If not for Iniesta…

With the dust settling on the World Cup Final last Sunday, we are still debating various aspects of the game and the tournament itself, such as those raised by Brian below on July 12.  One of the biggest issues is how to deal with imperfections in the sport, such as badly-designed balls, player simulation, the occasional ‘howler’ by referees and teams going out on penalty shoot-outs.  With this in mind, the good people at ‘The Sports Economist’  invited me to produce a guest-post on the latter.

The 2006 World Cup Final between Italy and France brought this ‘tragedy’ (as once surmised by Sepp Blatter) to light once again, even if this tragedy was overshadowed by the Zidane-Materazzi incident.  While Ghana and Japan were the only unfortunates in this installment, we were only four more scoreless minutes from witnessing the same tragedy occurring once again in the all-important Final before Andres Iniesta’s decisive strike.

Along with my colleague Jan Libich, and Petr Stehlík from University of West Bohemia, we were motivated to look at alternative solutions to the penalty shoot-out problem – our objective being to create the right incentives for teams to attack in extra-time, so that extra-time does its sole job of separating the teams.  As economists, we know that incentives are critical here, and that they explain the dismal failure of the so-called ‘Golden Goal’ – because it gave teams precisely the wrong incentives to attack.

We ended up looking at a proposal to merely shift the penalty shoot-out to BEFORE extra-time, with the winner of the shoot-out taking the contest only if the subsequent extra-time remains level.  Such a change would induce the team that lost the shoot-out to attack since they have to score to win.  If they succeed, then the other team also has to score to tie the extra-time, putting them back in the winning position.

We simulate the effect of this rule proposal using actual match data from numerous elite-level knockout competitions around the World (including the World Cup itself) by comparing outcomes from the status quo to scenarios where we believe the incentives to both teams closely approximate what this rule would do.  We find that the rule would create significantly more attacking play and reduce the incidence of scoreless extra-times from nearly 50% currently to under 25%.

The full paper is here.  If you’d prefer a 13-minute podcast version,  you can listen in either iTunes or mp3 formats.  Your thoughts?

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Author: Liam Lenten

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11 thoughts on “If not for Iniesta…”

  1. With all due respect to Liam his analysis reminds of Sarah Palin’s comment about “putting lipstick on a pig…” Boorish power mongers like Blatter were saved the ultimate embarrassment for their World Cup when Spain saved us from a possible Dutch shootout victory. That felicitous outcome would have invalidated whatever the credibility the World Cup still has.

    Let’s start at square one if we’re fixing things…there are three reasons that it is still LIKELY (not just possible) that a team that both scores and allows NO goals can be a World Cup Champion…remember..Penalty Kick shootouts are recorded as TIES.

    1. Defense is given EVERY advantage in a World Cup game…ignoring penalties in the 18 yd box because of their severe effect…offside calls that are real crap shoots…and accumulated yellow cards that actually make referees hesitant to enforce the rules because of the outsized effect (remind you of penalty kicks??)…so…..

    2. Offside is ONLY called when the attacking players is CLEARLY past the defending players…Voila!…at LEAST 20-30 more goals per World Cup. Attackers can now truly stretch defenses..more gaps..more runs..more goals. MY actual preference is NO offsides on any ball played from the Attacking half of the field…but Blatter would faint at this proposal.

    3. NO accumulated yellow cards..that Mueller couldn’t play in the semi is unconscionable..and let’s move into the 21st century…Red carded players may be substituted for…LISTEN UP..NO MAJOR SPORT IN THE WORLD MAKES ANY TEAM PLAY DOWN….

    4. Electronic monitoring of balls crossing goal..anyone who has ever reffed knows that NO assistant ref can see thru the net and the post to the line when in PERFECT position.

    Do the above and the possibility of even getting to a shootout is minimal…and if we really want to see a true Champion at that point..come back tomorrow and play another full game. Most soccer fans have nothing better to do anyway.

