FIFA: Money, Control, or Both

After goals not given, diving, low scoring, reds for nothing, penalties overlooked, … of the World Cup, arguably the strongest overall team won the event.  Although not totally one-sided, Spain controlled long stretches of both their semifinal and final against Germany and Netherlands.  In spite of this “deserved” outcome, soccer and the WC frustrates me for the reasons mentioned above.  Two recent Wall Street Journal articles examine the problems.  P.J. O’Rourke offered some humorous observations in A Modest Proposal for Improving a Dull Game, including

There are a few things that people need to admit.  Trade restraints slow economic growth.  The euro is not a reserve currency, and scoreless sports ties are boring.

Finance and soccer blogger Richard Bookstaber considers the effect of low scoring on increasing randomness in games.  As the article’s comments point out, there is an optimal amount of outcome randomness to promote fan interest.  Yet, scoring seems way below any such optimum.  The 2010 Final went into the 116th minute before Spain scored a goal, after Germany and Spain played to a 1-0 scoreline in their semifinal.  The 2006 Semifinals ended 1-0 and 2-0, and the Italy-France Final went to penalty kicks with a 1-1 score.    Both 2002 WC Semis ended 1-0 with a 2-0 Final between Brazil and Germany.  The 2010 3rd place game between Germany and Uruguay produced a 5 goal scoring orgy by comparison.

Whether it is low scoring or contributors to it (disallowed goals, grabbing/holding on set pieces, overly aggressive offsides calls) or just soccer silliness (diving, writhing, …), almost all of these ills are fixable.  So why keep them? TSE writers have considered various fixes (John PalmerSkipMe).  Ultimately, FIFA’s unwillingness to change things probably has little to do with their lack of awareness of such fixes.

In “Not a Good Performance Evaluation,” Skip attributes FIFA intransigence to a controversy-stirs-interest-money-making explanation.   No doubt, FIFA cares about money.  Their fastidious insistence on the use of FIFA World Cup and not merely World Cup, reveals this part of the organization’s nature.   Maybe money is the explanation and Europeans really like this kind of stuff, but it doesn’t stir interest in a higher than average interested U.S. soccer fan like myself or among less interested U.S. fans that I know.

An alternative explanation is rooted in political economy.  Integrated with FIFA’s money-making side  is a very European aristocratic political culture.  These Eurocrats pursue certain agendas that are hard to reconcile with pure money maximization, including holding the event in South Africa.   More to the point here, an usually strong organizational conservatism may grow out of aristocrat-dominated political cultures — conservatism not merely for its own sake but as a means of preserving control over the long haul.  Populism is at odds with aristocratic control.  If FIFA starts responding to every strong popular outcry from blown calls, who is really in charge of FIFA?  While U.S. sports associations certainly have elements of aristocratic control, they seem much more influenced by popular and media-based reactions than is FIFA.  In a roundabout way, this ties in with Who Controls MLB Product regarding the difficulty that U.S. leagues have in sticking with certain initiatives such as speeding up games.

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Author: Brian Goff

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FIFA, Soccer, World Cup

15 thoughts on “FIFA: Money, Control, or Both”

  1. The problem is not scoreless ties but competition. Whenever you have very closely matched teams in important games, you’re naturally going to have tight games.

    Anyways, anyone who knows the sport knows that a 0-0 tie can be exciting, since so many battles exist on the field even if no goals are scored.

    Personally I find a 35-14 NFL game boring because the sport is so “stop and start.” There’s no continuity. And the commercials break everything up too much. The great thing about soccer is even if it’s low scoring, it flows and the game is crisp — over in 1.5 hours.

  2. Love how soccer fans, like Hendrix here, can rationalize their love of terrible games like the WC Final. It was a brutal slog that reminded many of how conservative, physical play can make the sport excruciating to watch. In these matches of high stakes (and seemingly every EPL contest), teams tighten up incredibly and what you get is a match unlike the fun, open, attacking play of previous matches (especially for Holland).

    You can “appreciate” the details of a 0-0 tie, but can you tell me the swings that occurred in the 3-2 3rd place game didn’t make that an objectively more “fun” game to watch? For the casual fan and the diehard alike. Surely the “competition” between Germany and Uruguay was similar close as Spain and Netherlands (as evidenced by score and play overall), but it didn’t result in a 0-0 regulation.

