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The Role of Consolation Play-offs

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.