I’ve been following the World Cup lately. Not watching it, of course. I wouldn’t enjoy that at all. But following it has just the right combination of overly complicated procedures and total lack of physical action to appeal to the sort of person who has read like half a dozen LARP rulebooks but never gotten around to actually LARPing.
For example, as best I understand it, America will advance to the semiquarterpseudohyperfinals if it beats Germany on Thursday, or if Ghana ties with Portugal, or if Portugal beats Ghana by a sufficiently small amount, unless Uruguay loses to Italy or ISIS takes Baghdad, but only if the stock market goes up by an even number of points or the moon is in waning gibbous.
Suppose that the strength of different teams were interpreted as input and the eventual winner (and perhaps point spread) as output. And suppose winning a World Cup raises morale and resources devoted to soccer in a particular country, therefore making them stronger during the next World Cup – ie a sort of primitive feedback mechanism. How complicated do the advancement rules have to be before the tournament acts as a sort of primitive neural net? Could a sufficiently large soccer tournament achieve sentience? Could it feel suffering? I’m not sure, but these sorts of questions are definitely the level at which I enjoy following sports.
It has also come to my attention that if America and Germany tie in their upcoming game, they both advance to the semiquarterpseudohyperfinals – in other words, the payoff matrix heavily penalizes a team for losing as opposed to tying, but winning as opposed to tying gives no benefit save transitory national glory. It’s supposed to be bad form to start the game by shouting “I PRECOMMIT NOT TO KICK THE BALL IF YOU WILL DO THE SAME!” and then have both teams stand motionless on the field for ninety minutes. So the question is whether the two teams can communicate to each other their desire to establish a mutually beneficial equilibrium of not scoring goals, using only signals to that effect that are plausibly deniable to third parties. A secondary problem is whether, having committed to such a plan, they can enforce it against the temptation to defect and score a goal at the last second for national glory. The usual solution to these kinds of problems is to establish a government to enforce a Platonic social contract while also establishing a communally enforced norm of virtuous behavior at the individual level, but I guess that might be a tall order for a ninety minute game. Still, it is far from impossible: Germany has managed it before, and for what it’s worth the American coach this year is a German guy.
(as far as I can tell, there is no study testing the percent of these games that end in ties compared to similar games that lack this incentive, but someone should check this out)
Anyway, it’s worth remembering that this is, by far, not the weirdest incentive structure to have played out in international soccer. From a description of the 1994 Caribbean Cup:
Barbados needed to win the game by two clear goals in order to progress to the next round. Now the trouble was caused by a daft rule in the competition which stated that in the event of a game going to penalty kicks, the winner of the penalty kicks would be awarded a 2-0 victory.
With 5 minutes to go, Barbados were leading 2-1, and going out of the tournament (because they needed to win by 2 clear goals). Then, when they realized they were probably not going to score against Grenada’s massed defence, they turned round, and deliberately scored on their own goal to level the scores and take the game into penalties. Grenada, themselves not being stupid, realized what was going on, and then attempted to score an own goal themselves. However, the Barbados players started defending their opponents goal to prevent this.
In the last five minutes, spectators were treated to the incredible sight of both team’s defending their opponents goal against attackers desperately trying to score an own goal and goalkeepers trying to throw the ball into their own net. The game went to penalties, which Barbados won and so were awarded a 2-0 victory and progressed to the next round.