The Ecology Football World Cup. “Match” One: The Golden Team and IBT.

It’s time. Time for what? Time for the World Cup! And to discuss the links between ecology and football. I’m going to write a weekly analogue between a key football tactic and an established ecological theory. Comparison one, the Golden Team and Island Biogeography Theory (IBT).

So let’s go back to the 1950s. The beginning of a football revolution. A few world cups completed and the inventors of the game England, remain trophy less. As Crick and Watson unlock the structure of the DNA molecule. They were watching their own England play the Golden Team in the “Match of the Century”. England, a team almost never beaten on home soil. Versus the Magical Magyars, an Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. The Mighty Magyars won the famed Match of the Century. Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and their coach Gusztáv Sebes changed football for the better. Sebes energised his players to be versatile. Driving his players to shift position across the field. Moving his team away from established tactics of fixed positions and deterministic roles.

Puskas - The Nucleolus of the Golden Team.

Puskas – The Nucleolus of the Golden Team.

In ecology, Island Biogeography Theory was also a game changer. The idea of IBT kicked off in the 1960s by Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson. IBT states immigration and extinction influences species richness on undisturbed islands. Distance of islands drives immigration rate.  Islands that are further away from a source population are less likely to receive colonisers. Larger islands are likely to have more species. This is due to large island have more diverse habitats that minimise local extinction.


Equilibrium Model form MacArthur and Wilson (1967)

If we think of species numbers as goals.  Players as islands. The football pitch as a network of islands. And scoring goals as species immigration and conceding goals as extinction. A player is more likely to score a goal if they receive good passes from their team mates. This is analogous to the IBT idea of an islands getting more species if they are close to a source population. Players in space maintain possession of the ball, and in turn, they are less likely to lose the ball and concede goals. As in IBT, more spacious islands support more species.

So that’s analogy one completed. A simple one to start. But as we can see, early developments in football tactics suggest that space and connectivity are important for goals. The same is true for diversity.

Next match: Catenaccio and Niche Theory. Stay tuned.

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