Review of Freakonomics Radio: WORLD CUP EDITION

This podcast talks about the hidden side of competitive soccer, emphasizes how home teams playing on the professional circuit are more likely to win than visiting teams. Why is that? According to the podcast, it turns out that home teams have a competitive advantage in stadiums where their fans are closest to the field. In other words, stadiums that are specifically built for soccer (as opposed to track and field stadiums that are also used for soccer). According to the research, when they play in a customized soccer field, fans being close to the field actually influence referees in subtle ways. For example, when the home team is behind, referees are more prone to give the game addition penalty time and when the home team is ahead, referees give the game less penalty time. Statistically speaking, these subtle things can over time give a slight competitive advantage to the home team.

One kind of strategy Steve Levitt mentions in this podcast is why the ball during the penalty kick is not kicked to the middle of the goal? If the goalie (over 99% of the time) moves to his left or right, would it not make sense to kick the ball to the center of the goal? Levitt suggests there’s only one thing more compelling for soccer players besides winning and that is not to look foolish. Many are afraid their shot could be stopped if they kick it to the center of the goal. Looking foolish is a great motivator to kick either left or right and avoid the middle entirely.

I would disagree with this reasoning. Of course, soccer players don’t want to look foolish. Who does? However, there’s another significant reason why they don’t kick to the center – and much more compelling. From a very early age, soccer players are taught to aim or kick to the far post. In other words, kick as far away from the goalie as you can. How can you suggest the striker should sometimes kick to the middle of the goal when they’ve been socialized thousands of times to keep it away from the goalie? A striker is unable to automatically “switch” that tendency in order to gain a competitive advantage. It just doesn’t work that way. They instinctively will hedge by kicking either left or right trying to score the goal and keeping it as far away from the goalie as possible. Therefore, it’s less about embarrassment and much more about kicking where the goalie ain’t.


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