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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ireland Was Cheated Out Of A World Cup Spot

I wrote this draft back in December, but I forgot to publish it. Reading about the world cup, I remembered that Ireland was cheated by FIFA.

Most famously, Ireland was eliminated when the referee missed a handball by a France player. However, they were cheated in many ways.

The original tournament was set up so that in the 2nd place playoff, teams would be unseeded. It would be a completely random draw. When the favorite France failed to win their group, the 2nd place playoff draw was changed so it was seeded. This unfairly paired Ireland against France. It is unfair to change the rules of a tournament after the tournament has started.

When I read "The Bridge World", they like to illustrate tournaments with unfair arrangements. They particularly like paradoxes where a team improves their chance of winning the tournament by throwing a match. For example, in the last NFL season, Indianapolis benefited by losing to the Jets. The loss to the Jets helped keep Pittsburgh out of the playoffs, giving the Colts an easier opponent in the AFC championship game.

The European World Cup qualifying tournament is an example of really unfair conditions of contest. The group/draw/seeding process gives the pre-tournament favorites an unfair advantage.

Breaking teams up into 9 groups and having a double round robin is somewhat unfair. Most of the matches are played against teams with no realistic chance of qualification. Comparing the 2nd place teams in different groups with only one match is unfair.

Why was Norway eliminated? Were they eliminated because they were the weakest 2nd place team, or because they were in a tough group?

Why was Serbia ahead of France? France beat and tied Serbia, but Serbia played better against weaker teams that had no chance of qualifying. That's like picking a boxing champion based on their ability to knockout amateurs.

Why does Greece qualify but not Ireland? They were in different groups, had no common opponents, and never played each other.

This is a problem in tournament theory. If there are multiple qualifiers and a limited number of matches, what is the fairest way to determine the qualifiers? You can view it as a math problem.

There are logical problems no matter what method you pick. For example, in the current World Cup, Mexico and Uruguay are guaranteed a spot in the next round if they intentionally draw their next match, eliminating France and South Africa.

There's a limit on the number of matches the players can play, due to other commitments. However, the matches they do play could be allocated more efficiently. It's pointless to play most of your matches against teams with no realistic chance of qualifying.

For example, a 53 team Swiss would be more fair than the system UEFA used. A group round robin is unfair, when the vast majority of teams entered have no realistic chance of qualifying.

In a Swiss tournament, each team is paired against a team with comparable records. If you win, you play your next match against a tougher opponent. If you lose, you play your next match against a weaker opponent. This is notably used in chess and contract bridge. A Swiss format would ensure that the teams that are just barely qualifying would play games against each other. There would be no "draw unfairness" or "group of death".

There were 53 teams competing for 13 spots.

For example, they could play 10 matches of a Swiss tournament. Then, suppose the top 10 qualify and the bottom teams are eliminated. Then, you play another 4 matches and qualify another 2 or 3. Then, maybe you can have a playoff for the last spot.

You can still partially seed, arranging the pairings so that the top teams don't play each other in the first 2 or 3 matches. Chess swiss tournaments do this, seeding players by ELO ranking in the first few rounds. Chess swiss rules also balance white/black, just like FIFA should balance home/away.

More generally, you can phrase this problem as "There are n teams entered. You have m qualifiers (or a single winner). Due to time constraints, you may play a maximum of k matches. What conditions of contest maximize the chance that the best team qualified?" A computer simulation would probably be needed to justify the answer.

A Swiss arrangement would definitely be better than what FIFA is using now. There is no incentive to reform, because the most influential teams profit from this system. Under a fairer qualifying tournament, the favorites might lose. The current system gives the favorites a huge advantage, due to the grouping and seeding.

FIFA is not as evil as government, but corruption is still rampant. If you're offended by FIFA, you can choose to not watch their events. If you're offended by government, violence forces you to buy their services. In a really free market, corrupt organizations like FIFA would be more exposed to competition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Also, an issue is the goals of the tournament. It would be easy to make a tournament when the purpose is to see who is #1. But making a tournament interesting in all matches while still being "fair" to good and bad players is very hard, and requires many more rounds than finding out who's #1.

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