Today in the final day of preliminary round group matches at the World Cup. After today’s games, only the top two teams in each group of four will advance to the next round of knockout games. (In the US where we tend to use more violent metaphors, it is called ‘sudden death’.) In Group G, Germany plays the United States while Portugal plays Ghana. From the prior matches Germany and the US each have four points while the other two have one point each.
Since the points system is such that a win gets you three points and a tie gets one point, this poses an interesting ethical issue. If the US and Germany agree to play for a tie, then they both advance to the next round, irrespective of the result in the other game. If each plays to win, then the winner advances, but the loser’s fate depends on the result of the other game.
It makes strategic sense for the US and Germany to just idly pass the ball around during the entire game and end it with a 0-0 score. By doing so they benefit by avoiding risking injury or losing, because when you play to win, you also increase your chances of losing since you reduce the number of players in defensive positions.
NPR had a story on this on Monday where they pointed out the interesting wrinkle that the US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has both played and coached for Germany in former World Cups, is a friend of the current German coach Joachim Low. It would be easy for the two of them with nods and winks to arrive at an unspoken agreement to play for a tie.
But would such collusion be ethical? We know that big-time professional sports have long ago ditched things like the ‘spirit of the game’ and ‘sportsmanship’ in favor of winning and money, but many fans still believe in those ideals. How would they react to it? Such a policy would stick in the craw of true sports fans who feel that teams must play to win and that to ‘fix’ the outcome of a game in this way is reprehensible.
We have a historical precedent in the 1982 World Cup involving Germany and Austria where those two teams colluded to keep the score close enough that they both qualified for the next round and eliminated the contender Algeria. As soon as it became obvious what was going on, the fans were furious, even those from the countries that benefitted from the collusion.
Meanwhile, on TV, German commentator Eberhard Stajnek declaims in frustration:
“What is happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football. You can say what you like, but not every end justifies the means.”
The Austrian commentator, Robert Seeger, told his viewers to turn off their televisions and literally said nothing for the remainder of the match. You can see one West German fan burning his country’s flag in protest. The disgust is so universal that British commentator Hugh Johns venomously spits out:
“A few seconds on Bob Valentine’s watch between us and going-home time. And what a relief that’s going to be. Breitner for Briegel for Stielike, names that run off my tongue at themoment and leave a nasty, nasty taste. Stielike … quality players who should all be in the book of referee Bob Valentine for bringing the game into disrepute. This is one of the most disgraceful international matches I’ve ever seen.”
The whistle blows. The game ends—1-0 to West Germany. Both sides win, but the game has lost.
Afterward, the outrage builds and builds in its impotent fury. Algeria protests right away, calling the result a “sinister plot” and appealing for justice. The West German press absolutely savages their team, with headlines screaming “SHAME ON YOU!” West German fans even visited their team’s hotel to protest the performance.
The worldwide outrage at this result wasn’t just due to the rampant cynicism displayed by the West German and Austrian teams. It was aggravated by the shameless disdain shown after the game for people’s reactions, and even more so by whom it affected. Algeria had played fearless, flamboyant soccer. They were underdogs who had refused to be intimidated by the bluster of seemingly better teams, and they had actually beaten those teams.
West Germany and Austria didn’t just find Nemo and kill him; they proudly broadcasted his slaying and then rubbed their hands in glee, chortling in unabashed delight.
How did FIFA react? The way it ususally does.
FIFA’s response to the universal fury at the game’s result was a perfect distillation of its essence. They met for three and a half hours, then vapidly announced that the game’s result couldn’t be altered by any outside body because, well, um, it couldn’t. Afterward, they then announced that all group games would henceforth be played simultaneously—not that it was any consolation to Algeria.
But playing the games simultaneously (which they seem to have abandoned in the current tournament probably to increase TV viewing and revenues because money trumps everything) may not completely solve the problem either.
There was a famous soccer game in the UK in 1977 where three teams (Sunderland, Bristol, and Coventry) were playing in final round of regular season games of the seasons. One of them would suffer the ignominy of being relegated to the lower division if they ended up having the worst record of the three. Two of the teams (Bristol and Coventry) were playing each other while Sunderland played against another team in the division. If Sunderland won its game, then the loser of the other game would be relegated. If Sunderland lost, then a tie would result in both Bristol and Coventry not being relegated. But if there was a decision in their game, then the loser would be relegated.
The two games were played simultaneously. As you can imagine, both matches were hard fought but the Sunderland game happened to finish five minutes earlier and they lost. As soon as that result flashed onto the scoreboard of the Bristol-Coventry game (where the score was tied) and the players saw it, the game switched from being a hard fought one to one in which both teams just passed the ball around with no intention of scoring or trying to get the ball from their opponents. The referee was frustrated at this sudden lack of a desire to win but there was nothing he could do. I do not know if the British soccer authorities took any action.
Sometimes action is taken against the culprits. In the 2012 Olympics, eight badminton players from China, South Korea, and Indonesia were disqualified because they were judged to be not playing to win their group matches for strategic reasons. It is unlikely that FIFA would do something so drastic in the World Cup.
While this kind of gamesmanship is strongly frowned upon, it is not clear how it can be prevented. This kind of situation occurs in any tournament which is organized in a preliminary round-robin group stage followed by a knock-out stage. In the final stages of the first round, it may make sense for a team to merely seek to avoid defeat or even lose the last game because it yields some advantages in the draw for the next stage. This is common in the US where in the NFL, teams that have qualified for the playoffs will sometimes rest their best players for the final regular season games and play their second or third stringers if their final games do not affect their prospects in the next stage. But in that case, the teams on the field are still trying to win, though the team management does not care.
This may be one of those situations where you cannot make a rule to cover it since it depends largely on the perception of intent which is always a tricky thing to judge. You may just have to depend on teams and players behaving ethically.
One way out of this would be to make the entire tournament sudden death, like in tennis tournaments. In order to prevent a fluke result or a single bad call from eliminating the better team, you could have each contest between two teams be played twice, with the winner being determined on goal differential if each team wins once and using penalty kicks as a second tie-breaker. With the current World Cup tournament format and 32 teams, 63 games need to be played to determine the winner. With my proposed format, you would need 62 games, so it would not make the tournament longer.
Are you paying attention FIFA?