Rating and ranking of soccer players: the illusion of objectivity

I must have been maybe ten, eleven years old, still remember well to a paradoxical title of a journal article : ‘Let the objective numbers speak!” I enlighten you, why was it paradoxical. At the ends of the soccer seasons the sport newspaper evaluated the performance of the players for each of the eleven positions, from goalkeepers to left wingers. The article, in addition to the verbal appraisal, contained eleven ranked lists, one for each position; players from each team were ranked based on their seasonal scores, Fig.  shows. How these scores were constructed? Please note: soccer is not baseball, there is no objective measure to score the players. A journalist apprentice was delegated to every game, and he (surely he) gave a score to each player after each game. Any player, who was sending off from the field, got a score ”one”. A very few players in each season received a score ”ten” for their extraordinary performances. The majority of the scores was in the ”five” to ”eight” interval. More or less the meaning of ”five” was ”somewhat below average”, and ”eight” indicated ”excellent” (but not brilliant). After each game as we walked with my Dad, to the tram stop to get a ride from the suburb called Újpest, where our stadium has been located, to our apartment in ”Újlipótváros”, we also gave our own scores to each players of our team. I was impatiently waiting the morning paper to compare their scores with mines. At the end of the season, when I read about ”objective numbers”, I knew well that they reflected ranks on the objective average of their subjective grades. This observation suggested, that ranking based on subjective rating generates the illusion of objectivity only. The scores were not random, they reflected the best estimations of the journalists, but beyond dispute they were subjective.

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8 thoughts on “Rating and ranking of soccer players: the illusion of objectivity”

  1. Soccer has changed a lot since those days of subjective lists and eye tests, although they are definitely still very popular. Data-driven sites such as whoscored.com provide an objective statistical evaluation of match-by-match player performance based in increasingly sophisticated data sets and analyses, and transfermarkt.com provide an empirical estimate of overall player value based on age, performance, and contract situation. Reflecting a similar debate between analytics and domain expertise started in the American baseball community by Bill James and the sabermetrics community of Moneyball fame, the solution is not either-or but a combination of quantitative data and qualitative expertise judgments.

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    1. Christian, thanks. Yes, I know that even soccer is different than in our childhood…
      As I am thinking about the take away of this book, I am planning to write something like as:

      Almost all ranked lists we see emerge from the combination of objective and subjective elements. The goal of this book is uncover the unwritten rules of the ranking game, and to suggest strategies to the Reader to navigate among the reality, illusion and manipulation of objectivity reflected in these lists. The Reader also gets help to identify her place in real and virtual communities, and choose strategies to alter this place if it is needed. I think the key of success is that to learn new skills of combining humanand computational intelligence to successfully play the ranking game.

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