Football Most Foul

Green Bag 2d, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 159-172, Winter 2007

17 Pages Posted: 11 Apr 2007 Last revised: 13 Oct 2008

See all articles by William A. Birdthistle

William A. Birdthistle

Chicago-Kent College of Law - Illinois Institute of Technology


The 2006 FIFA World Cup was a disappointing display of soccer, comprising forgettable athletic contests that turned most critically on the administration of justice. Referees, more than athletes, emerged as the central protagonists in each game by providing the most dramatic plot twist - either by handing out red cards, which they did at a record pace, or awarding penalty kicks, which provided the winning goal in almost ten percent of the tournament's games. For much of the viewing public, the footballers' performances were even more deplorable, as players constantly flopped to the ground at minor or nonexistent contact and thrashed about in apparent agony.

Of course, the power of the referees and the acting of the players are closely intertwined, as any system of human order that bestows sweeping authority on its magistrates invites perjury. This article explores the cynical state of World Cup soccer and examines a number of proposals to reduce the game-changing power of referees and the melodramatic chicanery it inspires. If the array of referees' punishments and rewards can be adjusted, we might be able to increase players' incentives to play a more beautiful game in future World Cup tournaments.

Keywords: governance, incentive, punishment, reward, football, soccer, World Cup, FIFA, red card, yellow card, sin bin, law and economics, cricket, hurling, basketball, rugby

JEL Classification: K00, K42, M50, Z10

Suggested Citation

Birdthistle, William A., Football Most Foul. Green Bag 2d, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 159-172, Winter 2007, Available at SSRN:

William A. Birdthistle (Contact Author)

Chicago-Kent College of Law - Illinois Institute of Technology ( email )

565 W. Adams St.
Chicago, IL 60661-3691
United States

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