Prospering Cheaters: Luis Suárez and Incentive Structures

10:44 PM / Posted by Harry McEvansoneya /

NB: These views are purely my own and do not reflect the opinion of my colleague on this blog, who has his own different opinions on this kind of incident.

Over the years, football has seen more than its fair share of cheating, foul play and general rule breaking, quite a lot of it in crucial matches at a high level. From Maradona’s infamous Hand of God to Michael Owen’s dive against Argentina in 1998 to Stéphane Henchoz’s blatant handball on the line in the 2001 FA Cup final, there have been all kinds of game-changing, advantage gaining actions made in contravention of the rules that have gone un-noticed and unpunished. In these cases it is easy to know what to do – to say that the match officials failed to notice what was going on, failed to do their job properly and allowed themselves to be fooled by mendacious, cynical players.

This summer’s World Cup has scarcely been devoid of controversy in terms of this kind of behaviour. Even before it started, Thierry Henry’s handball in the qualifying play-off had caused a furore. In the competition itself, we have had the likes of Luis Fabiano scoring after a double handball, Tevez scoring while miles offside – which he has admitted to being aware of – and Manuel Neuer pretending Lampard’s shot didn’t cross the line. Yet on each of these occasions, the players gained advantage by the rules not being applied. They gambled on the referee getting it wrong. The incentives were based around not getting caught – if they had been, they would have suffered an overall loss, or at the very least, no gain.

However, a different problem arises when the rules are applied and the player who broke them still benefits. In this case, the incentives are such that to break the rules regardless of whether or not you yourself are caught and punished is, if a player is of a certain mentality, a decision that can be justified in pure cost/benefit terms. And this brings us to the most recent major controversy – that of Luis Suárez.

For those who don’t know, in the last minute of extra-time in the quarter-final game between Ghana and Uruguay, Uruguay striker Luis Suárez blocked an effort on goal that was definitely going in with his arms. He was sent off, but Ghana missed the resulting penalty and then proceeded to lose in a shoot out – effectively by his actions he kept Uruguay in the tie and allowed them to go on to win. His reaction to events shows that he didn’t regret what he did at all – claiming to have made “the save of the tournament” – and the sad thing is, why should he? Through his misbehaviour, a greater gain had been won, and that was all that mattered to him.

Obviously though, there’s more to this than Suárez himself. He engaged in an odious act of cheating, breaking the rules to his own benefit, and sending another team out of the competition. Ghana had a definite goal before his intervention, and were reduced to a penalty – merely a goal-scoring opportunity. This is the difference to if he had brought down a man while he was the last defender – in that case, the lost opportunity is replaced with another opportunity (around 75% of penalties are converted), and there is a rough level of equitability due to the indeterminate nature of what would have happened if the foul had not occurred. In this case, there was no indeterminacy. The ball was going in, it was illegally blocked and at the end of it all, Ghana ended up without a goal. When this is the scenario that arises, there is something very wrong.

There are two minor but important points I feel are worth addressing at this stage: firstly, some people are saying that it is Ghana’s own problem for missing the penalty. In a way, yes, this is true. However, the point is that they shouldn’t have been put in that scenario of reduced opportunity in the first place – without Suárez’s handball, there would have been a goal scored and the penalty issue would be completely and utterly moot.

Secondly, I don’t agree with the people calling for extra punishment for Suárez. Yes, he broke the rules, yes what he did was unfair and reprehensible and ultimately eliminated Ghana. However, the referee gave him the punishment laid down in the rules for what he did, and he should not be punished beyond what the rules said at the time that his piece of foul play occurred – anything else would be cheap politicking by FIFA and a deflection from what actually needs to happen here.

That thing that actually needs to happen is a look at the bigger picture, beyond this one incident in isolation and see what the problems are that lead to this kind of behaviour, and to make sure that deprivations of this nature do not happen again in future – including the flaws in the rules of the game that allow players to commit acts of this nature as a completely rational choice, albeit one considered reprehensible and abhorrent by the laws and, more importantly, spirit of the game.