    Also, comparing a scoreless tie to a 35-14 football game is not close to analogous.
    I’ll agree that I can find a 1-0 BASEBALL game entertaining, but that is exciting largely because you know one team will come out victorious through the normal course of play, without resorting to some largely random penalty kick situation.

  3. ” but it doesn’t stir interest in a higher than average interested U.S. soccer fan like myself or among less interested U.S. fans that I know”


    As if we cared? Stick to your “football” (rolleyes). It’s better for you.

  4. This is a dead argument now.

    I live in SE Wisconsin, hardly a hotbed of soccer fanaticism. Yesterday I watched the final with 1500 people at a block party with a massive screen outside a pub in Milwaukee. I could have watched any of the games at home on ESPN or ABC or at any number of bars in Milwaukee, but also in Racine or Kenosha.

    The World Cup is over, but I can travel down to Chicago to see the Fire every other weekend. My kids can play from spring to fall outside, and indoors in winter. I can play in pick-up games every week if I choose to. If my kids are good enough they’ll play Soccer at any high school they go to. They can then get a scholarship at the vast majority of good schools. Then if they’re really good there’s a well run professional league for them, and if they’re outstanding American soccer is at a level where it’s best players are scouted by the very best European megaclubs.

    The megaclubs I can see every day if I want on Fox Soccer Channel, Univision, or ESPN.

    The point is, soccer doesn’t NEED to get any bigger in the U.S. If you’re a fan here you already have everything you require. If you’re not then who cares? Shut up and watch something else. There’s no need to “fix” soccer to attract new fans. 700 million watched the world cup final worldwide including 24 million Americans.

    A better question now would be how to fix Baseball to attract more fans outside the U.S., Korea, and parts of Latin America. I think for a start it needs to be shortened to three innings because it just takes ages to play. There’s not nearly enough home runs either. Maybe the wall thingy should be moved closer to make it easier to score. The players are freakishly big as well, that’s a turn off. Maybe some proper drug testing would be good as well.

  5. As a life-long soccer fan, I must say that the WC final yesterday was not a good game to watch. The 3rd place match was much more enjoyable to watch. Of course a 0-0 tie can be exciting to watch, but the problem is that defensive, physical games are becoming the norm rather than the exception, and Football is losing some of its beauty that it is capable of providing. Personally, I think what is lacking is courage by coaches and players. All it takes is one of the big teams doing what Uruguay did in this cup – playing openly and ofensively – to rescue the lost beauty. I wish Brazil had played the way Uruguay did.

  6. I’m a huge soccer fan and yes I’m American.

    I dont think we need instant replay but I absolutely think we need more refs on the field. A soccer field is 6x the size of a basketball court and yet both sports have the same amount of refs! Ok, add a camera on the goal line add an additional ref to the field and two additional refs on the sidelines.

    The problem with the final was the ref. He was terrible. Just like in basketball a ref has total control of the game. A basketball game where the ref aloes for a bit of contact flows better than a game that’s called too tight. The same goes for soccer. Both sports are remarkably similar.

  7. Soccer seems to be popular mainly in countries that have had monarchies or dictators, and fairness in a game can be overlooked through tradition. I didn’t care who won the final, but I finally got sick of the poor calls, calls made without even the ref seeing them (as shown in a replay), and diving. If I want to watch diving, I’ll watch the summer Olympics. I’ve played soccer in high school, college, and a little afterwards, and know what spikes and collisions can feel like. It’s never like these professional babies portray, successfully baiting the referee for a bad call because they are so bad they call plays they haven’t seen. After the England goal, offsides goals, and a non-US goal made by the “king” on the field, with no team or player recourse for correction, my interest in international play has ended. At least it wasn’t a PK shoothout. Make these professionals play to the end to see who can stand up due to better conditioning. You’ll never see the equivalent of a 70-68 5th set in FIFA, or a 6th 20 minute overtime period as in college hockey. These pros have after-game appointments or something?

  8. I love the wacky political theories, as many republics and early democracies (France and Switzerland) play football as constitutional monarchies, which are democracies anyway . FIFA is a democracy and its run by the players assoc who run the amateur games . Not a commissioner representing big businesses like the US system ( or the system that runs Australian Rules Foot ball here). So its slow and clunky , but its run by the people who play…Its telling that you are so fascinated that it is not totality controlled by big business.. Video refs are coming …..just have patience…

  9. It is funny how Americans (and Australians of which I am one) are continually making suggestions to “fix” soccer. Especially since it is by a very large margin the most popular sport in the world no matter how you measure it (participation, spectators, sum of sponsorship). There might be an argument that the rules of Lacrosse need some tweaking to improve appeal. But soccer?

