A cruel way to decide a grand final

liam-lentenDr Liam Lenten

E-Mail: l.lenten@latrobe.edu.au

This opinion piece first appeared in the National Times on 17 March 2011.

The A-League grand final at the weekend was indeed an absolute gem, however, it brought to light once again that many fans find penalty shoot-outs to be a totally unsatisfactory way to decide knockout-stage soccer matches.

While most aficionados of the round-ball game will agree that the rightful team won, the shoot-out was somewhat of an anti-climax following Brisbane Roar's last-gasp heroics in extra-time.

This was the second successive year in which the domestic league's showpiece annual event was decided by this cruel version of Russian roulette. While lack of intent to score was not a problem, it certainly was in last year's largely dull Melbourne Victory-Sydney FC decider, especially in extra-time.

Advertisement: Story continues below More famously, the FIFA 2006 World Cup final finished this way, with the 2010 final almost repeating this, until Spain's Andrés Iniesta's decisive strike moments from time. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has described shoot-outs as a "tragedy", and he has recently indicated that FIFA is looking for an alternative to the current format.

Along with my La Trobe University colleague, Jan Libich and Petr Stehlik (University of Western Bohemia, Czech Republic), I was motivated to look at such alternatives.

The one that sounded most compelling to us was the idea of staging the shoot-out before (rather than after) extra-time, with the shoot-out result determining the winner only if the subsequent extra-time does not separate the teams anyway.

As economists, we were most interested in the incentives involved – the team that loses the shoot-out under this proposal would become more attacking in extra-time than currently because they have to score to win, and while the shoot-out winner becomes more defensive, what really matters is the net of these two effects.

Using a system that built on a theoretical model by Juan Carrillo (University of Southern California) to analyse 500,000 matches, we estimated that a rule change would cut the proportion of goal-less extra-times by about half: from almost 50 per cent to below 25 per cent.

Based on this, we believe the evidence for trialling the rule is strong. Our findings were well received at several institutions across Europe last year, including the Economics and Psychology of Football conference in London, and seminars at the Universities of Birmingham, Iceland and Zürich – the home of FIFA.

FIFA has demonstrated in the past that it is not too conservative to make such rule changes in response to problems in the world's most popular sport. Examples include introducing simultaneous final group games after the infamous West Germany-Austria match in the 1982 World Cup, the many minor rule changes after the uber-defensive 1990 World Cup, and their recent flirtation with goal-line technology.

FIFA has even moved previously to mitigate the penalty shoot-out problem, with the "golden goal" rule in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, it backfired because it created precisely the wrong incentives for teams to attack, due to the higher cost of conceding a goal. It therefore undermined its own intention, and was eventually abandoned.

This proposed rule change also yields additional benefits, such as alleviating the pressure and personal "tragedy" of individual players, such as Central Coast Mariners Daniel McBreen and Predrag Bojic – they still get 30 minutes to redeem themselves.

It would also guarantee finishing the game as a team contest in open play – can you imagine even how much more exciting and climatic the final would have been remembered for all-time if Erik Paartalu's "winning" header had have been the very last act of play?

Liam Lenten is a senior lecturer in sports economics at La Trobe University.