What Does a Triumph Over the Odds Tell Us About the System?

On a rugged path through a village on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador. A scout is peering out the driver’s side window, through the dust cloud kicked up by his revolving tires. “This better be worth it,” he thought to himself - the petrol, the potholes wearing down his new car, the lover he left in bed that morning. But his cousin doesn’t exaggerate. If he says this is the real deal, there’s probably something here.

Somehow the dust parted to frame the pitch. The child blew past a defender, pushed the ball out in front of him and struck it with his right foot. It’s as if the world slowed down to highlight the perfection of the strike. It was art. No one had to look to know the ball was sitting perfectly still in the bottom left corner of the goal.

The next 30 minutes would confirm the scout’s impression and his cousin’s eye for talent.

Antonio Valencia would make his way from a life of collecting bottles on the streets of Quito to a contract with Manchester United who at the time was looking for a replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo.In 10 years at Manchester United, he earned plenty of accolades, most notably, he was twice recognized as Manchester United Player’s Player of the Year.

What an incredible story of personal triumph. But the only soccer player who should be celebrating this story is Antonio Valencia. For every Antonio Valencia who was luckily discovered, how many are there who don’t have connections, who weren’t in the right place at the right time.

If you are thinking to yourself, “well, the cream rises to the top, players who are good enough will eventually be discovered,” there is a term for that reaction, and it's called survivorship bias. It is perfectly explained by the example of Wald and the WWII planes:

The Army was trying to figure out where to add armor to planes in WWII. They studied the planes that had been hit during the war and then they planned to add armor to the areas that were hit the most. Thankfully, a statistician, Abraham Wald, pointed out that they were not considering the planes that had not come back. They were only focused on the planes that had survived. Turns out, the most vulnerable part of the plane was the engine. So planes that were hit there, didn’t make it back. The best use of their resources was to apply extra armor to the engine area.

So, what does this mean for soccer?

It means we shouldn’t just be trying to improve on the Antonio Valencia stories: the ones who beat the odds and make it. Instead, we should focus on who we are missing. (The planes that didn’t come back.)

Give everyone who wants a chance the opportunity to demonstrate their talent - not just the ones who the scouts fly in to look at.

Why hasn’t this been done already? Because until recently it wasn’t feasible to look at every single player in the world. However, with technology, it is finally possible to make every single player and their talents visible. Not only can any player try out, they can try out an infinite number of times.

The story of Antonio Valencia is beautiful: he rose to the top of a broken system. Let’s set our survivorship bias aside, mourn those who were never discovered, and celebrate the opportunity to give everyone a shot.

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