Field of Science

Game theory applied to footballers

According to game theory, players (of any kind) should cheat when the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. This theory has been applied for great effect in evolutionary biology (and many other fields), and results seem to explain how such strategies evolve.

I like (association*) football as much as the next guy (when the net guy isn't your local European fanatic), and play it myself, too. In fact, I got seriously injured yesterday when playing indoor. At least, seriously enough that i won't be playing for at least a week. But, I am hugely annoyed by professional footballers faking fouls. For those of you geeks who don't know what I'm talking about: Rather than actually fighting for the ball until they lose it, players will take a dive on purpose in the hopes of fooling the referee into awarding them a free kick. Everyone knows this, as it is blatantly obvious when watching the dives on TV. But it is apparently worth it, because they keep doing it.

As a side note, I don't personally understand why they think it's worth it. Imagine a footballer turned grampa having to explain his youtube savvy grandkids why he couldn't play it honestly like a decent person. No my choice of grandparenthood conversation.

At the annual SICB meeting**, three researchers from Australia presented results from a study of diving behavior in 60 games in six national leagues: Diving in soccer: When does it pay to be dishonest?

Dives were classified as legitimate, slightly deceptive (the player was touched by the opponent but exaggerated the consequences), or highly deceptive.

Science reports the results:
As game theory predicts, legitimate falls far outnumber fake falls, Wilson reported at the meeting. Only 6% of the 2800 falls were highly deceptive dives. Players were two to three times as likely to dive when close to the goal, where the payoff was huge: Statistics show that there is an 80% chance of scoring from penalty kicks. Almost none of the highly deceptive dives resulted in free kicks against the diver. And referees were most likely to reward dives that occurred close to the goals—perhaps because the players were farther away and the deception harder to detect, he noted.
"Only" 6%? That's till too many aged footballers who should not be giving wise advice to kids. And what about the slightly deceptive? Truth is, I can laugh about the blatant dives, but it annoys me to no end when a player with the ball (or as he is losing it) fails to normally jump over the legs of an opponent, but deliberately keeps his foot close to the ground until it hits the opponent, and then utterly fails to regain balance (and is subsequently awarded a free kick). I suspect the percentage of these "slightly" deceptive dives is significantly higher than 6%.

* Thus "soccer" (you better believe it).

** Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, 2011 Meeting, Salt Lake City, UT, January 3-7, 2011.

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