Sports ethics

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?


  1. cafink says

    I can’t bring myself to fault a player, team, or coach for taking whatever action most benefits his team. Watching a game in which both teams have some interest other than winning the match is insulting to the fans, but their ire ought to be directed at the organizers who created a tournament system that creates this kind of perverse incentive.

    That said, I’m fascinated by the way these kinds of factors can influence the outcome of a game. My favorite example is the Barbados-Grenada match in the 1994 Caribbean Cup. Barbados needed a two-goal win to advance to the final, but a tie would result in a sudden-death overtime, where any goal would be considered a two-goal victory. Down by one point with minutes to go, and realizing they were unlikely to score in the time remaining, Barbados kicked an own goal to tie the game. This resulted in Grenada trying to score in either goal in order to avoid the tie, with Barbados players defending both goals.

  2. says

    Your suggestion has merit , but I think it would take away some of the enjoyment of seeing different matchups , if each team gets eliminated after only 2 legs.

  3. BobGee says

    Two remarks. The first is more of a question: Doesnt “sudden death” refer to a method of deciding a *match* if it is tied after regular gametime? And doesn’t it means the first team to score in overtime wins? If so, this dosn’t apply in the World Cup (it once did, but IIRC only for one tournament). If a game in the knock-out round ends in a tie, there is a fixed overtime of 2 x 15 minutes. If the match is still tied/tied again, it is decided by a penalty shoot-out.
    Secondly, I find your description of the “matches played simultanously rule” a bit misleading.It was not “abandoned in the current tournament”. It has *always* been applied only to the final 2 matches in each group. You should bear in mind that the “German/American” group is the only one out of 8 prelim-groups, where such a constellation has appeared. The other groups were either settled after the second match (also in 1 out of 8 groups) or one team definitley had to win to makie it to the knock-out-round. I don’t know if such constellation ever appeared in a previous World Cup, but if so, that case was very rare.

  4. Mano Singham says


    That is the most bizarre manifestation of this problem that I have heard!

  5. Matthew Penfold says

    You also have the situation where a player who has accumulated a number of yellow cards will deliberately commit a foul in order to be booked, because the next match is an easy one and they have harder games coming up, and is better to be banned from the easy game.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    cafink #1: Down by one point with minutes to go, and realizing they were unlikely to score in the time remaining, Barbados kicked an own goal to tie the game.

    That does not make sense to me. If they were down by one point and kicked an own goal; they would be down by two points, not tied.

  7. says

    The “group stage” system of the World Cup has the potential for disaster and embarrassment. These two scenarios could happen at a World Cup:

    Group 1: Team A wins all three games, teams B, C and D tie all their games.
    A 9 points
    B 2
    C 2
    D 2

    A team with 2 points advances to the next round. This almost happened twice at the 1998 World Cup, in groups B and C.

    Group 2: Team E beats team F, F beats G, G beats E, and all three beat team H.
    E 6 points
    F 6
    G 6
    H 0

    A team with two wins and six points is eliminated. Again, this almost happened twice at the 1994 World Cup in groups D and F. Two teams finished third with two wins, but they still advanced. There were 24 teams in six groups, the top two in each advanced plus four third place wild cards.

    The more games and teams there are in a group, the less effect a single game’s result can have. The World Cup would be better with 30 teams in six groups of five. Each team is guaranteed four games, and teams advance based on points, six group winners plus two wild cards. It would take 68 games to complete the tournament, the current system takes 64.

    The IIHF World Championships has two groups of eight teams so no single game affects very much. The IIHF also has a different points system: a 3-0 split for a regulation time loss, and a 2-1 split for an overtime or shootout win. There are no tie games and points lost as in the 3-1-0 system.

    If FIFA used shootouts on all group stage ties (3-2-1-0 points), there would be no talk of “conspiracy”. If the US had won a shootout against Portugal or Germany against Ghana, they would already have advanced (5-1). If Portugal or Ghana had won a shootout (4-2), they could advance by winning the final game in regulation time (3-0), regardless of any “conspiracy” between the Americans and Germans. Head to head is one of FIFA’s tiebreakers, and 3-2-1-0 means every game has a winner.

  8. cafink says

    You’re correct; I misspoke. They were winning by one point, and kicked an own goal for the tie.

  9. Trebuchet says

    A correction: After the 1982 fiasco, FIFA declared that the third games of the group round would be played simultaneously, not all of them. That’s what they’re still doing. USA-Germany and Ghana-Portugal will be played simultaneously today.

    Also, there’s still motivation for USA and Germany to win, because the group champion will get an easier bracket in the round of 16. At least theoretically easier.

