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PostPosted: Sun Jul 01, 2018 1:45 pm 
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World Cup 2018: The problem with FIFA's 'fair play' tiebreaker
June 29, 2018 8:07pm EDTJune 29, 2018 8:07pm EDTFIFA World Cup, Japan, Senegal,
Published on Jun. 29, 2018

Despite not sending a single team to the Round of 16 for the first time since 1982, the CAF — the governing body of African soccer — can take solace in the fact that one of its teams still made history in Russia.

Senegal became the first team in World Cup history to be eliminated because of a FIFA tiebreaker based on fair play. The tiebreaker is the seventh of eight checks FIFA uses to determine which teams make it out of the group stage.

For those unfamiliar, the fair play tiebreaker is decided on "Fair Play Conduct Points," a system that rewards teams that don’t collect yellow and red cards. Each team starts the tournament with zero points. It is given one point for each player's initial yellow card; three points for each secondary yellow that leads to a red card, or for a straight red card given to a player who doesn't have a yellow; and four points for a straight red card given to a player who does have a yellow.

The system allowed Japan to finish second in Group H and qualify for the knockout rounds ahead of Senegal despite the two teams tying in group stage points (four), goal differential (even), goals scored in group matches (four), head-to-head result (a draw), head-to-head differential (even) and head-to-head goals (two), because Senegal had two more yellow cards than Japan.

If this sounds like an absurdly unfair way to determine who succeeds and who fails in a tournament that only takes place once every four years, it’s because it is.

This tiebreaker takes the power of qualification out of the hands of the players and into the hands of officials who decide who gets penalized when. Refereeing decisions are obviously not 100 percent arbitrary — there are laws of the game by which refs have to abide — but it’s well-documented that many factors can affect officials' decisions.

In Spain, for example, researchers found that officials were more likely to award away teams yellow cards and less likely award them to home teams if the crowd wasn’t separated from the pitch by running tracks.

Former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg told the BBC he avoided awarding second yellow cards in Tottenham’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea in May 2016, a result that knocked Spurs out of the title race and clinched the championship for Leicester, because “if I sent three players off from Tottenham, what are the headlines? 'Clattenburg cost Tottenham the title.'”

Sometimes referees book the wrong player entirely, as when Premier League referee Mike Dean sent off West Ham's Sofiane Feghouli for being tackled by Manchester United’s Phil Jones.

There's also the idea that World Cup qualification could turn on racial bias by referees, which in turn could harm sides such as Senegal.

Soccer has an unfortunate history of racism. Black players are regular targets of racial abuse by spectators, to the point that some don’t feel comfortable bringing their families to international tournaments.

Even professional broadcasters can be guilty of using racially charged language toward black players and African teams. There’s a frequent assumption that African teams are built on “pace and power,” a phrase former West Ham coach Slaven Bilic, now a pundit for Britain's ITV, used to describe Senegal. The phrase was also used to describe Manchester United and French midfielder Paul Pogba.

James Yeku, a doctoral student at the University of Saskatchewan, wrote in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera: "The problem with this idea of physicality is that it is a mythology of racialism that dispossesses the African or black sportsperson of creativity and strategic thinking in the eyes of Western audiences. In a Barthesian sense, it is a system of speech that promotes racial bias.”

Such promotion appears to have an effect. Major League Soccer data from the 2016 season compiled by Paste magazine showed that black players were 14 percent more likely to be called for fouls than their non-black counterparts, and more than twice as likely as their non-black peers to receive red-card ejections.

Given all of that, it seems as though the tiebreaker is designed to disproportionately harm teams with mostly black players.

It can be argued that the Senegalese players understood the situation as they entered their last group-stage match and that it is their fault for not advancing, as wrote. That approach chooses to uphold a status quo in which a subjective system helps to determine an objective result. It also ignores potential alternatives that would keep the results mostly in the hands of players, such as match points, goal differential and goals scored during qualification.

In fact, the current system gave a better "fair play" score to a Japanese squad that spent most of the game passing the ball around on defense, refusing to venture forward and creating a game so boring that the crowd started jeering the players on the field, over a Senegalese side that actually tried to secure a result.

That doesn’t seem very fair.

The difficulties of statistical thinking describes a puzzling limitation of our mind: our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in. We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events -- Daniel Kahneman (2011), Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics

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