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In soccer, it is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game

In my paper with Tim Groseclose and Pierre-Andre Chiappori, we test the predictions of game theory using penalty kicks in soccer. We find that the players’ actions conform very closely to the theoretical ideal.

There is one big deviation that we see between what players actually do and what the theory predicts: kickers kick the ball right down the middle much less than they should. Or put another way, in practice, kicking it down the middle scores at a higher rate than kicking it either to the left or right (at least in our data set).

Why? If you kick it right down the middle and you don’t score, it is damn embarrassing. So even though the middle is a great play statistically, kickers don’t choose it very often. There are some things that are even more important than winning, like not looking like a fool.

Today’s shootout between Switzerland and Ukraine is the ultimate case in point. The first kicker from Ukraine missed his shot. Then it was the Swiss player’s turn. The story from the AP describes the Swiss player’s shot as follows:

Marco Streller’s effort for Switzerland was worse — low and directly at Shovkovskyi.

The second Swiss player also missed. Here is the AP’s description:

Barnetta hit the crossbar.

Not pejorative at all…hitting the crossbar is apparently acceptable.

But then the third Swiss player kicked it, to the following description:

Ricardo Cabanas looked almost amateurish on his shot directly into the middle of the goal — and again, right at the Ukranian goalkeeper.

My guess is that the Swiss kickers who kicked it down the middle will forever be remembered as the ones who blew the game in the World Cup by amateurishly kicking it right down the middle.

It is not just whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Which is why from a game theory perspective, with the world laughing at the Swiss, there is no better time for the next shooter to kick it right down the middle one more time if all he cares about is winning.