Penalty shootout controversy continues

Opinion by Liam Lenten

Following Monday's dramatic World Cup climax, the most unfortunate footballing aspect of the tournament's knockout stage for many fans was brought to light once again - the dreaded penalty Shootout. While not invoked (barely) in the all-important final, it proved binding on four occasions from eight extra times in 16 matches.

Personally, I unashamedly venerate shootouts - 1 was virtually right behind the goal at Sydney's Olympic Stadium for that famous Socceroos 2005 qualifying victory over Uruguay.

Nonetheless, I concede most avid soccer purists consider spot kicks a most unedifying way to determine who goes home and who marches on. Moreover, the prospect of penalties seemed to suit teams in some games, as evidenced by the paucity of attacking flair in extra time to attempt winning outright, even by Greece against apparent minnows Costa Rica, despite being a man to the good.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter described shootouts as a "tragedy" following the 2006 final, in which Italy finally overcame their World Cup penalties hoodoo.

Since then, penalties have decided far too many important matches.

Despite a bad rap to the contrary sometimes, FIFA has shown sufficient courage previously to change soccer's rules.

Their previous attempt (admirable, but ultimately unsuccessful and later rescinded) to alleviate the Shootout problem - sudden death - fell victim to the law of unintended consequences.

Incentives (a powerful economic force) were not properly accounted for. Specifically, the opportunity cost of attacking and conceding a suckerpunch "golden goal" rose, making both teams more defensive, overwhelming the positive effect of circumventing some shootouts.

With Jan Libich (also La Trobe) and Petr Stehlk (Western Bohemia), I sought to identify that elusive solution.

We believed the best alternative provides the strongest incentives for both teams to attack in extra time.

Subsequently, we scrutinised the idea of shifting the Shootout to before extra time.

Under this proposal, winning (the following) extra time wins the contest as now; only when extra time produces a further stalemate is the winner determined by the retrospective Shootout result. The rule does not alter incentives in the sacrosanct regulation time.

However, the extra time incentive effect shown by University of Southern California theoretical economist Juan Carrillo, is two-fold: the shootout loser becomes more attacking than currently as they cannot win without scoring.

The shootout winner becomes more defensive as denying the opposition guarantees victory.

Ultimately, which of these two effects is stronger in the data governs whether this rule change is an improvement In our study, appearing in last December's issue of the Journal of Sports Economics, applying data describing over 500,000 matches in many international competitions, we estimated this net effect via econometric regression analysis.

Scoring probabilities in two groups of matches were compared - the treatment group closely simulates both teams' incentives of the proposed rule to a control group representing the current rule.

Our results suggest that in the World Cup, and other elite competitions, the probability of extra time producing at least one goal would increase by 45 per cent to 60 per cent under this rule, variant to influences such as home-ground advantage, tournament stage and relative team ability.

Put differendy, the proportion of scoring extra times would rise from approximately 50 per cent to above 75 per cent. That the attacking effect dominates the defensive effect makes sense.

What you would no longer see are extra times in which both teams, having jointly overestimated their chances of winning in a shootout seemingly passing the ball for 30 minutes awaiting penalties.

Our work presents a compelling scientific case for considering the rule.

We have received almost unanimous support from economists at several seminar and conference presentations; and from academic cousins in relevant disciplines such as psychology, statistics and allied health.

Over to you, FIFA.

Liam Lenten is a senior lecturer in sports economics.

This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review

Image credit: Joe Shlabotnik

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