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Why FIFA won't fix World Cup glitches

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Bernat Armangue/AP

(Read caption) Spain's Andres Iniesta, center, holds up the World Cup trophy following the World Cup final soccer match between the Netherlands and Spain in Johannesburg, South Africa, Sunday, July 11. The World Cup was plagued by with refereeing controversies and low scoring. Is there anything FIFA can do about such problems?

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After goals not given, diving, low scoring, reds for nothing, penalties overlooked, … of the World Cup, arguably the strongest overall team won the event. Although not totally one-sided, Spain controlled long stretches of both their semifinal and final against Germany and Netherlands. In spite of this “deserved” outcome, soccer and the WC frustrates me for the reasons mentioned above. Two recent Wall Street Journal articles examine the problems. P.J. O’Rourke offered some humorous observations in A Modest Proposal for Improving a Dull Game, including

There are a few things that people need to admit. Trade restraints slow economic growth. The euro is not a reserve currency, and scoreless sports ties are boring.

Finance and soccer blogger Richard Bookstaber considers the effect of low scoring on increasing randomness in games. As comments point out, there is an optimal amount of outcome randomness to promote fan interest. Yet, scoring seems way below any such optimum. The 2010 Final went into the 116th minute before Spain scored a goal after Germany and Spain played to a 1-0 scoreline their semifinal. The 2006 Semifinals ended 1-0 and 2-0, and the Italy-France Final went to penalty kicks with a 1-1 score. Both 2002 WC Semis ended 1-0 with a 2-0 Final between Brazil and Germany. The 2010 3rd place game between Germany and Uruguay produced a 5 goal scoring orgy by comparison.

Whether it is low scoring or contributors to it (disallowed goals, grabbing/holding on set pieces, overly aggressive offsides calls) or just soccer silliness (diving, writhing, …), almost all of these ills are fixable. So why keep them? TSE writers have considered various fixes (John Palmer; Skip; Me. Ultimately, FIFA’s unwillingness to change things probably has little to do with their lack of awareness of such fixes.

In “Not a Good Performance Evaluation,” Skip attributes FIFA intransigence to a controversy-stirs-interest-money-making explanation. No doubt, FIFA cares about money. Their fastidious insistence on the use of FIFA World Cup and not merely, World Cup, reveals this part of the organization’s nature. Maybe money is the explanation and Europeans really like this kind of stuff, but it doesn’t stir interest in a higher than average interested U.S. soccer fan like myself or among less interested U.S. fans that I know.

An alternative explanation is rooted in political economy. Integrated with FIFA’s money-making side is a very European aristocratic political culture. These Eurocrats pursue certain agendas that are hard to reconcile with pure money maximization such as holding events in South Africa. More to the point here, an usually strong organizational conservatism may grow out of aristocrat-dominated political cultures — conservatism not merely for its own sake but as a means of preserving control over the long haul. Populism is at odds with aristocratic control. If FIFA starts responding to every strong popular outcry from blown calls, who is really in charge of FIFA? While U.S. sports associations certainly have elements of aristocratic control, they seem much more influenced by popular and media based reactions than is FIFA. In a roundabout way, this ties in with Who Controls MLB Product regarding the difficulty that U.S. leagues have in sticking with certain initiatives such as speeding up games.

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