Yesterday morning the McWilliams’s kitchen table resembled a mini war room. My son and I spread out a huge map of France before us and tried to figure out Paris to Bordeaux in a camper van. We’d been up in Belfast over the weekend and had tried to coax our Nordie family to come with us on a unique united Ireland family football convoy next June.
But even they, proper Prods to a man, scoffed at the idea of exposing their kids to what they called the “Crazy Prods” who follow “Norn Irn”. After a heated discussion on the difference between reasonable Prods and crazy Prods, the idea was dropped.
So we, the Southerners, are going on our own.
As I scoured the map of France, my eyes hit on the city of Saint-Étienne, rekindling childhood memories of the brilliant Saint-Étienne football team and their outstanding captain Michel Platini.
Platini was the best player in the world. He won the Ballon D’Or three times and captained not only Les Verts, but also the extravagantly talented French teams of 1982 and 1984.
Platini has just been handed an eight-year ban for taking a massive and unusual payment from Sepp Blatter. He is appealing this ban.
For those of us who have followed football for many years, there is something shocking about a football genius like Platini being caught up in all this. The likes of Blatter, a career bureaucrat with grubby hands, mean very little to football fans, being emblematic of institutional corruption. In contrast, the case of Platini is a huge surprise.
The fall of Platini got me thinking about why highly successful men can often behave badly and fail to see that the behaviour is bad. Why take huge risks with a nonchalant entitlement? How come Platini sees nothing wrong, where everyone else sees red flags? And why does he bluff and bluster to the end, not realising that the game has changed? Why did Platini, the head of UEFA, the best player of his generation, a man feted all over the footballing world, and a man who could get a table at any Parisian restaurant, do it?
The behaviour of Platini and Blatter in recent weeks has been very similar to the behaviour of extremely well-off bankers who bet the balance sheet of the banks on hugely risky investments and saw nothing wrong. Not content to have almost everything, they want more. Not content to be richer than they ever need to be, high-flying bankers doubled up again, borrowed more, ignored warnings and blew everything.
Why is it that people who are at the very top of their businesses can make such a mess of things and why do so many go along with it?
Traditionally, after a catastrophic debacle, there is an inquiry aimed at making sure that it never happens again. When trying to find answers and solutions, there are normally three ways to think about these financial/systemic failures, whether they are at a bank or FIFA or UEFA.
The first way to think about it is institutional failure. We see there was a failure of regulation. The police were asleep at the wheel allowing people at the top to get away with running the institution like a fiefdom and we conclude the entire mess was systemic failure based on a failure of policing.
The second way of looking at these crises is that the people at the top – or close to the top – were in over their heads. We conclude that they were just incompetent. The amounts of money were too much and they didn’t realise what was actually going on. So the problem is a lack of talent at the top.
If either of these two reasons fit the bill, the solution is easy. If we get better regulators or less incompetent professionals who know what they are dealing with, we won’t have more crises.
But when you look at the debacles in the world of football and the world of banking, we are not only dealing with incompetence on the part of the regulator and the top brass. We are dealing with something else.
The risks were taken, not by men who didn’t know what they were doing, but who knew more about this field than anyone. They had prestigious track records and had been working in the area all their careers.
In fact, when you look closely at both the way Blatter and Platini ran football and the way some of our top bankers ran the banks, it is not a fumbling, insecure incompetence that caused the problems but exuberant, preening over-confidence.
They were so confident that they thought they were doing the right thing, whether it was running FIFA like a fiefdom and doing deals with Qatar to put the World Cup in the desert or, in banking, lending hand over fist. They couldn’t (and still can’t) see they were doing anything wrong.
Maybe this miscalculation, this inability to see the world clearly, comes not from being wrong on occasion, but from being right so often before. Being right results in over-confidence that assures them that they can’t lose. Think about it: if everyone tells you that you are great, you think you are great and you don’t see the dangers all around you.
The study of over-confidence in people (particularly men) in power is a huge field in psychology. Many of the bad decisions taken by these guys come from a gap between how good they think they are and how good they actually are. This gap between ability and perceived ability exists in all humans. For example, when surveyed, the vast majority of us think we are better than average drivers. But this gap is larger the more you are told by others that you are brilliant.
This gap distorts reality and leads to massively stupid decisions that profoundly undermine institutions and stability. Over-confidence leads to an inability to see reality, an unwillingness to contemplate alternatives and a misplaced certainty in your own competence. Think Jose Mourinho.
When I see the once-great Platini appealing UEFA’s ban and claiming a giant conspiracy against him, the over-confidence conundrum comes screaming back into the equation. It’s a major human weakness and it links the behaviour of Platini to dozens of banking/corporate titans who have fallen to earth over the past few years.
Luckily – and I can say this with confidence – over-confidence will not be an affliction that will trip up either set of Irish ‘Boys in Green’ come June.