All the inevitable excuse making that has occurred for Suárez’s actions, and the attempts by people to justify it within the context of the game miss one very crucial point – the purpose of the rules is not to make cheating a less preferred default option that can pay off in certain rare circumstances, but to eliminate it from the game altogether. If that is not possible, then the rules should be formatted in such a way that anyone who does break them should have their potential to benefit from doing so eliminated, or at the very least minimised as much as possible.

Furthermore, Suárez’s action is, as far as I’m concerned, completely in violation of the way the game is meant to be played. Some have defended him by claiming that it’s okay to do whatever you like as long as it helps your team to win the game (Suárez himself seems to be very much of that opinion, given his post-match comments). However, I don’t believe this is right at all. Firstly, on a basic level, how galling is it to lose a game because your opponent refused to play by the rules? Yes, all teams are guilty of this to some extent, but when it comes to as blatant a denial as this, of stopping what is a guaranteed goal, there has clearly been a violation above the normal level of petty gamesmanship that plagues football. Quite simply, if you don’t want to play by the rules, and are willing to cast them aside to this extent, you probably should be playing a different game.

In addition to this, it speaks of an astonishing level of disrespect to your fellow sportsmen, to your fellow competitors, when you engage in this kind of behaviour. Regardless of what they have done or what effort they may have put in, you are still willing to break the rules to deny them what otherwise was unavoidable, their victory and their moment of glory. At this point, it ceases to become about the game – you may have been beaten at it, but you go outside of the rules to alter the result, which is fundamentally unfair on your opponents and a disgrace to the sport, it renders the boundaries within which the game is supposed to be played moot and shows utter disrespect for the abilities and efforts of your opponents.

Simply put, the ability to accept defeat, and act like and adult and not a child about events that legitimately don’t go your way seems to be sorely lacking among players. The attitude of doing anything you can, even if it is illegal, to win is bad for the game – it more or less provides a rationale for excusing all kinds of dangerous or simply dishonest foul play. When the rules re-enforce this idea by allowing you, even if caught, to benefit from these kinds of actions, it’s fairly simple to observe that there is a problem.

We are told, both by people defending him and by the man himself, that anyone in Suárez’s position would have done exactly the same thing, done what is best for their team and by extension, in the long run, themselves. This is in a way both true and untrue. Plenty of players do, as outlined at the start of this post, engage in this behaviour, often with the stakes set much lower and the juncture of the match less crucial. However, the vast majority of players do not – every week, dozens of goals are scored around the world because players opt not to handle on the line, sometimes in situations as crucial as the one where Suárez did.

In the World Cup qualifier between the USA and Costa Rica, the Latin American team needed a win to go through and were leading 2-1 when, in the 95th minute, they conceded a goal from a corner that the player on the line could have easily blocked with his arm. Instead he swung his leg at it and, owing to the awkward height, missed, resulting in Costa Rica being pushed out of automatic qualification and into a playoff, which they lost – the victorious team from that tie was, coincidentally, Uruguay.

The stakes here were just as high and the player opted to obey the rules, even if that meant failure. Funnily enough, there was no outcry from the people of Costa Rica asking why he didn’t cheat and handle it and give his team at least a chance of keeping out the penalty. A choice in these scenarios definitely exists, and nobody would have pilloried Suárez for not being a cheat. The problem is that the laws as they stand create an incentive structure in these instances based entirely around the integrity of the individual player, and their mentality towards the rules.

