A bunch of girls playing football
(featured image credit: J Brandt/Flickr)

The problem with football

Football (or soccer), for many, produces such a powerful imagery and symbolism that we cannot help seeing it as a representation for bigger things — and that is what it is, warts and all

Koen Smets
7 min readJul 9, 2021

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Let me begin by saying that I don’t think there is a problem with football per se. Certainly at a time when the sport has got much of Europe (in particular the country I live in) and South America under its spell, I would be loth to attract the attention of fans by suggesting there is something wrong with the game. And yet, I suspect that many devotees might share my reservations.

Last Wednesday morning, a BBC reporter reflecting on the Italy vs Spain semi-final in the Euro2020 football tournament described Spain as by far the better team throughout the match. Unfortunately, it did not manage to capitalize on this superiority with a winning score, not even after the extra time. And so, for the third time in the tournament’s knockout phase, the outcome of a match was decided by a penalty shootout — which the superior team lost.

Who likes penalty shootouts?

Penalty kicks have been the subject of a surprisingly large number of scientific studies: a search on Google Scholar’s database of research papers produces more than 13,000 hits. A notable subset of these are by psychologists, behavioural economists and game theorists, interested in the behaviour of both the kicker and the keeper. The ball travels at a speed of up to 80 mph (130 km/h), taking less than 500 milliseconds to reach the goal line. A goal keeper diving from the centre of the goal to one of the posts takes about 600 milliseconds to reach it, and must therefore anticipate where the ball will end up, either by deciding to stay put, or by setting off before the ball is kicked. The kicker faces a similar choice before knowing what the keeper has decided: aim for the centre, or for one of the sides? A paper by Michael Bar-Eli, a psychologist at Israel’s Ben Gurion university, and colleagues, suggests keepers exhibit action bias (they dive to either side more often — 94% of the time — than that the ball actually ends up there — 71%). If strikers were to kick the ball towards the centre more often, keepers would likely twig…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius