Soccer players can predict the future.
Take Nemanja Matić, the Kenny Kingston of Stamford Bridge. Lovely touch with a crystal ball. The BBC headlines a brief interview with him like this: “Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matić backs team for quadruple.”
That is, the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup in the same year. No one’s ever done this, though Manchester United claimed a treble of EPL, Champions League and FA Cup in 1999. But the debate about whether a team can win a quadruple or treble comes up every single year, as does the debate about if any side that hasn’t lost in its first six or seven league games can be “invincible” like Arsenal in 2003-04.
“I think it’s possible. We have a chance,” said Matić. In fairness, his quotes are far more cautious than the story initially suggests. “I don’t want to say that we’re going to but we’re going to try. We have quality. I am confident, I believe in my team, my team-mates, so everything is possible,” he said.
True. Anything’s possible. It’s possible that John Terry will retire, pursue a career in science, make groundbreaking covalent bonding discoveries and win the 2025 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. It’s just not very likely.
Cesc Fábregas was asked to expound on the same topic by Sky Sports last week, and attracted headlines that were far more dramatic than his actual comments: “Time will tell. It’s all up to us. We definitely have the talent, the discipline and the courage to do it from what I’ve seen so far from my short time here. I can see a team doing well but we have to work hard for it and at the end of the season we will speak about it.”
Looking forward, anticipating, guessing and hoping that history will be made are natural human instincts, and soccer’s an inherently optimistic sport. There’s always next week, and the chance that things will be better.
Still, maybe it’s naive to think that a player is any more likely to be right than the rest of us. Sure, they know about their own team’s strengths and weaknesses, but successful predictions also rely on deep knowledge of the opposition, assessments of form, history and the math behind probability; and also, sheer luck – injuries, refereeing decisions, freak goals.
The line of questioning, though, isn’t naive from the journalist’s point of view. It’s a situation where the reporter can’t lose. Asked this sort of question, what’s a player going to say? “No, we don’t have any chance of winning the quadruple. We’re not good enough. We don’t really care about the League Cup.” That would be a decent story, but unlikely. So instead, he’ll say a variation on “maybe.” That he wants to win every game. And since the future is yet unwritten, he can’t yet be proven wrong.
It’s a strange feeling when José Mourinho is the one dampening down media hysteria and coming across as the voice of reason. “You spoke a few weeks about being unbeatable in the Premier League – we never did it. Now you speak about a quadruple but we must keep our feet on the ground,” he said.