The cost/benefit analysis of performing this kind of action essentially comes down to whether or not players feel that the value of obeying the rules and not cheating is sufficient to outweigh the potential material benefit to the team of breaking the rules – and when it comes down to this, one can understand how easy it is for a player to rationalise cheating. This is the fundamental issue with the rules as they stand over this kind of incident. The incentive structure needs to be re-balanced away from one that allows this kind of flagrant foul play to be a subjective rational choice, and make it an objectively irrational one.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day it’s not that simple to decide what the solution should be, even though it is in my mind fairly clear that something is quite seriously wrong. The status quo compensates the definite loss of a goal with the possibility of a goal – and this is not good enough. The kind of behaviour that leads to this scenario does need to be eliminated by ensuring that there is nothing to gain from doing it – and there is, as far as I can see, no good reason not to give changing the rules consideration. Exactly what the change should be, however, is the difficult part. One of the more interesting suggestions I that have seen is using a system similar to the penalty try in rugby - when a definite goal is denied by foul play of this nature, then the goal should be awarded regardless. It’s possibly not a perfect solution, and there are certainly difficulties with implementing it, but at the moment I can’t see a fairer alternative to recompense those who would otherwise be cheated into a position of disadvantage.


Edward on July 3, 2010 at 11:12 PM

E[goal difference|not cheat]=-1
E[goal difference|cheat]=0.P[ghanawinpenalty]+(-1).(1-P[ghanawinpenalty])=P[ghanawinpenalty]-1
=>E[goal difference|not cheat]Always professional foul at end of game.

Two consecutive penalties for any offence that comprises "denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity". Two penalties maintains both game flow and the stochastic element, each of which is an especially fun part of football.

Comment by Automatic Writing on July 3, 2010 at 11:18 PM

Well of course the expected return calculations are more complex than that, because you have to take into account the effect of being down to ten men for the remainder of the match, and being suspended for the next one, which aren't really quantifiable.

Comment by Harry McEvansoneya on July 3, 2010 at 11:42 PM

@Edward: I'm not even going to pretend to understand your calculations! :) However the two penalties is a reasonable idea for this kind of scenario, it does make sense if one feels that the awarding of a penalty try-style goal negatively affects the unpredictablity and excitement of the game. That said though, I'm not sure it is equitable given the denial of a definite goal, as two penalties can still be missed, especially if it were in as pressured as scenario as Gyan's miss was. It's still an interesting solution though.

Sean on July 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Good post, and you hit the nail on the head on a couple of issues. I would like to point out one thing. I think it's important to note that people are being quite results orientated in this issue. What Suarez did did not instantly change the result from certain Ghana victory to certain Uruguay victory, he merely increased Uruguay's chance of success from close to zero to about 12% (maybe closer to 14-15% given that the psychological impact of the incident on the Ghana team probably reduces their chance of winning the shootout). Had Gyan scored the penalty or Ghana triumphed on penalties, no-one would be talking about it, and FIFA would almost certainly not be considering increasing Suarez's suspension. While a penalty, sending off and say a two-match ban is probably an insufficient punishment for unfairly altering the course of a football game, this punishment in exchange for a 1/7 chance of altering the outcome is probably fair enough, and if FIFA do want true justice in football, they should recognise this fact in deciding the punishment. Suarez should not be made a scapegoat here, merely because his gamble paid off (this is especially true when you recognise had it been a Ghanaian who denied Uruguay passage to the semis, there would be a good deal less fuss given Uruguay would not be the last surviving African representative in an African World Cup or be the lovable underdog).

The real issue, of course, is why he didn't simply head the ball off the line.

Comment by Harry McEvansoneya on July 4, 2010 at 12:36 AM

@Sean: Cheers :) I agree with what you say, that the result that occured drew attention to the cheating rather than the cheating itself, and that there would be much less controversy had Ghana managed to advance. However, it did draw attention to the potential damage doen by this kind of behaviour - which I think should be avoided in future.

I agree entirely about not making Suárez a special case - what he did should be punished by the current rules, and then after that it is a case of changing the rules to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Comment by Punitent on July 4, 2010 at 4:50 PM

I approve, Harry - both that this is unseemly behaviour that needs some kind of solution and that Suarez should definitely not be made a scapegoat.

I must say though that I fear there isn't an immediately adequate solution to this problem but this isn't a criticism that I can legitimately aim at your analysis since I think it indicates more about the differences between soccer and rugby - a penalty try is an adequate award in a sport that works around restarts as much as rugby, whereas soccer is far more free-flowing a sport.

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