Heuristic biases in Football

Nalin Rajput
5 min readMay 25, 2021


A brief insight into some of the repairable mistakes made by clubs in the transfer market and the reason behind making this mistake.

Football is considered to be the world’s most popular sport. Evidently, it can be claimed that the World Cups, the Euros and the Copa Americas are the most watched tournaments whenever they are held. The 2018 FIFA World Cup was watched by a total of 3.152 billion people, a pretty big number if you ask me.

FIFA World Cup of 2018 was held in Russia.

Therefore it is certain that whoever delivers on these “big stages”, will catch the attention of almost every football fan, pundit and even various clubs. For the sake of this article, I will consider those players who were relatively unknown before any of the major international tournaments, whose reputations went off the charts post some iconic moments and performances in said tournaments.

But how will I relate these cases with Psychology? For this I will introduce the concept of Heuristics, a psychological phenomenon that we all have applied and experienced a lot of times, but never really noticed it. With the help of a certain heuristic technique, bad transfer decisions made by football clubs can be explained.

Heuristics serve as shortcuts that enable us to make quick decisions.

Heuristics can be defined as the techniques which can be applied in problem solving, “shortcuts” that enable us to be more efficient in our decision making with minimal mental effort. These techniques are not necessarily rational, accurate or optimal but they are important for fulfilling short-term goals and satisfaction. Heuristics can be of 3 distinct types:

  1. Availability Heuristic: Decision making based on ease of recollection (and the main technique in focus for this article).
  2. Representativeness Heuristic: Decision making based on recollection of representative characteristics.
  3. Satisficing: Decision making based on attainment of immediate satisfaction.

Now that we are equipped with the knowledge of heuristics, let’s relate it with football.

Hal Robson-Kanu doing the “Cryuff turn” against Belgium in Euro 2016

The above image was taken from the quarterfinal match of the European Championship held in 2016 between Wales and Belgium, which Wales won 3–1. Hal Robson-Kanu, the Welsh center-forward, scored arguably the best goal of the tournament as well as his career. Let me give you an insight into his situation right before the Euros. He was a free agent, coming on the back of an average performance for his old club, Reading. His future was dependent on his performance in Euros and he scored 2 goals in the tournament, which is a satisfactory return from a striker. But his goal against Belgium was iconic, and post that goal, he shot to fame.

After this, he was signed by West Bromwich Albion, who clearly thought he was the right person to lead their forward line. But surprisingly(or not), he made 157 appearances for his new club and scored just 25 goals, which is a below average return. So the point of discussion here is, How did West Bromwich Albion come to the conclusion that Hal was the best option for the club when there was a plethora of other options?

Availability Heuristic

Their decision can be attributed to the availability heuristic technique. Let us suppose that the club was indeed scouting for a good striker. During the process it may so have happened that they all agreed upon Robson-Kanu as the perfect choice because they overestimated his quality by the most recent memory of his goals, which was against Belgium. Conclusively, he was not convincing during his time at the club, and surely must have disappointed their fans too.

A similar explanation can be given for the case of Eder, scorer of the winning goal in the final of the European Championship of 2016, playing for Portugal against France.

The Portuguese team celebrating Eder’s goal in Extra Time.

Before the Euros began, he was a striker for Swansea city, failing to find the net in any of his 15 appearances. After his winning goal in the tournament, he shot to fame, transferred to Lille and since then he has scored 26 times in 102 appearances, which again is a below average return for a striker. The club that signed him right after Euros was a victim of the availability heuristic, as they might have overestimated his quality based on that one goal he scored.

These cases may sound like exceptions, but it is instead a very common mistake made by football clubs. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted to signing players on the back of good international tournament performances, further commenting:

They weren’t bad buys, but sometimes players get themselves motivated and prepared for World Cups and European Championships and after that there can be a levelling off.

Rationally, buying a player on the back of a good tournament performance is not optimal as his/her performances are being judged on a small sample of games. But the availability heuristic technique, in this case makes us ignore this rationality and hence clubs end up spending on inadequate players.

If the decision makers are made aware of these small biases, then it can benefit the club, the players as well as the fans.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article, if you further feel like expressing your opinion on this do let me know in the comments.



Nalin Rajput

DS | Psychology | Football | Poetry