Even if you only follow soccer during the World Cup, as seems to be the case for many Americans, you were probably pretty excited about Sunday’s game between the United States and Portugal.
After years of qualifying, 32 teams are selected for the main event. They are placed in eight groups of four, with the top two in each group advancing from the round robin to a knockout competition like a tennis tournament.
The United States is ranked number 13 in the world so, theoretically, it should have been well positioned to advance. Unfortunately, the Americans drew Germany (ranked number two) and Portugal (ranked number four) in its round-robin group, which achieved the distinction of being named “the group of death.” The fourth team, Ghana, is ranked number 37.
Under the circumstances, a tie would have been a pretty good outcome and virtually any U.S. fan would have accepted it before the game began. Few were happy with the tie at the end because, after coming back from an early one-goal deficit, the underdog Americans led by 2 to 1 with less than a minute to play. That was when Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the finest player on earth, arced a 40-yard pass that found the forehead of his onrushing teammate who scored from point-blank range. With the tie Portugal avoided elimination.
Had the game ended a few seconds earlier, the United States would have advanced out of pool play and into the knockout round, but this story would not have existed. Four of the six games have been played with Germany slaughtering Portugal, the US nudging Ghana and both Germany-Ghana and US-Portugal ending in 2-2 ties.
As it stands now, either Germany or the United States can assure its way to the next round by defeating the other, but both Germany and the United States can gain the next round with a tie.
Thanks to the magic of goal differential (goals scored minus goals allowed) either Ghana or Portugal will have to win by a heroic margin to slip by the loser of the US and Germany.
Now, we get to the ethical dilemma and, to be provocative, I will advocate the unpopular side.
In their game, Germany and the United States should not play to win. They should permit a 0-0 tie while all of their best players sit quietly on the bench and save themselves for future matches. The danger of injury is reduced. The danger of an important player receiving a red card or two yellow cards, resulting in an exclusion from the next game, is reduced. And, most importantly, the point is to win the tournament not the game. It is an entirely reasonable and, indeed, ethical decision for the two coaches to agree not to contest a match that is irrelevant to their interests.
World-class swimmers do not necessarily go all out in preliminary heats if their only goal is to finish above the middle of the pack and get into the final heat. World-class tennis players do not necessarily worry about breaking their opponent’s serve if leading a match by enough to win on their own serve in the next game. Football, baseball, basketball and hockey teams will rest important players at the end of the regular season if they know their position in the playoffs.
It is the question of “who loses” by a German-American decision to play for a tie that leads to the ethical dilemma.
The first group of losers is the purchasers of the tickets for the meaningless game. They will hardly have gotten their money’s worth if all they see is players trotting around kicking the ball back and forth to each other.
The second group of losers is those who bet on the outcome. Candidly, I don’t care about them, but I especially don’t care about them if they are stupid enough to bet on an outcome in which the contestants are not necessarily motivated to win.
The third group of losers is the FIFA governing body that promotes itself and its financial interests with all sorts of uplifting thoughts about competition and sportsmanship. For many, it is easy to discount their interests as well.
The final group of losers is obvious: Ghana and Portugal. If the Germans and Americans play for a tie, there is nothing Ghana or Portugal can do in their final match to overcome their disadvantage. Yet, thanks to their play in earlier games, the two teams alone are responsible for the position in which they now find themselves. Should their weak results permit them to wag their fingers if other teams act in their own interest?
So, here is the question: if it is unethical — as most commentators agree that it is — for the United States and Germany to play for a tie rather than act in their own best interests, why is it unethical?
Surely, the World Cup is a sport — and a professional sport at that — in which the objective is to win the tournament not necessarily each game.
Caveat: whatever you think about the ethics of playing for a tie, would you be of the same opinion if this were an amateur event?
We do not generally sign our articles but I will sign this one so that Dan Laukitis, co-founder of WellPlayed.us does not get blamed for it.