World Cup and Doing the Right Thing

I wash my hands of World Cup soccer. Half the games from the quarterfinals on, including the championship, were decided by penalty kicks that have nothing to do with the game, mostly because with all its wonderful qualities, soccer has a fatal design defect: not enough scoring in regulation play. The result of this is that the game score has almost nothing to do with which team played better: you might just as well cut cards. Make the goal an extra meter wide and games would have total scores of a dozen or so, enough so that penalties and random luck wouldn’t determine outcomes unless everything else was really close (and a 0-0 game under current rules may have been close and may, as happened repeatedly this year, have not been close at all).

Of course reform is paralyzed by knee-jerk traditionalists who only know “it’s always been like this.” To whom I would say, would you get in an airplane if you found its operator’s maintenance motto was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and add, “anyway, it is broke!.” If the outcome of a scored competition isn’t well-correlated with the performance of the competitors, why bother? Soccer scores (including amateur scores) have such a low signal-to-noise ratio that the whole idea of a championship is just silly.

The final featured a remarkable self-inflicted wound for the French. Zidane is a great player but had a very bad record of gratuitous violence coming into the game. Obviously, he’s been indulged rather than corrected as long as he delivered on the field, and this time the sky fell on him and on the team. Without him, red-carded in the second overtime for an open-and-shut battery, France was doomed. He ends his career a goat instead of a hero – with how many zillions of dollars worth of endorsements up in smoke? – because no-one in the system cared to teach him right from wrong as long as wrong was still ringing up at the cash register.

Contrast the Pepsi executives who dropped a dime on the guys trying to sell them stolen Coke recipes last week. In the same context, I recall a GM executive sent up to the Kennedy School many years ago to plead for less regulation of the auto industry, especially relaxation of the CAFE mileage standards. We asked him, “why don’t you just sell the cars you want to sell and pay the [rather small] fines?”

He said “that would obviously be the smart business move, but because they are fines (punishing violations of law) rather than fees, we didn’t think it would be right to do that deliberately.”

Without Zidane, as might have happened if he were really incorrigible and the management had any principles, France would not have been in the final. The lesson here is absolutely not that one shouldn’t cheat because you’ll get caught and lose. It’s not true that cheaters never win: sometimes Lorenz Hart is wrong, and the going isn’t easy when you do it the hard way. But the right way is still the right way.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

10 thoughts on “World Cup and Doing the Right Thing”

  1. It was a horrid cup on so many levels. I've tried for YEARS to understand the worlds fascination with this game.
    Was it exciting in 1994 when the US hosted the event and had the pleasure of seeing the worlds two best teams play to a 0-0 draw and be decided on PK's?
    People who go ga-ga over the 1999 women's team neglect to mention that their "dramatic victory" over China was an incredible bore of a game. 120 minutes of playing…ONE good shot on goal (China had it).
    Does anybody seriously think there's really a more talented team in the world than Brazil? ANother beautiful thing about Soccer–the best team only wins about 60% of the time.
    The first goal today was the result of a french player taking a dive…or "letting himself go" as the broadcaster called it. What a bunch of wusses these guys are. The stretchers go out and it's armaggedon every time someone gets physical.
    When did they start giving out yellow cards for nothing? I understand Zidane's red card…it was blatant unsportsmanlike conduct that could have seriously injured someone else—but how come every single challenge we have to wait and see if a ref is going to arbitrarily pull out a card?
    How many of these wonderful games were either settled by PK's (in reguluation or at the end of the game) or own-goals?
    If you find yourself getting midly excited during one of these games, you know it's time to watch the clockwork he'll have his flag hoisted for an offside call.
    Our (the United States)lack of interest in this bore of a sport shows me why were are the worlds lone superpower.

  2. Let's review some salient facts:
    Ghana's population: 22,409,572
    USA's population: 298,444,215
    Ghana's total life expectancy: 58.87 years
    USA's total life expectancy: 77.85 years
    Ghana's HIV prevalence rate: 3.1%
    USA's HIV prevalence rate: .6%
    Ghana's GDP per capita: $2500
    USA's GDP per capita: $41,800
    What does all this mean?
    Or… utting it in more blunt words:
    You've lost all moral authority in the world!
    Telling me that you are going to make football "better" is akin to telling me you are going to make "Iraq" better.
    In other words:
    Sit down.
    Change the channel…
    Guzzle some Bud Light and some plastic corporate peanuts if you must…
    But mostly– Shut the "bleep" up!
    You dont' know &*@! about the world!
    Go torture someone…
    Because around here..
    Your opinion matters not…