  2. Greg, I don’t think you understand how dangerous soccer can be. If players that get red cards can be substituted, then players would have an incentive to deliver hard fouls to ankles/knees to prevent scoring…In the Mexican League playoffs they play a 2 game total goal series. If the series is tied the team with the better regular season record advances, therefore, the weaker teams attack. In soccer the weaker team usually plays a lot more defense, so the Mexicans have designed a better system. In the WC let ties go to the team that won it’s group, if teams are both group winners, or runners up, then ties go to the team with more points from previous games, then number of wins, then goal-differential, then goals scored, then (fewest) goals conceded. If they’re still tied then play extra-time.

  3. Hi Liam,

    Enjoyed your post, but was unable to log-in to your podcast link without being a student or staff member.

    Greg, your belief that higher scoring is better requires data. That said, I agree that in 7.5 hours of play time, Mueller with only 2 minor offenses should not be locked out of the quarter finals.

    Apparently they are also going to look at the triple penalty for (Australia – Ghana) Kewell in his “eyes-shut” goal line hand ball where he was penalized once with a penalty, twice with a red card, and 3 times with a suspension.

    I like the idea of penalties before extra-time. But it being late Friday night, I will think about it and read the links properly, and reply again. Hopefully generates interest.

  4. Steve, I have posted an alternative link for you to access the podcast. Please try that, and yes, Kewell was unlucky (though I am biased on this one).

    ExtraMedium, the Mexican Play-off example you mentioned would have a highly similar incentive outcome as this proposed rule (hence more attacking play). It differs only in the respect that here the tiebreaker is determined within the match itself, making it more acceptable to governing bodies, like FIFA. Arguably, it would also be more acceptable to the majority of fans, as the ‘lesser’ team may hold out for 90 minutes and then win the penalty shootout, thus giving them the ascendancy going into extra-time (more uncertainty of outcome).

    Following a similar but stronger theme Greg, I cannot see FIFA seriously considering proposals like these ones listed . Also, contrary to your point 3), I am pretty sure that Rugby Union, Rugby League, Handball, Water Polo, Ice Hockey and Field Hockey all make teams play one down following a total expulsion (or most severe penalty cards in those respective sports).

  5. I think drawing referees from the top tier league of Europe and a few other top leagues around the world would go a long way to dimishing the bad calls in the WC. However, I think referee selection has become very political and I’m not sure FIFA would ever go for that.

    I can understand why people don’t like game (especially the final) to end with a PK shootout — but I have to admit (as an American), there are very exciting. I do think they are pretty arbitrary though.

  6. With all due respect, Greg, I’m not sure you have fully thought out your ideas.

    First, lots of sports make teams play short for violations including soccer, hockey, lacrosse, and rubgy. Most individual sports with a team component such as auto racing, cycling, and gymnastics also make teams play short for individual’s violations. If by “no major sport in the world” you mean basketball, football, and baseball, played primarily in the U.S., I guess you are right. In addition, not making teams play short would significantly encourage foul play to prevent clear goal scoring opportunities thereby reducing scoring.

    Second, electronic monitoring of balls crossing the goal is certainly a good idea, but as a soccer referee who has worked over 100 professional matches in my career, I can tell you that a perfectly placed assistant referee can easily make the correct call. The problem is when referees can’t possibly get to the correct position to make the call as in the England-Germany match.

    Third, and most importantly, the assumption that doing away with offside would increase scoring basically fails the rational expectations concept well known in economics. It is true that if every close offside (right or wrong) were to have been allowed to play on in this World Cup, dozens of additional good scoring chances would have occurred leading to lots of goals. But if defenders knew every close call would play on, defensive tactics would change to prevent close (no-call) offsides from resulting in good goal scoring opportunities. Without some real data, it’s very hard to say that scoring would rise by up to .5 goal per game just by letting close offsides play on.

  7. If the referee, Howard Webb, had applied the rules as they are in the World Cup final, he would have sent three Dutch players (DeJong, Van Bommel, Robben) off in normal time, in which case, I dare say, the Spaniards would have scored. This assumes no behaviour modification by the Dutch in response to referee, which may be unrealistic. Alternatively, Spain would have had more of a chance to actually play, being less disrupted by cynical Dutch tactics.