    Note that I’m no expert on this, these are things pointed out to me on another forum.


    That does not make sense to me. If they were down by one point and kicked an own goal; they would be down by two points, not tied.

    You’re correct. They were actually up by one goal.

  10. Mano Singham says


    These kinds of things are perfect illustrations of the law of unintended consequences.

  11. Jackson says

    Another example of structural incentives to loose is awarding a higher draft pick to the teams that loose the most games. This is very prevalent in the NBA, whose draft happens to be tonight. The idea is to give the teams that are the worst the best new players to improve competitiveness, but leads to teams intentionally tanking entire seasons to acquire the best draft prospects. Fans seem to be split on whether they want their teams to tank, sacrificing current mediocrity for future championships.

  12. BobGee says

    @ Trebuchet #11
    “Also, there’s still motivation for USA and Germany to win, because the group champion will get an easier bracket in the round of 16. At least theoretically easier.”

    That’s one thing I love about football (at World Cup level) : The idea of an “easier bracket” is *very* theoretical ;). At least in the first knock-out-round there always tends to be one or two underdog-victories.

    I’m German and in all probability my team’s next opponent will be either Russia or Algeria. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Russia because, for whatever reasons, the German squad has always performed quite poorly against African teams in the World Cup 😉

  13. MNb says

    The argument that “the two coaches are friends” doesn’t apply with characters like these two Germans. They wouldn’t mind at all the eliminate the other. The “avoid risks” argument is much, much stronger and the reason that in such a situation the two teams indeed usually aren’t too hard on each other and play with much less ambition. But as you may have learned today it’s not a guarantee.

    “But would such collusion be ethical?”
    Yes. In sports only winning counts (within legal boundaries of course) and that means that self interest is the main priority. Why would either Germany or the USA care about the interests of Portugal and Ghana?

    “many fans still believe in those ideals”
    You may overestimate them. Especially Italian fans are famous for not caring.

    “true sports fans who feel …..”
    The No True Sports fan fallacy.
    I remember the 1982 incident. The commenters were furious, the German and Austrian fans not so much. That one example is just that – one example. That incident played an important role in devising the 3-1-0 scores. I’m not entirely sure, but at least it makes such a scenario much less likely.
    From the link:

    “For years afterward, Germans turned their backs on the national team.”
    This is simply not true. Just watch the video’s and the German flags:

    “Are you paying attention FIFA?”
    Yes and they will dismiss it for commercial reasons. Flying in 16 teams to play just one opponent and then sending their fans back home doesn’t pay off. Moreover matches tend to get more boring, because in football it stimulates risk averse behaviour. The weaker team will rather bet on a draw and a decision by means of penalties. You haven’t thought this through very well, MS.

    To end on a hilarious note: the most infamous incident in the history of football is this one:

    Ah, I see Cafink beat me to it.

  14. BobGee says


    Well, I must be a non-true No True Sports fan then, because I’m a German fan who is still furious about the 1992 debacle ;). You are right about the “turning of backs” thing not being true though 🙂

    BTW did anybody here watch the GER-USA match? I think the teams did play to win. Granted, Germany didn’t do much after their 1 – 0 lead besides trying to keep it, but that’s legitamate. That said, there are tied games in football which can be entertaining to watch. Germany’s 2 -2 in the previous match would be an example.

  15. Trebuchet says


    I’m German and in all probability my team’s next opponent will be either Russia or Algeria. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Russia because, for whatever reasons, the German squad has always performed quite poorly against African teams in the World Cup.

    Algeria it is. Expect to have a powerful green laser shined into your keeper’s eyes, as happened to Russia, immediately before the goal.

    Meanwhile, we get Belgium, who played shorthanded most of the game and still won. I’m going to boycott Waffles, Fries, Chocolate, and Beer for the next few days. The first half against Germany didn’t seem too energetic. And the announcers on CBC were wondering if the German keeper might have set some kind of record for having the least to do in a game.

  16. BobGee says

    Well my prediction came half true in the first day of the round of 10 matches. Brazil lucked out in a penalty shootout against Chile and I guess not everyone bet on Colombia (sp?) beating Uruguay.

    Trebuchet #17

    Yeah, and I’m kinda nervous about the upcomingt match. Best wishes for US vs Belgium, but aren’t you kinda overzealous? I mean no amount of patriotism and/or supporting-my-colours could make boycott Waffles or Fries or Chocolate or Beer… 😀

  17. John Morales says


    Mano, in Australian idion, “rooting” has a different meaning.

    (Thus the joke that someone is like a Koala: eats roots and leaves)

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