Friday, October 13, 2017

Perverse incentives in soccer

Presumably, the primary goal of any sport governing body is to provide adequate incentive for competitors to do battle on the field (court, pitch, etc.), each striving for victory. Things don't always turn out that way. 

My all time favorite example of the strangest (incentive-driven) spectacle in sport is from the 1994 Shell Caribbean Cup involving a match between Barbados and Grenada. 
A very poorly-conceived (though well-intentioned) tournament rule stipulated that any goals scored in overtime (and, by virtue of a sudden-death rule, there could only be one) would count double, as if the team scored two goals. The idea was to reward teams in close matches. This simple rule led to a very strange match.
Barbados needed to win the match by two goals to advance in the tournament. If they failed, either losing the match or winning by only one goal, their opponent Grenada would advance instead. With less than ten minutes left in the match, Barbados led by exactly two goals and began to play very defensively. In the 83rd minute, Grenada finally scored, making the score 2-1. Barbados tried to answer but, with only three minutes remaining, was unable to score. Members of the Barbados team contemplated their options. To advance, they needed either to score one more goal in the last three minutes (winning by two), or force the game to extra time where a goal would count as if they won by two. Barbados scored on their own net, tying the game at 2-2.
This is not yet the odd part of the match. The Grenada players, initial shock abating, developed their own strategy. If they could score on Barbados in the waning minutes, they would win the match and advance. But, if they could score a goal on themselves, they would lose by one goal which was still enough to advance. 
For two minutes, Grenada tried to score on either goal, with Barbados players split between defending their own goal and that of their opponents!
Normal time ended in a tie and the game did go to overtime, in which Barbados scored a game winner and advanced (though was eliminated from the tournament in the next round). No penalties for the players' actions in this game were handed down by soccer's governing body since both teams were earnestly trying to win their group, and the farce was the result of silly incentives.

4 comments:

  1. It is interesting how the correct incentive can have a significant effect on the outcome of any number of business situations but that good intentions can often go wrong in setting up an incentive. This soccer game is a great example of that. Another interesting example in sports of an incentive changing the way that a game is played is in the National Football League. With short seasons of only 16 games before the playoffs and the frequency of injuries in football games, often teams will sit their star players on the bench for the last game or two of the season if they are already assured a playoff spot and there would be no incentive to win that last game or two games of the regular season. If a team is far enough out in front in the standings that they can sit their best players for 2 games it would mean that more than 10% of their regular season is not played with the intent to win. Or at least if they do win it is not with those players that are most impactful to their teams. This also creates less interest by fans in the games at the end of the season if those games are not played by teams that are fighting for a playoff position. Though I do not watch the NFL anymore because I feel that the game has been diminished by certain rule changes, I can remember watching football faithfully every Sunday and it was disappointing when the all stars were not playing in the last week of the season.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The incentive offered in this soccer match was a make it or break it deal for Barbados because they needed to win by two goals. Without the added incentive of a goal equaling two goals in overtime, they would not have had the chance to advance in the tournament once Grenada scored their only goal. Since three minutes is not a lot of time in a soccer match, it made sense for Barbados to score an own goal. This relates back to incentives in economics because sometimes profit does not relate to costs of a decision. Barbados had to make a decision that did not necessarily make sense in a normal soccer game. With the added incentive in overtime, scoring a goal against themselves was the only guaranteed way that the match would go into overtime.
    Other forms of incentive can be seen as unfair, and in this case the added incentive in overtime was unfair to Grenada. Without this tournament rule, Grenada would have advanced since Barbados was unable to score a goal on them. Losing by 1 was sufficient to advance, but the added overtime incentive caused Barbados an unfair opportunity to swing the game in their favor. In a sense this is a way to reward productivity (since Barbados was ahead) however it instead created a strange loophole for the team to win.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is really crazy... You should also check out this story about two Olympic Badminton teams that were playing to loose.

    http://www.radiolab.org/story/lose-lose/

    ReplyDelete
  4. Those examples (losing on purpose in order to face a weaker opponent) are common in soccer, as well, and also have led to disqualifications (and even lifetime bans).

    ReplyDelete