Are you talented? Well, how like soccer is your profession?

Sport, in particular soccer in England, can shed some light on how important individual talent is to success in different careers.

For more than a generation the England soccer team has been ethnically mixed. Some of the best players we have produced are non-white. But the ethnic mix of coaches and managers is less impressive.

Currently, there are three black managers in professional football in England. This is 3% of the total and is broadly typical of the last 20-30 years. About 20-25% of professional footballers are black; and this has been the case for about 20 years.

Racism may well explain this anomaly but, if so, another problem arises: if soccer is racist why are there so many black players? Here is one speculative account: talent operates at the level of players but not, or at least significantly less so, at the level of managers. Let me explain.

It is relatively easy for non-experts (or ‘fans’) to determine whether individual players are competent. While many players do ‘unseen’ work, you don’t need to be an expert to differentiate between Ronaldo and Ricky Lambert.

To put the point more starkly: the chairman of your soccer club could hide his talentless son on the Board and no-one may be any the wiser. But if the manager were forced to put him in the team, within one or two minutes several thousand people would have a fairly accurate view of Chinless Wonder’s abilities. And they would happily express their findings.

Second, there is a lot at stake: managers get sacked often. Since about 2002 the average tenure of any professional manager has been below 2 years. In 2012 it was about 1.5 years.

A manager would have to be a complete idiot to refuse to pick non-white players. Frankly, some managers would consider picking a fan-eating alien if it shored-up the defence.

Third, the competition is fierce and there are few barriers to entry. A lot of people want to be professional footballers; it is a global game and it is cheap. Poor kids are just as able to develop the skills as rich kids.

But it is a lot less clear what a good manager is or does. We can point to exemplars – Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho. But all we know is that they have been successful. It is very hard to establish why. It is even harder to determine who, given the opportunity, will be successful or who will be successful in a different context. The turn-over of managers is evidence of this.

In the appointment of managers, then, there is a lot more room for hunch, gut instinct, bias or just straight-forward prejudice.

Does your profession fit the management or playing model?

One common argument in favour of high-reward careers like banking is that, like soccer players, bankers have rare talents and operate in a competitive market.

But, whatever happens in the future, it will not turn out that Ronaldo could not play soccer – that somehow all those free-kicks flew into the net because of ‘favorable external conditions’. But, as it did turn out, (formerly Sir) Fred Godwin was an abysmal banker. And no-one seems to have known this in real time.

Equally, compare investment banking’s barriers to entry to soccer’s. A potential investment banker from a favela can fall by the wayside at any level of education simply because the school system is poor – not because of his latent ability. If he does get to a university he needs to hope that it is one from which investment banks recruit – and the probability is against this.

Banking does not operate with anywhere near the same competitive pressures as soccer. But let us not indulge banker-bashing.

How might we tell whether a profession operates on the basis of soccer-style talent?

The mix test: one test has already been alluded to: what is the ethnic mix? To this we can the gender mix and socio-economic mix. If a profession is full of white middle-class men with the same backgrounds, we have reason to believe that hunch, gut instinct and bias determines appointments, not individual talent. For instance, only 19% of FTSE 100 board-members are female.

The inheritance test: if you watch the soccer scores live on a Saturday afternoon the sheer profusion of new and different names is amazing. While there have been Churchills in parliament for over 140 years there have been very few Berahino’s in professional soccer. It is hard to hand on the relevant talent and, as noted, the market is competitive.

Let’s add a second test then: the higher the proportion of second- or third-generation individuals in a profession the less likely it is that individual talent determines success. Connections or cultural fit may be doing significant work.

Politics is one profession that seems to do relatively badly by these metrics. In the UK most legislators are white middle-class men and quite a few are the descendants of legislators. In The Son also Rises: surnames and the history of social mobility Gregory Clark claims that until

‘1800 Norman surnames were eight times more likely than the typical surnames to appear among MPs.'(254-5)
‘[E]ven in the twentieth century, Norman surnames remained over-represented among English and Welsh MPs.'(255)

It does not follow that legislators are selected for reasons other than talent. Perhaps soccer’s conception of talent is inapt in politics. But we are owed an account that explains why.

If talent is decisive for politicians how is this ‘talent’ compatible with failing the inheritance and mix tests? Why, for instance, does it seem difficult to hand on soccer-talent but easier to hand on politics-talent?

There may well be good answers to these questions. I would certainly like to hear them.

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