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June 25, 2014

In the 2014 FIFA World Cup, “G” is for game theory

Update: here are 92 ways for the USA to advance against Belgium.

All four teams are alive in Group G, with the USA and Germany looking to hold on to their spots. They play each other Thursday at noon EDT, while Ghana and Portugal kick off at the same time.

Let’s take a look at the game theory behind this situation.The Final Wager World Cup Group G

With one game for each to play, Germany and the USA both have 4 points, while Ghana and Portugal have 1 apiece. (A team receives 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw.)

The top two teams will advance to the single-elimination knock-out rounds.

2014 FIFA World Cup Group G standings after 2 games

FIFA uses a series of tiebreakers to determine order should two teams finish with the same number of points.

2014 FIFA World Cup tiebreakers

It’s very easy to say that Germany and the USA should just draw; in that case, they’d both have 5 points, and would both advance. (Germany would win the group on goal differential.)

The reality is a bit trickier than that, though.

2014 FIFA World Cup Group G standings GER USA draw

In the 1982 FIFA World Cup, West Germany and Austria faced off in the final game in their group. Both teams knew that if West Germany won by 1 or 2 goals, they would both advance at the expense of Algeria, which had shocked West Germany in the opening round.

After West Germany scored early in the match, neither side did much of anything for the remainder. It’s still considered one of the biggest scandals in soccer history, even though no rules were technically broken.

FIFA responded by starting the final group-stage matches at the same time in subsequent Cups.

Even though a draw would be just fine for the Americans, any perceived lack of effort would likely result in outrage around the world. The USA is already unpopular in several regions, and its budding soccer base could do without the bad PR.

2014 FIFA World Cup game theory

Germany looks rather secure to advance; it’d have to lose by a landslide, or Ghana would have to crush Portugal. Here are the possibilities for each team.

2014 FIFA World Cup Group G Germany advance 2014 FIFA World Cup Group G Ghana advance
2014 FIFA World Cup Group G Portugal advance 2014 FIFA World Cup Group G USA advance

  1. Why didn’t I guess! Of course you would do a post on the World Cup!

  2. This kind of strategic play, sometimes called “sportsmanlike dumping”, is a frequent topic of discussion in The Bridge World magazine. Their consensus, with which I agree, is that deliberate non-effort or even deliberately losing a game is a perfectly legitimate tactic if it helps you win the larger event and the rules allow it.

    Were I the US coach, my choice of whether or not to “collude” with Germany by playing to draw would depend on whether I would rather face Germany or Ghana in the following round. My guess is that Germany is the weaker opponent, so I would play to draw.

    If the fans feel gypped, then they should go to FIFA and demand the tournament scoring system be changed so it no longer rewards draws. Perhaps a draw should cease to be worth anything.

    • I agree that it’s a legitimate tactic in terms of winning an event. There are a couple of major differences here, though, that warrant consideration in my view:

      1. the players are representing their country, not just themselves;
      2. the players are paid large sums to perform their craft, and are expected to earn that money.

      The winner of Group G plays second place in Group H, and second in Group G plays the winner of Group H.

      • Let’s not forget 3. the fans pay a lot of money to see those highly-paid players perform their craft, and are expected to get their money’s worth. (Although how these people define “money’s worth” changes from person to person, I suppose.)

What do you think?