System Aims to Reduce Unfairness Resulting from Kicking Order

Photo credit: ilbusca/Getty Images

After a gripping 3-3 World Cup draw in December, France won the coin toss and elected to kick first in the resulting shootout, which Argentina won, 4-2.

According to new research, despite the loss, France enjoyed a stastistical edge by kicking first. In elite tournaments, kicking first is a sizable advantage—with the first-kicking team having a 22-percent higher winning chance than the second-kicking team.

In an effort to combat this bias in favor of the first-kicking team and to restore fairness to the penalty shootout, New York University Professor Steven Brams, King’s College London’s Mehmet Ismail, and Wilfrid Laurier University Professor Marc Kilgour have proposed a new scoring system in penalty shootouts in a working paper, “Fairer Shootouts in Soccer: The m-n Rule.”

Under their proposed system—dubbed the “m-n rule”—the team that opts to kick first in a shootout must score five times before the end of the round in which the team taking second scores its fourth goal.

For the team taking second to win, it must score four penalty kicks before its opponent scores five. If both teams reach (5, 4) on the same round—when they both kick successfully at (4, 3) —then the game is decided by round-by-round sudden death, whereby the winner is the first team to score in a subsequent round when the other team does not.

The table depicts three shootout examples under the (5, 4) rule, wherein a checkmark indicates scoring and the cross indicates not scoring.

The above image is available on Google Drive.

The game’s governing and rule-making bodies, FIFA and IFAB, have already recognized the unfairness in penalty shootouts and attempted to address it with a 2017 trial of the so-called ABBA rule, which changed the standard order of kicking from ABAB to ABBA. This, however, proved difficult to implement and confusing for spectators and was later dropped.

“The m-n rule is far simpler to implement because it does not tamper with the order of kicking, which may be confusing for fans to keep track of,” says Kilgour. “Instead, it focuses on the targets each team must reach to win.”

Ismail, who organized a workshop on fairness in sports and games in 2018 at King’s College London, where David Elleray, the technical director of the IFAB, gave a keynote speech, adds, “David Elleray emphasized the importance of simplicity in a rule change, as it increases its chances of being universally applied in football.”

“As the beautiful game continues to evolve, I hope that soccer authorities will test the m-n rule on the field as they strive to make the sport fairer and more competitive,” says Brams.

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