Case Studies

Decision Making in World Cup Soccer

Florence Omosa, "What A Kick", OR/MS Today, June 2001, pp. 46-49.

Like the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup soccer championship is held every four years and attracts a huge audience of international fans. Many consider the World Cup to be the premier sporting event in the world. But controversy surrounding the event, particularly the format used to determine how teams advance out of the first round, lingers in the minds of many soccer fans.

This was apparent from the letters written to newspapers in the aftermath of the 1998 World Cup. Dissatisfaction with the system arose when some good teams like Spain and Morocco failed to advance beyond the first round due to a lack of serious play by Nigeria and Brazil, which had already qualified for the second round. Why is this the case? Some questions that arise are:

  • Why should some teams be in a position to consciously influence outcomes for other teams?
  • Why should several strong teams end up in one pool while several weak teams are grouped in another pool?
  • Is the number of points earned (2 for a win, 1 for a tie) more important than number of goals scored?
  • Why is the team with six points and two goals considered better than one with four points and six goals?

    The decision making process is critical to ensure fair play by all teams throughout the competition. It is therefore important that the methods used reflect this. For this reason, a decision model to identify qualifying teams that takes into account not only the number of points earned but also the number of goals scored was developed and analyzed. The model uses normalized weights for goals and points.

    Such an approach is expected to ensure fair play by all teams throughout all the matches, as the means of winning will be as important as the win itself in choosing qualifying teams. The alternative method also brings all teams' together in an integrated ranking.

    Had this model been applied to the 1998 World Cup, the teams advancing to the second round would have been altered. Teams from Morocco and Spain would have replaced the teams from Chile and Denmark. Fans and media had heralded Morocco and Spain as two good teams that undeservedly went home too early after first round matches. It is noteworthy that Chile had qualified for the second round having scored only three goals, leaving behind Spain and Morocco, which had each scored four goals.


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