    Ultimately if the “designers” of a sport are trying to optimize something, these designers have done an excellent job with soccer. If you want to design a new sport, you need someone to play it against who agrees that this contest is a worthwhile endeavor. Any first game ever played in any given sport was certainly a negotiation on the rules: how one scores and wins, how a ball going out of bounds is treated to get it back into play, the number of players, what is permitted.

    I recently had the bad fortune of playing a new sport at a work barbecue: Ultimate Frisbee After spending too much time on a field that was too big for the game, with too many players and too much running for not enough touches of the “ball” (frisbee), we abandoned the game and played soccer.

    This is in Montreal, Canada, a place where the predominant sports are Ice-hockey, American football, baseball, basketball and then soccer in that order. The beauty of soccer with rules that have been tweaked and optimized over many years in millions of iterations in many countries was clear in the increased enjoyment. I have seen kids informal soccer with their own rules such as 3 corners count as a goal, no goal-keeper, but last defender can use their hands, the iterations continue. Ultimate Frisbee needs many more iterations and rule tweaking before I will be playing it again!

    In comparison with Ultimate Frisbee, the frequency of touches of the ball was satisfying. The low scoring nature of the game kept the game close despite differences in abilities across teams, there was no de-moralizing blow out in score. Players with skill and vision could play alongside people playing for the first time. Men and women played in the same team on the same field. The game simply works. I know some people call it “the perfect game” …

    If there is any competition amongst sports for “survival of the fittest”, soccer has swept many indigenous sports into extinction (such as whatever the Aztecs played, and I guess Irish Hurling ain’t doing to well). As an economist, you have to say it is a success.

    In America soccer is an enormously popular participants sport. Old-timers postulate theories for this such as “mothers prefer their sons to be wusses”, but like anything else, lets see the data to support that, rather than the alternate theory that the game is well designed.

    Ultimately, with globalization, satellite television, and the shrinking of the world, it is becoming increasing hard for Americans to ignore the sport and say “the only reason we don’t win it is because we don’t like it for spurious-reason-X and spurious-reason-Y”. If you want to call yourselves the worlds sporting champions, there is only one sport that matters to the rest of the world. And if that is how the rest of the world measure it, America will be seduced in competing to win the big prize at some stage. It is unavoidable.

  10. Further to what I wrote above, the need to “fix” the sport from Americans can be summed up by the New York Post headline of a few weeks ago “This sport is stupid anyway: USA out of World Cup”. The biggest impediment to a penetration of the US market for soccer, one might argue, has less to do with diving, and more to do with the US not winning.

    For the USA to become a soccer power is not nesesarily a matter of the sport becoming mainstream … the US population dwarves that of the finalists. It only requires the portion of the US sports participants who take up soccer are developed in a serious manner. I am postulating a simple model that runs thus: world ranking = f(population of participants, efficiency of youth development)

    To be in the semi-finals if you have excellent youth development you only need a talent pool like Uruguay, a country of 3.5 million. Should sports participation be held constant across countries, that impiles that if a little over 1% of sports participants in the USA choose to play soccer, there should be an equivelent talent pool to get to the quarter finals in the US and Urugay (if youth development were equal). To be runners up, and compare Hollands population, the US would need 5% of their sports juniors to devote themsevles to soccer, and to win comparing Spains population, 14%.

    So soccer need not replace the major sports in order for the US to be competitive, but rather, foreign “technologies” of player development imported for those that do. This can be seen as equivelent to Japan importing American manufacturing technology and in short-order being able to compete in Automobile manufacture. If America were winning, people would not be suggesting “fixes” for the rules or game-play as if the game lacks some fundemental appeal.

