Thaler on Soccer

My colleague Richard Thaler writes about his recent experience at economics conferences:

Over the last month, one question seemed to be on everyone’s mind at the economic conferences I attended in Europe: How did referees miss a goal that England scored against Germany in their World Cup match?

It is certainly my experience as well that European economists are soccer fans first and foremost.? Economics is a distant second when it comes to what they care about.? When my former colleague Pierre-Andre Chiappori would introduce me to French economists, he would start by saying I won the Clark Medal, or I was editor of a fancy journal or some such thing.? The French economists would congratulate me politely, but without any real sort of recognition.? Then Pierre-Andre would say that I was a co-author with him on a paper about penalty kicks in soccer.?? Suddenly, they would erupt into effusive praise, often hugging or even kissing me in gratitude for that paper.

Inspired by these European dinner conversations, Thaler wrote his New York Times Economic Scene column this week about reforming the way that soccer is refereed, drawing parallels between optimal regulation of financial markets and optimal regulation on the soccer pitch.? His main point: both referees and regulators are highly fallible, so the key to getting good regulation depends heavily on making the job of the regulator easier by picking good, simple rules.


1. The ball is round.
2. The game is 90 minutes.
3. If the ball crosses the goal line, it is a score.

The other eight or so rules for futebol are about as simple as these three. How much more simple do the rules need to be?

Richard, Uk

Why do you insist on generalising all Europeans? Such a generalisation does not exist!

Mike B

A more apt point is devoting the proper resources to the regulatory apparatus so it can properly do its job. If you only bother to employ a single regulator you are bound to miss things, even with the simplest, most clear cut set of rules.

In many sports there is this novel concept called a goal judge. Sometimes a human, sometimes a camera, it's job is simple, to confirm that the ball, puck or player crossed the line or not.

Ian Kemmish

Tinker with the rules at your peril. (Gross oversimplification for effect coming up.) When someone stopped making forward passes illegal in rugby, they found they had invented American Football instead.

Most sports are the way they are because the players have evolved to fit the rules. Change the rules and you change the skill sets needed. Change the skill sets and you change the game.

The situation with technology and soccer is surely more akin to a scenario in which all bourses had circuit breakers in place, but the regulator (Sepp Blatter, not the referee) refused to ever invoke them because they interfered with the functioning of a free market?


"...both referees and regulators are highly fallible, so the key to getting good regulation depends heavily on making the job of the regulator easier by picking good, simple rules."

That would be true if the problem was in the knowledge of the rules by the regulators, which does not seem to be the problem (at least in the WC).

Rule #10 is very simple: "A goal is scored when the whole of the ball passes over the goal line, between the goalposts and under the crossbar, provided that no infringement of the Laws of the Game has been committed previously by the team scoring the goal." How would you suggest making it simpler so it would help the regulators during the game?

Simpler rules don't necessarily makes applying them any easier. Rule #11 (offside) is also very simple, and it is very hard as a human being to often make the right decisions in real time.

I don't think that simplifying rules would help football because, unlike some utterly complicated laws, the rules of the game are pretty much understood by every fan of the game. So the problem must lie somewhere else.



Referees are human & therefore fallible, but most soccer fans realise that this uncertainty is a part of the game's appeal. It's not vocally appreciated at the time, but is generally acknowledged after the event.
England missed a fair goal - but the best team won. Similarly, the one final England & Germany contested had a disputed goal in England's favour, but England were still widely considered fair winners overall.
Better goal-line technology or scrutiny might reduce such occasions, but would also inevitably separate the professional game from it's street/beach/schoolyard equivalent - which is one of the reasons such improvements are resisted.


Ronaldo wrote up a short response to this: "Ronaldo on Economics":


I agree with those who say that Thaler is wrong to focus on complexity as such. Complex rules can sometimes be easier to enforce, and it is ease of enforcement that is the key.

I also agree with those who point out that soccer is not a game of complex rules. Indeed, the rules are much simpler than just about any game I can think of. Especially baseball and, lord knows, (American) football, which has so many rules that enforcement has become almost impossible. Rugby, too, is a game of not so many rules, Here is a theory: it is Americans, not Europeans, who like rule-bound games.

It only slightly undermines Thaler's nice article that he does not know the offside rule (hint: it has nothing to do with goalkeepers).

But the offside rule, though very simple, is hard to enforce. Why not just abandon the rule once the kicking player is "close enough" to the goal line? The purpose of the rule is to promote offense by allowing the defense to move up without being concerned that someone is sneaking in behind them. This is not a problem when you are already on the defensive in your own end. "Close enough" would require another line on the field (though maybe the center line would be good enough), and so would complicate the rules a bit (see my first point).

More scoring is a good idea. It is a pity that Thaler does not tell us how to do it. Abandoning the offside rule might help, but it is not clear (it might just force the defense back). Here is an idea. Widen the goal. This would allow scoring chances from further out, which would force the defense to come out to stop such chances, which would create room in the goalmouth area.

I agree with more referees. Hockey has two (plus two linesmen, but they can't call penalties). American football has seven or something (but they have to call a lot of rules). I think the yellow-red card system is fine. One refinement, used in rugby and hockey, might be to send a player off for so many minutes, rather than forever, as a penalty for less grave infractions. This would lower the "nuclear option" problem with the red card. Something maybe should be done about the same problem with fouls in the penalty box.

Good sporting!



@ #7: thumbs up! The normally thought-provoking guys over at EconLog should read that, too.

Don't we all love it when people who call football soccer express opinions about how it should be played? I do.



I liked #7 too.

And don't look down your nose at people who use "soccer". It is, in fact, and older and once more common name for what in most of the world is now known as "football". (It is a contraction or corruption of "association", which is part of the name of the original English league.) In much of the English speaking world (except England itself), it is an easy way to distinguish the beautiful game from local variants.

Alessandro Oliveira

Great soccer players generally do not want to be predictable, especially regarding penalty kicks. Targeting the middle of the goal is usually regarded as a low-quality move and therefore avoided by them. But as they do not want to be easily predicttable, sometimes they chose this move. The problem is when goal keepers anticipate that;