Friday, July 09, 2010

World Cup rules and fitting the penalty to the infraction

Unless you've been deliberately avoiding the World Cup, you've probably heard that Ghana was eliminated from the World Cup a week ago when they should have advanced to the semi-finals. With minutes left, the presumptive game-winning goal failed to count because Suarez, a Uruguayan player who is not the goalkeeper, jumped and batted it out of the air with his hands just before it crossed the goal-line.

Unlike in the NHL, where a non-goaltender's illegal stop of a near-certain goal results in the awarding of an automatic goal, FIFA awards a penalty kick - which Ghana missed. Suarez was tossed out of the game and earned an automatic suspension, but the move was a no-brainer. If he doesn't stop the ball, his team is ejected from the tournament - sportsmanship aside, (and it seems like there's very little value placed in sportsmanship during the World Cup) there was no reason that he shouldn't have had it in his mind to stop the ball by any means necessary.

Over at The Book blog, which is largely a baseball analysis blog but it occasionally covers other sports too, a commenter named Greg Rybarczyk wrote that,

the game has rules, and with respect to those rules, there are violations, and for those violations there are prescribed consequences/penalties/sanctions. [...] If one is outraged at the fact that the Uruguayan player used his hands to stop a goal (which is agianst the rules, and has a prescribed consequence), where is the outrage when a player intentionally kicks the ball out of bounds (which is also against the rules, and also has a prescribed consequence)?

I wrote in response to Greg, and wanted to write here, too, that Greg is wrong because he doesn't account for the degree of the infraction - is it likely to directly affect the score/result? - and whether the penalty to the guilty player/team is of a similar degree - if it is likely to affect the score, does the penalty/reward adequately redress that affect?

Giving possession of the ball to the opposing team when it’s kicked out of bounds in soccer seems like a totally appropriate response - the team awarded the throw, by virtue of gaining possession, has almost certainly improved their chances of scoring. A quick look at the World Cup stats tells me that teams typically turn the ball over about 150 times per game - and if they're averaging about 1.5 goals per game, that means they only score on about 1% of their possessions - so we're talking about an improvement in scoring likelihood, in most cases, that's under 1%. Conversely, the team that committed the infraction has taken a small penalty - not a significant one, given how easily and often the ball is turned-over in soccer, (and even only 70% of throw-ins are successfully corralled by the team throwing the ball in) but it wasn't a significant infraction in the first place.

But the 'penalty' against Suarez, and the kick awarded to Ghana, doesn't make sense when we apply the exact same logic. While the illegal stop was made against a ball that was 100% likely to score, the 'penalty' given to Paraguay was a penalty kick for Ghana that’s only about 80% likely to score. That's a huge difference - clearly, since it led to Ghana's eventual elimination - and should be an obvious indication that the penalty is not appropriate to the infraction. To say that Ghana was 'awarded' a penalty kick or that Paraguay was 'penalized' is euphemistic, at best - in taking a 20% hit to their chance of scoring, Ghana was effectively penalized for Paraguay's cheat. That's just twisted.

Quick update: FIFA has apparently said that they won't review this rule, which is asinine. But they will review goal-line technology of the sort that would have awarded a goal to England when they were eliminated by Germany. One has to wonder whether the rule would be reviewed if Ghana and England were each in the other's position, and England had lost certain victory due to a handball...

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