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The Role of Consolation Play-offs

2011 January 26
by Liam Lenten

In football (soccer) news, the AFC Asian Cup Final takes place Saturday with three-time Asian champions Japan and confederation newcomers Australia vying for not only the title, but also a place at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil.  However, in economic theory terms, perhaps the more interesting fixture is tomorrow evening’s Play-off for Third between perennial regional powerhouse South Korea and outsiders Uzbekistan, with these beaten semi-finalists losing their semis under dramatically different circumstances – the former in a heart-breaking penalty shoot-out and the latter routed 6-0.

This once again brings to light the role of consolation play-offs in major tournaments. Having it offers tournament organisers a chance to fill the scheduling gap between the semi-finals and the final (as well as the extra ‘bums on seats’), but some fans question whether the extra game is superfluous to some degree (this is not to mention some European club managers waiting for their players to return to their ‘regular’ jobs in the middle of the season).

In the World Cup, the play-off for third has generally produced wonderful football (relative to other matches) almost without exception in my living memory, except for 1994 when Bulgaria left their game face back in the team hotel, losing to Sweden 4-0.  With the pressure of winning the tournament removed (but still with an incentive to win), the players can feel free to break off the tactical shackles and showcase to the world just what they can do. Last year’s Germany-Uruguay showdown was certainly no exception.  In spite of all this, it seems that the question of whether the play-off for third should be axed is raised every time the penultimate game of the World Cup comes around.

The play-off does not exist generally in domestic cups, but they do exist in most major FIFA tournaments – not only the World Cup (including the womens’ and age contemporaries), but also the Confederations Cup, and Club World Championship. As for continental tournaments, they have historically been the norm as well, except (notably) Euro – UEFA dispensed with it after the 1980 edition in which the third-place playoff finished in a 9-8 penalty shoot-out win to Czechoslovakia over Italy.  More recently, the CONCACAF (North American) Cup abandoned the playoff after the 2003 tournament, while the Oceania Nations Cup is now the other exception, under a new format over several FIFA match days, rather than the standard short-format tournament.

Arguably, there has to be a strong (stand-alone) reason to motivate players to perform, since they can no longer claim the title.  In (most) team sports in the Olympics, finishing third carries with it the obvious prize of a bronze medal. FIFA arguably diminished the incentive for winning the play-off from the 1998 World Cup onwards when they decided bronze medals would be awarded to both the third- and fourth-place finishers. 

The AFC have some incentive mechanism to make the teams produce their best football in the play-off for third – automatic entry (along with the two finalists) to the following Asian Cup.  It seems that this did not work in the previous Asian Cup in 2007 when the third-place play-off featured Japan and South Korea (it should be added that these two are bitter football rivals).  Despite the incentives on offer, both coaches decided to field largely experimental starting elevens, maybe with a view to the impending 2010 World Cup Qualifiers.  The game finished in an utterly forgettable goal-less 120 minutes and a 6-5 shoot-out victory to the Koreans.

Even that kind of incentive may not work for some teams. I am based in Australia, a country in which the national federation (FFA) is trying hard (but still struggling) to promote the game domestically in the wake of intense business competition from other sports for exposure.  The argument could be made that FFA want the national team to play more meaningful (not merely friendlies) matches over any given quadrennial cycle. Therefore, one may be tempted to wonder if automatic qualification would be seen as a disadvantage, since Australia would presumably be regarded as heavily favoured to qualify (if they had to) for the Asian Cup nonetheless.  Even without finishing in the top three, Australia would have qualified automatically as 2015 hosts making this argument a moot point.  Nevertheless, the counterfactual makes an interesting hypothetical about payoffs in tournament design, and perverse incentives to lose.

5 Responses
  1. January 28, 2011

    As someone who grew up in Japan, the Asia Cup is a big deal for me, and I thought that the third place game incentive was a good one.

    However, I don’t know how seriously South Korea is taking the match (or Uzbekistan), they have already said they will not be playing their best player (Park Ji-Sung of Man United). After having played the last two of their matches with extra time, it is said the Korean staff is concerned with the fatigue and wear and tear the players have received over the last week. This may be the case where South Korea probably doesn’t have any fears about qualifying for the next Asia Cup tournament, and thus may not worry as much about the third place game as Uzbekistan.

    If I remember correctly, in Szymanski and Kuyper’s book “Soccernomics” the third place game does give another economic incentive (at least during the World Cup) as they found the third-place matches have increases from the average viewership numbers.

    All that said, the attendance in Qatar has been quite pathetic, the Japan vs Saudi Arabia match (combined 6 Asia Cup titles) had an announced 2,029, though my friend was at the match said he doubted if there was much over a 1,000 in the stadium.

  2. Robert Macdonald permalink
    January 31, 2011

    Very interesting post Liam (and Mark L too), the dynamics of second, third and subsequent prizes have had some treatment in the literature – and deserve some more

    But it’s a long bow to draw to suggest there would be a perverse incentive effect motivating a loss in the playoff for third. Soccer as a sport in Australia can hardly afford to be branded as a code of losers where noone can win anything. After all, it just cost taxpayers a minimum of $46 million for one vote in the FIFA World Cup ballot.

  3. Liam Lenten permalink
    January 31, 2011

    Rob, true it is a long bow. I do not mean to suggest that they would TRY to lose, merely that you would get a similar situation to late season matches for bottom teams with a reverse-order draft. Mate, I know you showed that AFL teams do not tank, but there is some NBA stuff that shows the contrary result, so perhaps we can agree that there is at least a weaker incentive to win in the case I discuss?

  4. Robert Macdonald permalink
    February 8, 2011

    Hi Liam, I think the discussion is interesting – tournament format has a larger impact upon the distribution of winners and losers than the layperson might like to think – your research across a number of sports shows that.

    But I think the idea of perverse incentive effects (ie the ‘lose to win’ scenario) can be overblown in casual observation.

    The structure of international representative soccer is vastly different to a league labour market where a club can instantly recruit and fans can see the new team six months from now on a weekly basis. So the incentive effect in soccer has to be a marketing/promotional one. Sure, I’ll agree there is a weaker perverse incentive, but I’ll bet you my 10 dollars to your 10 cents that the FFA would look strangely at that notion (and the FFA come up with some pretty strange marketing ideas themselves). I just don’t see the FFA being excited by a marketing campaing themed on “sudden death – turn up now for excitement”, where the undertone is “we’ve failed again – please watch us dig ourselves out of a hole” to be preferable to “we’re on the up, watch a world class team match it with the best as we practice for our next guaranteed international tournament appearances”. Where is the incentive in presenting one’s sport to the marketplace as a failure?

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