More rule/market design recommendations for international football-soccer

Lynne Kiesling

Like Mike the other day, I have been thinking about possibly Pareto-improving rule changes in international soccer; like Richard Epstein I have always thought about sports rules (and league organization and market structure) as interesting market design issues. Take, for example, the unintended changes in ice hockey and American football after the introduction of a mandatory helmet rule — an increase in the force and violence of body contact. This is as good an example of moral hazard as you can find outside of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

After the two ludicrous incorrect calls in today’s matches — not calling Frank Lampard’s goal a goal in the England-Germany game, and allowing Carlos Tevez’s goal even though he was ridiculously offside in the Argentina-Mexico game — FIFA’s hidebound refusal to use any sort of technology to review plays and calls is leading to even more anger, acrimony, and charges of unfair outcomes.

I separate the rules issues into two categories: issues affecting the run of play and issues with goals. Epstein’s recommendations that Mike summarized in his earlier post mostly pertain to fouls, diving, and other behavior in the run of play, but I think that the easiest and most beneficial rules changes to implement pertain to goals, not the run of play. A lot of these bad goal calls, one of which we have seen in almost every game thus far in this World Cup, could be corrected with two fairly simple and low-tech rule changes that are cross-pollination from American football:

  • Simple real-time video review of all goals, with the reviewer able to radio down to the referee to tell him that he made the incorrect call. Since the review is in real time, in most cases it should not slow down the pace too much, and you can have a standard rule that if a goal is disallowed the defending team gets a goal kick.
  • From the NFL: A set number of challenges (say 2), restricted to goal-related plays only that will trigger an off-field review and/or referee video review on the field. Somewhat redundant if you have video review, but it gives the teams a clean procedural opportunity to register a disagreement productively, which is impossible given the existing rule structure. As in the NFL, if you register a challenge and your challenge is denied, then there should be some kind of payment, like you lose a substitute or something.

FIFA contends that they do not want video review because it will slow down the pace of “the beautiful game”, and I agree that slowing down the pace is a bad idea. But I think implementing these two rules with respect to goals will reduce the acrimony and ire resulting from bad calls without meaningfully slowing down the game. The existing rules make the game less fun to watch and generate ill will because they lead to unjust outcomes.

UPDATE: Here’s Ross at The Science of Sport making my essential point in more detail. Here’s the money quote:

About two weeks ago, Sepp Blatter was quoted as saying that the introduction of technology into football would detract from the fervour of the sport. He said “Then the science is coming in the game, no discussions, we don’t want that. We want to have these emotions, and then a little bit more than emotions, passion”.  Sepp and FIFA want human error, and so human error they get!


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