  11. As a life long soccer fan (including the USA’s MLS) and player, but also a football season ticket holder at my BCS level college; I attest one can enjoy, and be ashamed of the shanigan’s of both soccer and the USA’s native sports. The writer of the article fails to mention that soccer, and specifically the World Cup, are controlled by a governing body (that is not just European), while US leagues control themselves. Governing bodies are more traditional and look out (in theory) for the good of their sports on all levels. Leagues are in the entertainment business- hence such innovations as the 2 minute warning and constant TV timeouts. College football has a governing body, but it only governs the college level. I enjoy the college football experience, but the games get tedious in their length and long stops. Having said that, let’s not pretend a 0-0 soccer game is a good one, but at least it’s quick. Sports, obviously, are not all about scoring; otherwise we’d all be basketball fans.

    One irony is that while the World Cup brings in casual viewers because of the national pride character of it, the best soccer is at the club level. For example, this year’s quarter, semi, and final games of the Champions League had many great games, and was overall more entertaining than the World Cup. Why? That reasons are debatable, but perhaps the pressure of the world cup has a lot to do with it, and the home crowds in the club game create better energy; also club squads are together more and thus have more cohesion. But perhaps the biggest reason (and relevent to a site called the Sports ECONOMIST) is the national character of the World Cup squads is inefficient- Barcelona, for example, suppliment their six Spanish players with guys from all over the world, and they don’t care if he’s from Africa, Asia, South America etc…

  12. Soccer needs fixing. So called soccer savvy people…just read some of the simpleminded comments above..continually point out what rubes Americans are in the sport. This is a highly entertaining concept since arguably the two most inept team managers in the Cup were Dunga and Maradonna.

    There are several reasons why low scoring has grabbed the World Cup, and the Champions League..and virtually every other major venue by the throat..First, defenders have been given a virtual license to manhandle players over several decades. Look at some of games from the 1960s and 70s World Cups some time. It looks like an entirely different sport.

    Second..and this was one of the pernicious side effects of defensive license..refs stopped calling
    penalty kicks BECAUSE..ta chronically low scoring games those calls became life and death. Diving became MORE common because kicks Penalty Kicks needs to be “sold.”

    So what’s the fix?? Instant replay for offside not called when a goal is scored..and electronic confirmation of goals. These are hardly monumental changes..YET FIFA and narrow minded “traditionalists” stubbornly concede little.
    A field ref on each half would certainly make blatant mistakes less likely. And for those who are already having an asthma attack over those “bold” proposals I’ll go one step further…Don’t even think about replay for offsides…SIMPLY ELIMINATE THE CALL WHEN THE BALL IS POSSESSED IN THE ATTACKING HALF. The bottom line is this…..2010 was by almost any measure a horrible soccer spectacle. There were only a handful of decent games..and the worst Final imaginable. EVERY major sport in the world has adopted some enhanced form of game monitoring..ONLY FIFA resists.

  13. @ Greg Pinelli
    I agree that technology should be introduced to better inforce the rules. These are tweaks that are debated by soccer fans, and a discussion of these things here should be around incentives for diving, etc.

    But the original blog was suggesting that soccer was broken far beyond that. Did you read the 2 links that Brian Goff was blogging about? One P.J. O’Rourke article that suggests as a fix “Just use your hands, introduce some full-body blocking, expand the goal area, break up the game a little so that people have time to go to the bathroom between plays and maybe change the shape of the ball slightly so it’s easier to carry. Now you’ve got a sport.”, and a second by someone who is clearly not a soccer fan that suggests that the scoring is “sub-optimal”, and does not allow the best team to win (I guess in the same way that the Vietnam war had a “sub-optimal” scoring system).

    The central assumption behind such articles seems to be that soccer participants and spectators are not rational agents who are engaging in utility maximization with perfect information about competing passtimes (such as American football for example). Or that the game was not developed, perfected and has subsequently taken over the world as the number one sport through a natural multi-stage economic model towards a utility maximizing equilibrium, and needs intervention to bring it closer to American football for its very survival.

    BTW; despite the unpredictable ball, and some woeful refereeing (both of which are surface fixes for next time), I found this World Cup exhilarating. Some of the reasons are talked about here:

  14. Some quality points made by Steve in his posts:

    Here’s another.

    The World Cup Final (without the US or Mexico involved) was watched by more people in the U.S. than any Major League Baseball game since 2004, and more than any College Basketball game since 1999. Viewership is up over 40% over the 2006 World Cup in Germany. All this with games in the early morning to afternoon. In 2014 when the finals are in Brazil and games are played at Prime Time in the U.S numbers are likely to be through the roof.

    Wow, imagine how popular soccer would be if somebody fixed it!

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