How to Price a Meaningless Match

Why iffy third-round games in the World Cup’s group stage should trade at a discount.

Richard Heathcote / Getty Images Sport
Richard Heathcote / Getty Images Sport

In the group stage of the World Cup, not all matches are created equal. By the third and final round, some teams are always on their way out of the tournament while others have booked their spots in the Round of 16. Most of these teams still find something to play for, but it might not be what the fans paid to see.

I know this, because it happened to me. After I got my tickets for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I watched the draw for matchups with a mix of satisfaction and disappointment. Netherlands versus Cameroon was sure to be an entertaining fixture full of stylish soccer; Portugal versus North Korea, not so much.

In the end, things turned out quite differently. True, North Korea didn’t offer much in the way of soccer, but Portugal scored seven stylish goals. Unexpectedly, the other match was a stinker. At kickoff, the only question for the Dutch was whether they would qualify ahead of Japan. For Cameroon, the tournament was already over.

The Cameroonians tried gamely enough to give their fans something to cheer, including the obligatory goal by Samuel Eto’o, albeit from a penalty shot. The Dutch worked methodically, if without inspiration, to eke out a 2-1 victory. But neither side seemed to be playing with the kind of fire that has characterized so many of the early matches in Brazil. All the players were loose and relaxed, playing routinely for sport rather than desperately for survival.

In fact, the main thing that happened in the Netherlands-Cameroon match was an experiment for the benefit of the Dutch coach, Bert van Marwijk. With 73 minutes gone and the score tied, he gave a 26-year-old substitute his first minutes of the tournament. Arjen Robben had been "man of the match" twice in the group stage in 2006, both times as a starter, but his hamstring injury had forced van Marwijk to play Rafael van der Vaart on the wing. Against Cameroon, Robben came on and energized the Dutch side, hitting the post with a long shot that Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored on the rebound. Robben started every game throughout the rest of the tournament, helping to take the Netherlands all the way to the final.

When England took the field against Costa Rica in their final group stage game on Wednesday, the agenda once again depended on the coach. After two losses, England had no chance of advancing in the tournament, so Roy Hodgson could put his own interests first. He was supposed to keep his job through the European Championship in 2016, but his position was now in peril. To impress his bosses, would he show off England’s young talent or give its senior players — many of them unlikely to wear an England shirt ever again — a dignified exit? It was a dilemma of more interest to him than to fans who just wanted to see a good game of soccer.

He decided to cover his bases by doing a bit of both. Rather than choosing a coherent group of players used to working together, he started with several youngsters, plus the old-timer Frank Lampard. In the second half, he brought on veterans Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, along with England’s arguably most exciting young player, Raheem Sterling — though for only half an hour. Not surprisingly, given the peculiar line-ups, England failed to score; the fans had to be satisfied with a stultifying 0-0 draw.

Despite the usefulness of these final group stage matches to van Marwijk and Hodgson, the fans got less than they bargained for. Tickets for the matches cost the same as for any other group stage match, and perhaps the fans knew they might be seeing matches that would be more about making a point than playing passionate soccer. But it could have been worse.

The history of the World Cup includes two final group stage matches that were apparently fixed. The Germany-Austria game in 1982 allowed both teams to move on in the tournament and sent Algeria packing. The game led to a rule change whereby the last games in each group would be played at the same time, yet this would have had little effect on what happened four years earlier. At the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, during a brutal military dictatorship, the Argentina-Peru match saw the hosts needing an improbable four-goal win. They were victorious 6-0. Stories abound as to how it happened, with a Peruvian senator asserting that the match was a stitch-up between the two nations’ governments.

With so many factors eroding the integrity and entertainment of these matches, it seems only fair that ticket prices should be discounted as well. Of course, other third-round matches, like Mexico versus Croatia, in which both teams were playing to advance, are especially exciting encounters. But as it stands, fans assume all of the risk; they buy tickets far in advance for a match destined to be a barnstormer or a dud before the teams even take the field.

It’s like having season tickets in any of the big American sports; with several games left in the season, a team may already be resting its stars for the playoffs or out of the picture entirely. But this is the World Cup, where fans have tickets to a couple of matches if they’re lucky. Adding in travel costs, they’ve sacrificed much more in hopes of seeing just a couple of hours of quality soccer.

One solution is to make ticket prices contingent on prior results. Fans would pay a premium for third-round matches given the possibility that they would be knockout playoff games. But if one team had nothing to play for on the day, fans would receive a partial refund. If neither team did, a bigger refund would arrive. The changing price would be a simple form of insurance.

Is there any possibility that FIFA would accept this idea? Right now, it’s more concerned about cracking down on scalping. Moreover, it won’t even admit the fishiness of those questionable matches; acknowledging the imperfect integrity of its product is not one of FIFA’s strong suits. But this sure seems like a great business opportunity — at least once every four years — for someone who does. 

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