    Any proposals that start with the idea that draws or penalty shootouts are a bad thing proceed from the wrong assumption. However, extra time tends to be tedious, hence one might think about skipping that and proceed to penalties straight away. Your proposal for penalties before extra time would take much of the drama out of penalty shootouts. (Disclosure: I’m German.)

  8. I hate shoot-outs period because most of the time, the outcome is quite random. If the keeper guesses the right way, there is a chance to stop the kick – if not, the goal is scored almost all of the time. So it comes down to guessing which way to leap. It is stupid to play for so much time and then decide an important outcome, like potentially a World Cup final, on a pretty random outcome. The club that wins the shoot-out before extra time is played might simply play 11 men behind the ball and produce a worse outcome than playing the shoot-0ut after the extra time, but I really don’t know.

    I doubt FIFA will ever change anything on this. After all, it took FIFA about 40 years to allow substitutions in the World Cup (also for the yellow and red card system).

    For what it’s worth, the NHL plays extra time with fewer players on the ice. This recent rule change was in response to a lack of games being decided in extra time. Since the change, a significant increase has been observed in games being decided in extra time. But FIFA would never go for this in a million years.

  9. Nice paper. Worthwhile. I would like to see it implemented. I can see it would make for an interesting extra time.

    Greg’s comments seem get the responses here, and I can’t resist myself.

    Greg, your underlying assumption is that the rules need changing to increase scores for some reason. That is debatable, and soccer is by far the worlds largest sport as it is. Soccer is not a pig, and penalty shoot-outs are not lipstick. This paper is about breaking the dead-lock in those rare games where the dead-lock needs to be broken: tournament play essentially, and even then not all of it (FA Cup has replays for example).

    Your idea (from baseball, American football?) that scoring needs to be higher can be empirically checked in the case of soccer. If low scores were a problem, you would expect leagues with the highest goal/game ratio to correlate with attendances, sponsorship, etc. I think you will find the opposite is the case (leagues with large competitive imbalance like Croatia’s result in regular 7-0 thumpings, but are poorly supported). Even if you account for competitive imbalance, I think you will still find that high scoring leagues with attacking play and leaky defenses (Colombian? Honduran?) don’t correlate with spectators or sponsorship.

    The draws in soccer may in fact be part of the appeal. Because for the “weaker” team, a draw is a win. And for the “stronger” team, you still have to go out and beat them. Soccer is not alone there; Test cricket also has draws at the end of 5 days of play. For cricket fans, a well fought out draw coming from way down is seen as riveting. I recognise that American sports don’t result in draws, so you may be unfamiliar with the appeal of it.

  10. A really interesting read and listen. I’ve always thought that extra time would be more entertaining by creating such an imbalance after 90 mins and it’s good to see that the data backs this up. On the whole I think the change preferable to the current rules but there are drawbacks.

    As well as the issue of a break in the play, inevitable however truncated the format, it is very possible that some of the cautious play we currently see in extra time would be replicated towards the end of normal time, as teams wait to find out their provisional fate. It is likely that we would see more periods of extra time and certain that we would see more shootouts, unwelcome for the purist.

    Like ExtraMedium I favour determining progression in drawn knockout games through previous record in the tournament but I’d keep extra time whilst introducing a couple of other changes that incentivise teams to try and win in 90 mins.

    my proposal

    ps Bill Shankly English ?!!

  11. Thanks for your thoughts Flopper…I addressed the point made by ExtraMedium in an earlier comment. Your concern is related to the NHL points system. Benerjee et. al. (2007, Canadian Journal of Economics, 493-514) finds evidence of conservative play in the latter stages of regulation time if the scores are level, but the teams have a joint incentive to do this in the NHL, as the teams get one more point between them if it goes to overtime. I am not so concerned with this problem in knock-out tournaments, as the outcome is still the same – one team progresses, the other is eliminated. Hence, I believe that any such effect would be negligible.

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