What football can teach us about the philosophy of regret

Should a footballer feel bad for missing a penalty? Bernard Williams's notion of agent-regret might hold the answer...

July 23, 2018
Gareth Southgate dejected after failing to score in the penalty shoot out which ended England's chances in the Euro '96 semi-final match against Germany at Wembley.
Gareth Southgate dejected after failing to score in the penalty shoot out which ended England's chances in the Euro '96 semi-final match against Germany at Wembley.

Football is full of errors. The misplaced pass, the shot gone awry, the bungled clearance. Few of these decide a game, and we don’t expect players to dwell on every mistake. But sometimes these actions do decide a game—then the player (and the fans) can’t help but dwell.

The most obvious time this happens is when a player misses a penalty in a shootout, but the same goes for the striker who misses an open goal or the goalkeeper who drops a clanger. How should a player react to such a mistake?

Bernard Williams’s notion of agent-regret might help us to shine some light on the missed penalties and ruined chances.

Sometimes when a player messes up, it’s their fault: they did something that they really shouldn’t have done. Some were just showing off.

Think of all the failed “Panenka” penalties where a player tries to chip the goalkeeper (but sometimes they work out), Simone Zaza’s ridiculous run-up in Euro 2016, or Mario Balotelli’s infamous backheeled shot.

Others, so often goalkeepers, just weren’t paying enough attention. Then there are those players who just didn’t take care, or who didn’t practice enough beforehand.

Traditional ethical concepts can take us so far. We can say that these players should feel bad. They didn’t just fail to score or make the save—they also did something wrong in failing to take proper care.

This is where guilt might arise. Or they might feel ashamed, because they realise that they did not put their skills to proper use—or were more interested in looking good for the cameras than in pulling their weight.

But what about the conscientious penalty taker, or the goalkeeper who stumbles on a piece of misplaced turf (or gets concussed by Sergio Ramos)?

They did a bad thing—they missed a penalty, or they let in a goal—but they didn’t do anything wrong, and they didn’t exhibit any flaw. This is where agent-regret steps in.

What is agent-regret? Williams employs the example of a driver who kills a child. The driver isn’t a bad driver, he wasn’t drunk, and he wasn’t speeding. But he surely did something awful: he killed a child.

There are also plenty of mundane examples. You might bump into someone in a crowded pub, or accidentally break a vase you were carrying. What you regret in this case is what you have done. The driver regrets killing the child, or you regret smashing the vase.

Of course, anyone can regret that the child died, or that you smashed the vase. Anyone can regret that Gareth Southgate missed the penalty which sent England out of Euro ’96. Agent-regret is first-personal.

When I feel agent-regret I think that what I have done is bad—and I think it’s bad even though I wasn’t at fault. Only Gareth Southgate can think “I regret that I missed the penalty.”

But Southgate missing his penalty was bad because it was a missed penalty and it sent England out of the Euros, not because of any wrongdoing or flaw on his part. (Jordan Henderson, who missed his penalty against Colombia, got lucky. His miss was much less bad: his team did not go home because of it.)

Isn’t this unfair? Isn’t it unfair that you can do something bad despite trying your best? That was partly Williams’s point: we are victims of luck, but that’s tough luck—it’s just how things are.

Some philosophers, like Thomas Nagel, worry about this. If luck is involved, and it is involved in all of our actions, then how can I be said to have done anything given that things weren’t fully in my control?

Nagel’s line is tempting, but we should resist it. Instead, we should accept that we don’t have full control over the world, but can still make an impact.

After all, there is an upside of luck’s role in our actions. David Beckham scored his famous free kick in 2001, but he needed a good dose of luck to score. Still, he scored, and he was central in scoring. It wasn’t just luck.

Even the best free kick taker—even the best penalty taker—can’t score every chance. Our skills only take us so far, and we need a dose of good luck. We're condemned by our imperfect nature as human beings to sometimes fail.

But we're also forced to act, both in life and in penalty shoot-outs. We're condemned to run the risk of failure and the agent-regret that goes with it.

Penalty takers should feel bad about missing their kick. But they can avoid the ignominy of being at fault. If they tried their best, their virtues as a footballer remain intact, and they can keep their heads held high. And if they’re lucky, they can find some redemption—just like Gareth Southgate.