment News. And Other Silliness.·

Well, I'd like to know: What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s