February 11, 2011 10:10 pm

Toppled in the fog of war

Encouraged by their past success, strivers come to overestimate their ability to see clearly

One moment in Paris changed Martin Hansson’s life. On the night of November 18 2009 the Swedish football referee failed to spot the Frenchman Thierry Henry illegally handling the ball. Henry then crossed for the goal that sent France to the World Cup, and kept Ireland out of it. As refereeing blunders go, this one was pretty consequential. The next day Hansson phoned Mattias Löw, a film-maker who happened to be making a documentary about him, and said: “My name will always be linked with Thierry Henry’s handball when France qualified for the World Cup in South Africa. That’s it.”

That is true, but Hansson’s story has meaning beyond football. He stands for all successful strivers – Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld and umpteen recent bankers – whose careers end in inquiries and media storms. Hansson’s mistake was relatively trivial, but it was the same one that so many strivers make: he overestimated his ability to see clearly through the chaos of life, the fog of war.

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Simon Kuper

Löw began filming The Referee months before Henry’s handball. Watching the film, you quickly realise that Hansson is someone who takes himself seriously. Burly and bald, he bestrides the field with the sure gaze of a man keeping order in an unruly world. Players listen to him. He’s a born referee: we’re soon told he’s Sweden’s best, and one of the best anywhere. The World Cup of 2010 is to be the pinnacle of his career. He might even referee the final.

He is certainly dedicated enough. Explaining his divorce to Löw, he says, “I had to choose between family, football and work.”

The Referee strangely echoes another documentary about a successful striver remembered for rather more consequential blunders: Errol Morris’s portrait of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War. McNamara was the US defence secretary in charge of the Vietnam War. He belonged to the caste of American policymakers described caustically by David Halberstam as “the best and the brightest”: men whose brilliant early careers had given them faith in the power “of able, rational men to control irrational events”.

This faith is the striver’s characteristic error. Encouraged by their past success, strivers come to overestimate their ability to see clearly. That may be why heads of government and CEOs appear so prone to blunders. Tony Blair in 2002 was the most successful Labour leader in history. He had won two elections in landslides. Ignoring the advice of experts, he had led successful interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Life had taught him that he alone could see through the fog of war. Blair just knew that the world needed an invasion of Iraq.

Rumsfeld, too, entered that war with a dangerously successful career behind him. In press conferences, he’d lecture journalists like a brilliant professor of philosophy teasing half-witted students. He pontificated about “unknown unknowns”, and yet he came to overestimate his ability to control them.

So did Hansson. I was in the Paris stadium that night, and the truth is that hardly anyone there saw the handball. At the moment suprême, Henry was surrounded by Irish defenders. They blocked Hansson’s view, and almost everybody else’s too.

Blair and Rumsfeld (in his new memoir, Known and Unknown) still argue that they were right. Poor Hansson was proved wrong within a minute. Watching a TV screen in the media stand, I saw the handball on the second replay. Many spectators only heard about it through text messages from friends watching at home. In the train station afterwards, French fans kept buttonholing Irish fans to apologise in appalling English: “I shame.”

When the game ended, Hansson himself still only sensed that something was wrong. He and his assistants, he told Löw, “went inside the dressing room and hugged each other, though it didn’t feel like it normally does”. When he found out, he cried. He did go to the World Cup, but didn’t referee a single match there.

Löw told me he had “wanted to make a documentary that questions how much the human eye can capture”. He has. Hansson underestimated the fog of war. He thought he could see more than a human could. One day, the first line of his obituary will be Henry’s handball. The net effect of his life’s work has been to make the world worse.

That is a hard thing for strivers to accept. McNamara was in his eighties when Morris filmed him, but was still struggling to understand. Rumsfeld’s memoir blames everyone else. “Nobody is perfect. It’s impossible,” Hansson’s mother tells Löw, but the careers of these people are predicated on the notion that they aren’t far off. Then life bites them on the ankle.

Nowadays, for big European football matches, two assistant referees patrol the goal lines. They are extra pairs of eyes, whose job is to minimise their leader’s mistakes. There’s a moral here for strivers: oversight and the wisdom of crowds generally trump lone great men.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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