  3. LIve by the PK, die by the PK, I say. I was rooting for Italy because I thought France had gained too many of its points by PKs, including the only point it had scored in regulation against Italy.
    There are a couple of less drastic changes that could avoid the Penalty Kickoff. First, you could modify the offsides rules slightly to make offense more aggressive. In addition, you could change the penalty "kick off" to a defended kick off — I can't remember the correct name, but I think it's just goal kick. This really does require more skill of the kicker and makes it more of a test between the offense and the defense and the goalies, without changing the fabric of the entire game. This is the kick for which David Beckham is known to "bend it."
    And as for no changes being made — the overtime period is itself a recent change made expressly to avoid having too many games being decided by PKs. I think the China/US women's final gave a lot of people a bad taste, esp. when the US goalie sort of admitted that she might have broken the rules on the last Chinese kick.

  4. I agree with Michael O'Hare about the problem with soccer — my rationalization has been that one watches for the play rather than the scoring — but we can say that the USA team held the winners of the World Cup scoreless — how bizarre is that?

  5. Scoring would go up if more players were willing to shoot with their left foot.
    Case in point:
    Germany vs Italy
    In overtime, a German player had a clear shot at the net, just him vs the goalie. However, he would have had to shoot with his left. He stopped the ball to double back and shoot with his right, but by then two Italian defenders were on top of him.
    Italy's tie-breaking goal? Scored with the left foot.
    That's just my theory. Or, widen the goalposts.

  6. I don't get this:
    "Without Zidane, as might have happened if he were really incorrigible and the management had any principles, France would not have been in the final."
    First of all, it's poorly written, so its hard to discern the meaning. But second of all, anybody remember De Rossi's elbow to McBride's face? He was happily trotting around on the field in the final.

  7. Our (the United States)lack of interest in this bore of a sport shows me why were are the worlds lone superpower.
    [BIG YAWN] Talk to me when the rest of the world gives the proverbial rat's ass about the NFL.
    De Rossi served a four game suspension.
    Micahel O'Hare,
    I felt much the same way about the sport after the 1990 final. I go over it. You will, too.

  8. I'm a former soccer referee (the highest cert I held was State I) who quit because violence directed at referees was becoming too common in my area.
    Like most sports bodies, FIFA has tinkered with the rules to shift the balance between offense and defense. Mostly they tinker with what the keeper is allowed to do with his hands. The opinion at FIFA seems to be that if they can eliminate defensive time-wasting play they will encourage more offense.
    It hasn't happened, at least not at the top levels. Way too many matches that must have a winner are decided by PKs, and not simply in the World Cup. Michael's right, it's time to do something more definitive for the offense.
    Hiring better officials for the World Cup would help, too. I watched this Cup pretty closely (thank you TiVo) and the officiating in Group play was pretty awful.
    Barbara suggests tinkering with the offside rule. This move has precedent — it used to be required that an offensive player have 3 players between him and the goal before the ball was played to him. That was changed to 2 before the ball was played to encourage the offense. I'm not sure what more could be done further, except possibly to eliminate the rule. Perhaps a high-level league should be allowed to eliminate the offside rule and see what happens. Personally, I don't think much will happen. Defense couldn't rely on the offside trap to neutralize strikers, so the sweeper and defensive mids will have to play back further. Strikers will probably play further forward. Play will end up being concentrated in the two penalty areas, with long passes into the mixer. Midfielders will end up needing IV fluids … probably more subs will be needed. It might be worth a try, though.
    I like Michael's suggestion of enlarging the goal. The current pitch dimensions were set in the 19th C. People's stature has increased quite a bit since then. Make the goal another meter wider and 50 cM higher and I think we see more scoring and retain the importance of midfield play.
    Another possible change is to tinker with the ball's aerodynamics. Make it easier for players to put a heavy curve on the ball and I think the result is again going to be more scoring.
    Changing from a PK shootout to a direct free kick shootout is an interesting proposal. I suppose you could place the ball at the top of the 10 yd arc, and form a wall at the penalty spot. Or you could go to a corner-kick shootout.
    Or easiest of all, extend time further. Instead of playing two 15 min OTs, play OT periods as needed to determine a winner. After 120 minutes on the pitch, endurance is going to show up soon.
    But FIFA needs to do something to help the offense. And they should start tinkering now to find what works before the 2010 Cup.

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