The Long Game – Trust

As much fun as Rugby Union can be, it can be a difficult sport to love. Growing up in England means I associate it with xenophobia, bullying, and the cheerful and casual destruction of other people’s property. On the pitch, the design of the field exposes mismatches more brutally than any other team sport.  In football, a weak team can overturn a palpably stronger one with good organisation and effective counter attacks. In rugby, if one team is significantly better than the other they will utterly crush their opponents because the scoring area is the entire width of the playing area, not a constantly guarded rectangle of less than 18m2. However there is one aspect of rugby as it is played on the field that makes it an extremely useful tool for understanding aspects of football as both a sport and as a cultural institution. Whether you are watching the best in the world or a school team, rugby is defined by trust.

In an attacking sense, the aim of the game is to break the opponents’ line, but a single player will only score from a line break if they are either very close to the try line or the quickest player on the pitch. Most of the time a line break will only lead to a try if support is given. When the All Blacks play this looks effortless, and a try seems to be the natural consequence. Watch a side like Italy, however, and you notice that similar breaks do not end the same way. The player might be looking to offload the ball, but will invariably end up kicking on or taking the ball into contact because he has no passing option.

Why is that support not there? In football (to which I promise to return) we call this anticipation, but in rugby it is not. The support is not there because the players do not have the trust required to think in such an attacking way. Firstly, they are not sure that the player who made the break will receive a clean pass, nor whether that pass will even be caught. They worry their teammate might knock on or get stripped in the tackle. The positions they adopt when running at the line are defensive, even when they are in possession. This mindset is infectious in the worst possible sense, so even when a player does offer support to a break, there is a chance that the player in possession will not be looking for them.

Once you start to interact with rugby through the prism of trust, you start seeing it absolutely everywhere[1]. Football is as totally dependent on trust as rugby, even if it is not as obvious, and this applies both on the pitch and off it. Clubs whose members (playing and non-playing) trust each other will win, while those that do not will lose. But saying “you have to trust each other” is so facile as to be pointless. What is worth exploring is where that trust comes from, how it develops, and what effect it can have both within football as well as in society at large.

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Trust is relevant to sport because it is relevant to the world around us. It is universally taken for granted when present, but when it fails the results are inescapable, ranging from the annoying to the terrifying. Consider a day in your life through the prism of trust. Can you drink the water? Will the food you eat for breakfast poison you if it is not boiled first? Do you carry enough money to bribe an official who is not sure they will actually get paid this month and knows they will get away with making your life complicated? Does your boss to act in an ethical way? Does that boss pay you in full, and on time? Do the shops have the things you need to buy? Are the prices roughly the same as they were last week? Feel free to add to this list with the minutiae of your daily life.

Now consider the mechanics of a football game the same way. When the centre back is on the ball, watch what the midfielders and forwards on his own team do – do they take up conservative, defensive positions? Or are they aggressive in their positioning and trust the man on the ball to find them in space higher up the pitch? When a pass is made, do not look at the passer or the man receiving the ball, look at the other teammates around the receiver. Are they moving aggressively or cautiously? Are they expecting that player to need immediate close support, or do they trust them to control, hold and release the ball again accurately?

From this perspective, off the ball movement is less a measure of a player’s ability to read the game, and more a gauge of the level of trust they have in specific teammates, and of the level of trust within the team as a whole. Looking at football in this way also provokes a rather intriguing chicken-or-egg question about trust with regards to the other pillars upon which football is built. Technique, decision making, tactics and fitness matter, but does any one of them come before trust?

One can attempt an answer by examining instances where trust does not develop, and the England men’s national team is an interesting case study. The match against Iceland in 2016 was perhaps the apotheosis of their biannual catastrophic exit from a major tournament, and the usual arguments were trotted out: one side blamed the players’ lack of desire or loyalty to the shirt, with the counter argument being that their footballing educations failed to equip them with proper technique and game intelligence.

Neither point stands up to scrutiny. One need only look at the reactions of the players upon hearing the final whistle (Jack Wilshire’s thousand yard stare in particular) to know that this mattered. One need only look at some of England’s play in the run up to the tournament, or in the first 70 minutes of their match against Russia, or the level the players are able to maintain at their clubs on a regular basis, to see that these are not bad players. But it seems their trust in one another is not sufficient to withstand playing under pressure.

