Institutions Matter: Rules, Outcomes, and the World Cup

Lynne Kiesling

Over at the Sports Economist Brian has a post with three recommendations to improve international soccer: post-match review and penalties for diving and melodrama, more granularity in penalties around the penalty box, and two more officials on the field. I chuckled when Brian referred to “Sepp Blatter and the FIFAcrats who seem to have a secret love of Italian theater”, with which I heartily agree; FIFA seems incredibly uninclined to do anything constructive to change the incentives facing players or referees.

As for the player incentives, Brian links to an article about Franz Beckenbauer’s efforts to “to stop the increasing trend towards play-acting and feigning injury which has blighted matches at the World Cup”. Brian’s suggestion of having an allegedly injured player spend, say, 5 minutes off the pitch when a trainer is called out is a good one. It is similar in incentive compatibility to the policy that the KP Spouse and I have advocated for years in the NHL: if you lay an illegal check on someone that puts them out of play for 5 games, you sit out those 5 games. Without pay.

The referee incentives FIFA presents I find utterly perplexing. They said they would call tackling from behind and shirt grabbing more closely than ever this year, but in practice they called lots of fouls where there was no apparent foul, and handed out yellow cards for calls that would otherwise usually be just fouls. And then FIFA rewards the most inconsistent referees by letting them ref subsequent games! I thought Jorge Larrionda deserved to be sent home after the US-Italy game, but he officiated the France-Portugal game! And he called that one totally differently from how he called US-Italy.

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal highlights some of these inconsistencies:

In this summer’s World Cup, however, it’s not clear that all the pros are playing by the same rules. Before the tournament, FIFA instructed officials to issue yellow cards for certain types of fouls, such as tackles from behind and shirt-grabbing. The organization even sent videotapes to teams warning of harsher treatment for those infractions.

Mixed Messages

But after a flood of players had to sit out games in the tournament’s first two weeks, FIFA began sending mixed messages. Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, FIFA’s president, complained that some refs weren’t enforcing the new guidelines. At the same time, refs involved in controversial calls were rewarded with assignments to work later rounds. Uruguayan official Jorge Larrionda, who ejected three players in the U.S.-Italy game and issued 13 yellow cards in three games, was selected to officiate Wednesday’s semifinal between France and Portugal. “It’s tough because you have to balance what FIFA has said with the issue of kicking players out of the game,” says American ref Brian Hall, who worked the 2002 World Cup and now officiates in Major League Soccer.

In the same article, a FIFA official is quoted as opposing video review of calls:

FIFA’s main objection: Reviewing disputed calls would compromise the sacrosanct “flow” of a match. “The fluidity and the rhythm of the game are so important,” says Esse Baharmast, director of international referee training for the U.S. Soccer Federation, who’s been a referee trainer and assessor for FIFA in Germany. “The game is played by humans and should be reffed by humans.”

These FIFA guys failing to ask the “compared to what?” opportunity cost question. All of these silly fouls and ridiculous yellow cards, and the dive/injury melodrama, eviscerate the flow of the match. The threat of video review should provide a contestability-like dynamic incentive to induce more measured officiating, as well as less player melodrama.


7 thoughts on “Institutions Matter: Rules, Outcomes, and the World Cup

  1. I really think the refs in the World cup were very good on average, except for the fake penalty awarded to Italy in ITA-AUS game there was not a single game deciding bad call.

    As for particular games, Italy-US and Netherlands-Portugal were the most brutal games of the cup, (just count the yellows) and I think that no one of the red cards (or yellows) in those games were unjustified.
    I think a lot of people are over reacting about the referees, while the blame should go to the players and their coachs who used excesive defense and tackling spoiled some games that should have been great, and made them mediocre.
    I agree that diving is bad, and should be penalised, but this is what they are , at least, trying to do.

  2. I’m not sure what problem you are trying to correct. The Americans lost fair and square. They stunk! They brought an old bunch of guys and were coached by a man that still does not understand that the world has athletes just as fast (actually faster) and just as able to run for 90 minutes (able more than 90 minutes) than Americans. You cannot play a counter strike offense when the other team is much faster than your forwards. The coaching stunk and has stunk for decades. Hustle is not a strategy. America lost for the reason they screw-up in many global activities they fail to understand the strengths of their opponents.

    I fear any tendency to turn soccer into an American game where what happens during the game amongst players is trivialized by actions taken by others outside the game with destroy the sport. The suggestions you offer sound like they originate from those who do not really understand the game. Soccer is the American name for a global sport that does not bend to the logic that life can be managed from the outside by the forces of knowledgeable experts. The incentives angle is a farce.

  3. What if you made PKs worth 3 points and everything else worth, oh, I dunno, 6 or 7? The value of diving in the box would fall. Take-downs in the box would rise, but you could always use the card to compensate. Or use a hockey-like time penalty to create a power play in addition to the PK.

    Dives in the box are not necessarily accompanied by feigned injury, and the payoff is much greater than anywhere else on the field, so the “5 minute off” rule doesn’t really compensate for those. Come to think of it, I can’t remember seeing a single card for diving, though referees clearly believed many of the falls were.

    One problem with using replays is that it requires lots of equipment that could easily be provided at the professional level, but not the amateur level, and so introduces a difference between the two games. Maybe that’s okay – after all, the pro acting may be better, too.

    I think additional referees are warranted, but again at added cost that would lead to differences in the pro/am rules. I always thought that having the same rules at every level was one of the more endearing things about football.

  4. What if you made PKs worth 3 points and everything else worth, oh, I dunno, 6 or 7? The value of diving in the box would fall. Take-downs in the box would rise, but you could always use the card to compensate. Or use a hockey-like time penalty to create a power play in addition to the PK.

    Dives in the box are not necessarily accompanied by feigned injury, and the payoff is much greater than anywhere else on the field, so the “5 minute off” rule doesn’t really compensate for those. Come to think of it, I can’t remember seeing a single card for diving, though referees clearly believed many of the falls were.

    One problem with using replays is that it requires lots of equipment that could easily be provided at the professional level, but not the amateur level, and so introduces a difference between the two games. Maybe that’s okay – after all, the pro acting may be better, too.

    I think additional referees are warranted, but again at added cost that would lead to differences in the pro/am rules. I always thought that having the same rules at every level was one of the more endearing things about football.

  5. Marsha,

    Before you get carried away with your stereotype, know this: I have played the game for almost 30 years. I have coached it. I have lived outside the US and followed it there, and continue to follow it through foreign media.

    Your criticism of wanting to turn it into an American game is misplaced here; in fact, thinking about incentives is precisely the way to keep the focus on the game and its flow, by forestalling bad behavior that takes attention away from the game and leaves a bad taste in the mouth of spectators and other players.

  6. All I know is that Italy would never have been anywhere close to the final match if it were not for referees. I will have lost all respect for a game that has rewarded fake injuries and has taken the game out of the control of the players. The players should determine who wins not the refs. Refs can be bought out, players at least have pride at stake.

  7. All I know is that Italy would never have been anywhere close to the final match if it were not for referees. I will have lost all respect for a game that has rewarded fake injuries and has taken the game out of the control of the players. The players should determine who wins not the refs. Refs can be bought out, players at least have pride at stake.

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