What do statistics tell us about fouls in the World Cup?


  • Author: Carlos Alberto Gómez Grajales
  • Date: 26 June 2014
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of iStock Photo

In the World Cup's opening match, a Brazilian player overreacted a contact to produce the cup's first faked penalty kick. Will these acts of cheating be regular? Is deception an expected tendency in Worldwide soccer? And now there is controversy surrounding whether or not Uruguay's Luis Suarez bit Italy's Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder during Tuesday's Group D game.

thumbnail image: What do statistics tell us about fouls in the World Cup?

Watching the current matches in the World Cup has made something clear: Football, or soccer be my guest, is a sport that requires contact and physical strength. The game may require both tactic and elegant moves but it is true that even the most skillful players have to rely on their complexion to stand against rival charges.

Well, maybe they don't have to. Maybe it is better to fall immediately after the slightest touch and over-react when there is no such agonising pain, as many are suspecting may be the case with Suarez who has previously been suspended for biting. Some even legitimately claim that faking gives a realistic tactical advantage in the game. For instance, it has been widely discussed that the North American soccer team may be in disadvantage because the players lack the “malice” and abilities to fake fouls. The American couch, Jurgen Klinsmann, has not hesitated to say he would like the United States team to be a bit more “nasty,” pointing to other teams’ success in confronting the referee and putting him on the spot. Tim Howard, the veteran American goalkeeper, said something quite similar after watching how Brazil got a free penalty kick in the first World Cup match after a player overreacted a foul: “I’ve got no problem with the Brazilian player going down. I would encourage my own players, if they felt contact, to go down” (1).

But is this really the main current within football today? As usual, some nice statistics would point that out if it is, and luckily we have a four year old study, still unpublished, by Chris Stride, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield, suggest that football players are not mainly resisting rival tackles, but some are mostly letting gravity act upon them (2).

Stride and his team watched, minute by minute, all the matches played during 2010's World Cup. They counted each of two types of rules' violations. First, what they called “Professional fouls”, which is simply the number of physical aggressions not permitted by the rules committed against competing players, something like kicking an opposite player. More interesting perhaps, is the fact that they also counted something that Stride described as “Classical Cheating”, something I would better classify as “Dramatic Act Scenes”, which involves those classical moments in football when a player suddenly falls, after the slightest touch.

Over all, Stride counted 399 incidents of cheating, or about 6 per match. The majority of those were of the first kind - physical or “professional fouls”. And great news for those who always complain about the referees: the study found that 87% of those fouls were caught, which I would describe as a relatively good amount. About 25% of the cheating incidents that occurred in the games were due to deception, those Dramatic Scenes mostly offensive players love, as Stride and his team found. Sadly those were much harder for the referees to identify. Some teams were indeed bigger offenders than others: Brazil had one of the top rates of “professional fouls” (three and a half incidents per game), while Portugal, Chile, and Italy shared the highest rate of “classic cheating” (two incidents per game). Of the players, the top two fakers were Abdul Kader Keïta of Ivory Coast, and I'm proud to announce that Mexican player Cuauhtémoc Blanco was the second most dramatic player in the 2010 World Cup. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cristiano Ronaldo got the third place amongst World Cup fakers (2).

By having one in four attempts of cheating in football in the form of deception, it is clear that faking has become a major part of the game. Due to limits that FIFA implants on the referees, the players are faking as a way to take advantage of the system, which is why I'm afraid we will be discussing further deceptions and fake penalties in the days to come.


(1) Where Dishonesty Is Best Policy, U.S. Soccer Falls Short – The New York Times (June, 2104) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/16/sports/worldcup/for-us-soccer-team-honesty-may-not-be-the-best-policy.html?_r=0

(2) Cheating the Beatiful Game – The New Yorker (June, 2014)

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