People watching the game might well laugh at them and call them incompetent, but imagine yourself working in an organisation in which there is no attempt at coordination, with everyone fighting their own corner in a desperate attempt to avoid criticism or the sack. It must be utterly terrifying, however trivial the work itself might seem to an outsider. Could you honestly do your job to the best of your ability in such circumstances?

How to resolve this in England’s case is a question that no coach has been able to answer in twenty years[2], and the way in which each defeat saps at the belief in ever being able to overcome it means that only a radical new idea will ever work. As I have previously argued, it will ultimately come down to the will of those involved to try it and then persevere. History would suggest that that idea has to come from either within (the players themselves) or without (the manager).

As an example of the former, one could look at the Dutch and the propensity of their players to talk endlessly about the game. The football that the first great generation of Dutch players produced was more systematised than any that had preceded it, and was more based on collective understanding and mutual trust than any other. Endlessly swapping positions and executing a ludicrously high offside line could not have been achieved without it, which itself stemmed from their understanding of what it was they were trying to achieve. This idea of trust being derived from collective action and understanding would be instantly recognisable to social scientists. As Robert Putnam wrote in his seminal essay Bowling Alone, “networks of interaction probably broaden the participants’ sense of self, developing the ‘I’ into the ‘we,’ or (in the language of rational-choice theorists) enhancing the participants’ ‘taste’ for collective benefits”.

Of course, as has also been pointed out, this same predilection for discussion frequently leads to bitter personality clashes. One of the many paradoxes that make team sports so captivating is the dichotomy between the need for organisation, cooperation and teamwork, and the need for leadership and individual brilliance. The presence of trust at one moment does not mean it will not evaporate if the delicate balance between these two elements is upset[3]. I would urge anyone who doubts this to read the chapter on East German football in Uli Hesse’s Tor.

The most common source of playing philosophies, however, is from a manager or coach. Given how much time has passed since Arsène Wenger’s arrival in England, it is worth reiterating just how leftfield his appointment was at the time, and how absurd his ideas seemed to the players, fans, and media.  Yet before long Paul Merson was describing how Wenger had given his players “unbelievable belief”, a phrase that summed it up almost as well as Tony Adams’ goal to clinch the title at the end of Wenger’s first full season in charge. Despite his current reputation as the most intransigent of ideologues, this turnaround can be explained in large part by Wenger’s understanding of the psychology of players and his effort to meet them halfway, as Amy Lawrence explained in her piece in Christov Ruhn’s Le Foot:

… hardened British players responded to Wenger because he didn’t storm in and bombard them with orders. He listened, got to know everybody and built bridges across which to transport his ideas. The bonds he develops with his players tend to have more of the human touch than most of the working relationships found at football clubs. For example, when Arsenal reached the FA Cup final and the boys wanted to pop open champagne on the coach back to London, Wenger requested that they wait until they were back because Tony Adams, a recovering alcoholic, also deserved and enjoyable ride home.

In short, the manager came in with something new, the players were convinced to try, and the results were astonishing. But those results need not be so spectacular to demonstrate the role of trust.

The managerial merry-go-round regularly demonstrates this. These managers are fired almost as soon as they are hired, so they are not epoch-defining geniuses. But the short-term aims of the boards that do the firing and hiring, like avoiding relegation or qualifying for Europe, are often met. And even when they are not, the results almost always improve in the short term. The players buy into the ideas of the new manager, before either cynicism or empirical evidence of a lack of quality has entered the equation.

More leeway is given to some, due to the presence of a footballing equivalent of social capital. These could be managers with a very specific and positive reputation that precedes them, or legendary former players who are granted a level of respect that would take a manager decades to generate. Zinedine Zidane was probably not the first person to think that Cristiano Ronaldo could be an even more decisive player if he played less football, but he was just about the only person on the planet who was able to both make the argument and win, thanks to his status in footballing terms (he is seen as a living God by players of Ronaldo’s generation) and institutional terms (as a symbol of Real Madrid). David Squires’ point in the third panel here was very funny, but right on the money with regards to the idea of players – even the Ronaldos – setting ego aside and buying into the ideas of those around them, provided the ideas are coming from the ‘right’ people.

