End of the World Cup

The 2010 World Cup concluded last night with a really awful match, which Spain won 1-0.  There’s little doubt it was a bad advert for football – but the victors get to write history, and all news outlets seem to be running with the story that the Netherlands were the nasty aggressive team, whereas Spain were the poor little angels who managed to overcome the nasty Dutch.  Perhaps the best case is the De Jong “kung fu” challenge on Alonso.  Yes it was high, and yes it looked bad on replays and still photos.  But it was a misjudgement.  It’s been repeatedly talked about how high the balls at the World Cup bounced, yet this is conveniently ignored right now to make a case against the Dutch.  The fact is that one player thought the ball would be at the right height to kick, the other play thought it would be the right height to head.  It happens all the time.  Dr Jong misjudged, and now he’s characterised as the nastiest, dirtiest player ever to set foot on the earth.

Of course, this rendering of events overlooks the manner in which the Spanish played the game: Falling over with incredible ease when even the slightest bit of contact was made by a Dutch player (and even when none was made).  Of course, when it came to lifting the trophy and celebrating, all those players who were previously mortally wounded were suddenly restored to perfect health.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t want this to look like a post criticising a particular team, and in particular I don’t want this to appear like somehow I’m suggesting England is morally superior and wouldn’t engage in such tactics.  I don’t buy that for one moment.  Back in the aftermath of Germany’s 4-1 win over England and that goal, an article appeared on Project Syndicate asking why it is ok to cheat in football, why footballers are not subject to any moral scrutiny over their actions, which influence millions of kids the world over week-in, week-out.

The fact is, footballers of all stripes cheat as much as possible to win.  Suarez of Uruguay has been vilified for his last minute handball to rescue Uruguay against Ghana in the Quarter Finals, while the German goalkeeper Neuer admitted to knowing the ball had crossed the line.  It’s a small example, but last night in the Final, a Dutch free kick took a deflection off the wall, and then the Spanish goalkeeper tipped the ball wide.  That’s two Spanish players who knew the right decision was a corner to the Dutch at a dangerous period in the match, with just a few minutes left.  But neither of them piped up and made a point to the referee about this.  Now Casillas is the Spanish hero, brandishing the World Cup – does he feel any unease at his actions?  Is any criticism at all being voiced?

Yes it was a small action and a small part of the action: The Dutch corner may have been wasted.  But that’s not the point.  This kind of cheating is endemic to all teams, worldwide.  Kids playing football in the streets or at school mimic the actions of their heros, even when the action is a cheating action.  Can this be right?  More to the point, can anything reasonably be done about it?

Clearly, there are two deterrents to any actions that may be deemed undesirable: The probability of being caught carrying out the action, and the punishment.  If the probability of being caught is high, then a mild punishment can be enough for deterrence: The expected pay-off from the action is sufficiently negative.  On the other hand, if the probability of being caught is low, then a severe punishment can still act as a deterrent as the small probability multiplied by the large cost makes the expected pay-off sufficiently negative again.

Given the camera angles possible now at football matches, both Spanish players knew they would be “caught”, but they also knew that nothing much would happen: That’s life isn’t it?  You try and get whatever you can, however that may be, don’t you?

Let’s think more about another common scourge of football: Diving, or “simulation” as FIFA quaintly calls it.  Can this be detected?  Even with numerous camera angles, it can be very hard to tell exactly whether a player dived or there was contact.  However, the right angle can often be found to show that a player clearly dived.  And in that situation, a punishment can be devised that is sufficiently severe that it deters players from attempting to dive.  Why shouldn’t players caught diving be banned for six months?

FIFA is looking into bringing in technology for goalline decisions.  Maybe they should also overhaul drastically the way in which disciplinary sanctions are handed out too, in order to quell the growing dissatisfaction within the game for the kinds of unsavoury actions seen all too frequently in last night’s thoroughly disappointing World Cup Final.

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