System Aims to Reduce Unfairness Resulting from Kicking Order

Photo credit: ilbusca/Getty Images

Would Lionel Messi have triumphantly held up the World Cup in Qatar if he hadn’t won the coin toss and opted to kick first in the penalty shootout? 

After a gripping 3-3 draw against France in December, Argentinian captain Messi called the coin toss and elected for his side to kick first in the resulting shootout, which his side won, 4-2.

But would history have been different if French captain Hugo Lloris had called the coin toss instead and chosen to kick first?

According to new research, there is a good chance Argentina would have lost had France kicked 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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