But who are the ‘right’ people? When it comes to the amount of trust accorded to someone at the outset, language is of vital importance, and it is here that the media has enormous influence in setting the terms under which the discussion is held. Obviously this applies to players and managers in a short term sense; a manager who is ridiculed in the press before having even set foot in the training complex is going to find their job much harder than it would or should have been. But more important is the way language the sports media uses reflect and, to an extent, direct, issues affecting society generally. The way we choose to describe people will come to define them much more than the personalities of the people themselves, because the latter is so much more complex than the former.

To give an example from football, there was a time in England when black players were only partially accepted as footballers. Ron Noades, then chairman of Crystal Palace, opined in 1991 that, “The black players at this club lend the side a lot of skill and flair, but you also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains.”

Noades was pilloried, but at the time he was saying what a lot of people were privately thinking. Although variations on this view persist, it is nowhere near as prevalent as before. A black player can now captain England without comment, and in many countries, a black footballer is no longer a black footballer. He is merely a footballer. It has been argued that colour-blindness is not actually something that should be aimed for[4], but considering what has gone before it is not too hard to advance the case for this constituting an improvement.

Yet racism is still prevalent in other parts of English football; a black manager is still a black manager because some combination of players, supporters and boards of directors still appear to have great difficulty entrusting that particular job to someone who has a different skin colour to someone who normally does that job. Until it becomes as normal to see a non-white face in the dugout (or in the directors’ box) as it is on the pitch, that lack of trust will be evident in the fact that their race will be mentioned at all. The way the media choose their language to reflect that, crying tokenism or lauding progress, will play a major role in deciding future outcomes for those that follow in their wake.

The example above involved race, but it could just as easily have been about gender or sexuality. Football is distinct from women’s football, and, as far as the English language goes, a footballer is a man, unless otherwise stated. A female footballer is a female footballer seemingly regardless of sexual orientation, but a gay male player will have the words “gay footballer” or “out footballer” hung around his neck for the entirety of his career. The fact that it should not matter (enough elite sportspeople have come out as gay after retiring for us to know that sexual orientation and ability have nothing to link them) has not yet changed the language we still use to describe it.

Hopefully the world of football will be able to wake up and notice the increasing importance attached to the words we use to describe people, and include those people in a way that other major institutions have started to.

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We seem to be entering an age in which the social contract between populace and government is eroding to breaking point, and the disillusion felt with the institutions attempting reform is approaching the point at which none could ever succeed. Football clubs are tiny, can reinvent themselves in months, and can measure the success of their revolutions on a weekly updated league table. Societies are vast, lumbering behemoths, whose values take decades to evolve, and whose improvements can only be measured in ways that are so open to abuse as to be almost worthless. Nonetheless, football could still teach us something about trust and how we can harness it to make things better.

That trust is necessary at the outset to simply test ideas properly, before we even think about achieving their aims. That critiques or criticism should be prevented from turning into their toxic cousin, cynicism. That whatever trust is present will vanish if the balance between individuals and structures is lost. That once trust starts to disappear, it becomes exponentially harder to get back. That language matters when it comes to the trust we place in others, not just for telling us what is happening but to frame future debates.

Football can often act as a microcosm for the world at large, and the simplification behind such a notion does not alter basic tenets about what can be achieved when trust is permitted to develop, nor how underachievement and stagnation are the inevitable outcomes in situations where trust has either failed to take root, or been eroded.


[1] It is there in the running game as described above, but also when players offer quick support at rucks and in placement of the defensive line. If a centre has a prop inside him, the former will only be able to concentrate on the man he is supposed to be picking up if he trusts the latter to stop the outside back running at him. Do we trust our kicker to score from 40m on an angle or should we kick to touch? If we get a penalty in front of the posts do we trust the tight five to give us the ball from a scrum or should we eschew an unlikely 7 points for an easier 3?

[2] The teams of Robson, Venables, and Hoddle may have all lost, but none did so because they froze as subsequent teams have done.

[3] An interesting parallel in societal terms is the tension between Labour and Capital, the current imbalance between them having been cited as a major factor in the crises many capitalist democracies are struggling with. David Simon outlines this argument more eloquently than most.

[4] See this piece by Gary Younge – “In order to address a problem you must first acknowledge it. Most of those who run and recruit to British newspapers have failed to do that. They claim they are colour-blind. But blindness is a disability. If you cannot see race you will not see racism; nor will you notice that the majority of your staff is overwhelmingly white.”