The Scientific Strategy Of Soccer Dives
In late April, FIFA announced that they would be adding four more referees to each soccer match. These refs won’t be running alongside players. Instead, they’ll be in a control room watching the match closely on computer monitors. The video assistant referees will be scanning instant replay for the typical fouls like hand balls and offside goals—but they will also be monitoring soccer dives.
[See the eerie glow of blue ghost fireflies.]
Soccer players are notorious for dives, or faking injuries. If players can successfully convince a referee they are temporarily injured, their team can get rewarded with a free kick, a yellow card for the opposing team, or the coveted penalty kick. If they get caught faking it, referees don’t really punish them. But there is a strategy to these flops. One study showed that players flopped when they were closer to referees and twice as much when the score was tied. Vox reporter Umair Irfan joins Ira to discuss some of the science, strategies, and behavior economics behind these soccer dives. View some of these soccer flops and dives below.
Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.
IRA FLATOW: The final match of this year’s World Cup happens on Sunday. Are you team Croatia, or are you Team France? Whichever team you’re rooting for, you may have noticed some dives or flops from the players. Flopping, if you’re not aware of this, flopping is faking an injury. It’s very theatrical to get the attention of the ref who will take notice and give the opposing offender a penalty. That, of course, is the idea.
Well, FIFA, the ruling football body, has noticed this too and is taking action to try to stop the flop. Soccer players are notorious for dives, but there is a strategy to these flops. And joining me to discuss some of the science and strategies behind the soccer dives is Vox reporter Umair Irfan. He joins us via Skype. Welcome to Science Friday.
UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: So tell us about this. You wrote an article about the science and research behind flopping. Why were you interested in this?
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, I play soccer myself, and I was trying to get some skeptical friends to watch with me. And this is, of course, the common complaint– that soccer players dive. They look like wimps. They waste so much time.
And I thought it was actually something to look into a little bit further. It’s a part of the strategy in the game. And I was kind of curious as to why you see this in soccer especially the really bad play acting and not so much in other sports. And that’s kind of what drove my interest here.
IRA FLATOW: Has there been an increase in this year’s World Cup?
UMAIR IRFAN: I don’t think it’s been quantified just yet. I mean, I think we’re still waiting for the dust to settle, and some of us are still going to the tape to see what actually was a real injury versus a fake.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Flopping has even gone viral. There’s a name or a challenge named after the Brazilian player who is the famous flopper.
UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. But the other side of that is Neymar is also the most fouled player in this year’s World Cup. And so the question is, is he flopping to draw attention to the fouls that he’s receiving as a way to sort of mitigate that effect, or is he just doing this to unfairly gain an advantage.
IRA FLATOW: What do you think?
UMAIR IRFAN: I mean, I think it’s a little bit of both. Yeah. If you’re getting fouled, and the referee is not calling it, you really want to try to get the referees attention. And that may mean playing up something that was minor in order to keep his eye on something that was major. But the Mexican team was very upset that he burned so much of the clock in their game against them. And so some people consider that to be unsporting and also against the spirit of the game.
IRA FLATOW: Now, flopping seems random, but you say there is a strategy. One study looked at when and where players take dives. And what did the researchers find?
UMAIR IRFAN: So the researchers found that players are more than twice as likely to take a dive when the score is tied rather than when they’re ahead or behind. So it means that players are actually kind of paying attention to the score, and they’re actually making more of a conscious decision on where and when to take dives. And similarly, when they looked at the location of the field where they were taking dives, the closer they were to the opponent’s goal, that is, when they were on offense and within striking range, that’s when there were more and more likely to actually hit the ground and scream in pain.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m Ira Flatow talking about flopping. This soccer weekend finals coming up. You know, but you watch how theatrical some of these players are. They’re rolling on the ground. They’re diving. Faking an injury can be risky, right? I mean, isn’t there some sort of risk/reward option that’s going on in their mind?
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, exactly. And the researchers that were looking at this, they were approaching this in the context of deception as we see it in the animal kingdom. So there’s, like, a bird that’s found in North America known as the Killdeer that fakes an injury to its wing in order to lure predators away from its nest. And the obvious cost is that the more you bait yourself to a predator, the more likely you are to be struck.
In soccer, though, there’s almost no downside to flopping. It’s very rarely called out as a foul. And if the ref does– if the call doesn’t go your way, you just get back up and start playing again. So there’s very little disincentive, and there’s a very strong payoff. And that’s kind of why you see it more often in soccer.
IRA FLATOW: But FIFA is doing something, right, trying to stop the dives?
UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. They introduced the video assistant referee this year for the first time in the tournament. And they have actually overturned a dive, including one of Neymar’s, after going to the tape and realizing that, you know, this was not a real injury. And certainly, this is something that is going to start to have an effect. And I think we’ll have to wait until after the tournament to try to see if it did actually change behavior.
IRA FLATOW: Are you going to be looking for something in the finals at all in the match, what we should expect to see in terms of dives?
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. I mean, I think you can look at later in the game, if the score is tied, if you see a player go down on offense, very likely that’s going to be a dive. And that’s kind of, like, where the optimal time for diving is because that may give you the chance to take a penalty kick which can, in fact, win the game for you. So that’s where you’ll likely see it if it does happen.
IRA FLATOW: Well, the penalty kick seems like luck. But there is research out there that the team that goes first has an advantage. Right?
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. There’s also a lot of strategizing going on with penalty kicks. Soccer being such a slow-scoring game, every single point has such value. So, yeah, there’s research that shows that there’s a first mover advantage to the teams that shoot first. But in this year’s tournament, all four teams that shot first have lost the shootouts.
So it doesn’t necessarily hold in all instances. But if you are trying to strategize, your goal would be to shoot first. And counterintuitively, one of your best bets might be just to aim straight down the middle rather than try to aim for either the right or the left side of the goal.
IRA FLATOW: You know, I was looking and thinking about this and reminding myself, hey, you know, soccer or football is not the only place you see people being theatrical about penalties. All you have to do is watch an NBA game, right, and basketball players are doing this stuff all the time.
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. And even hockey players, and you see NFL players do it as well. The issue is that in basketball, a foul or a flop will get you one, two, or maybe three points on the line, which won’t really change the total outcome of the game. But in soccer, if you take a dive in the penalty box, and get a penalty kick, that’s going to win the game for you right there and then. So the incentives are much stronger in soccer than they are in other sports.
IRA FLATOW: Hm. And, you know, when you say taking a dive, it really is “taking a dive.” That’s an old term [CHUCKLES] for cheating or giving up early.
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. I mean, you perhaps see that in boxing matches that are–
IRA FLATOW: Right. Exactly. Take a dive. OK. This is quite interesting. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan is a reporter with Vox talking about the soccer finals that are coming up on Sunday.
Lucy Huang is a freelance radio producer and was Science Friday’s summer 2018 radio intern. When she’s not covering science stories, she’s busy procrasti-baking.