Midfield General

How to Price a Meaningless Match

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

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. 

Richard Heathcote / Getty Images Sport


Dishonest Abe

Why we should be worried about the Japanese prime minister's move to amend the constitution.

As Iraq disintegrates before the U.S. administration's eyes, it is ignoring news from Japan that is no less ominous. Without attracting much international attention, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is attempting a constitutional coup: trying to repeal basic tenets of the constitution without obtaining the support of the Japanese people in a special referendum.    

In the aftermath of World War II, Article Nine of Japan's new constitution "forever renounce[d] war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." Abe believes that the rise of China and the unpredictability of North Korea require military responses that the constitution renounced. It is up to him to convince the Japanese people that he's right -- but not by short-circuiting a referendum to achieve a radical change through unconstitutional means. If his coup is successful, it will establish a precedent that will permit the further destruction of the country's liberal democratic legacy.

Thus far, U.S. President Barack Obama has allowed Abe to embark on his mission without protest. But continued passivity will undercut the moral foundations of U.S. Asia policy for generations to come.

Over the past two years, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has won sweeping electoral victories on the basis of economic policies that have begun to lift Japan out of the doldrums -- raising business confidence to the highest levels since the global recession. But the constitution doesn't allow the prime minister to use the popularity he has gained from economic success to revolutionize fundamental values -- in this case, Japan's commitment to pacifism. Instead, the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses before any amendment can be submitted to the voters. Only if a majority then approves at a referendum can the initiative become law. Yet Abe lacks the necessary parliamentary majorities -- the LDP, along with coalition partner New Komeito, controls a two-thirds majority in the lower house, but only 55 percent of the seats in the upper house. What is more, the electorate has turned decisively against his amendment campaign -- a June poll from the respected Kyodo News reports that 55 percent of the public oppose Abe's initiative, up from 48 percent in May.

Soon after Abe regained power in Dec. 2012, he launched a campaign to weaken the amendment procedure, so that only a simple majority in both houses would be required before going to the voters. But his strategy backfired: It estranged, rather than mobilized, popular support.

Abe then switched tactics, and began pursuing the same objective by more devious means. In the Japanese system, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau is the government office in charge of constitutional and statutory interpretation. It had long viewed Article Nine as banning even those military actions authorized as legitimate self-defense under the United Nations Charter. Since August, Abe has been pressuring lawyers at the bureau to revise this position. In May, he finally succeeded. The agency is now reinterpreting Article Nine to authorize a wide range of preemptive military actions in the name of collective self-defense. And now, without seeking a legislative mandate in support of this basic change, he is pressuring his Cabinet to accept it.

Abe's current proposal, presented in June, would authorize military force if "the country's existence, the lives of the people, their freedoms, and the right to seek happiness are feared to be profoundly threatened because of an armed attack on Japan or other countries." The last three words are significant, as they authorize Japan to use force in defense of the United States or other close allies. Such preemptive attacks -- including the authority to use the military to break embargos on oil or food so long as the "right to seek happiness" is endangered -- go far beyond the principles of self-defense authorized by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, and erase Article Nine's emphatic renunciation of "the threat or use of force."

Despite the extreme nature of the proposed revisions, Abe seems to be overcoming his coalition partner's resistance. While New Komeito may eliminate some of the broader reinterpretations as a face-saving measure, it may go along with a constitutional revolution by unconstitutional means -- unless public opinion at home and abroad emphatically oppose the move.

There is more at stake than Article Nine. The 1947 constitution was written under U.S. occupation, and the imperial government accepted it without submitting it to voters in a referendum. Since then, it has never been amended. If the Abe government gained the two-thirds legislative majorities required for a popular referendum  this would permit Japanese people of the 21st century to claim ownership over their constitutional destiny, and thereby consolidate the nation's standing as one of Asia's leading democracies.

In contrast, if Abe unilaterally modifies the constitution, and treats the referendum procedure with contempt, it would create a terrible precedent for further constitutional coups. For example, Article 97 of the constitution declares that "the fundamental human rights ... guaranteed to the people of Japan are fruits of the age-old struggle of man to be free; they ... are conferred upon this and future generations in trust, to be held for all time inviolate." But the LDP has already prepared a draft that eliminates this statement of principle. The draft also contains a provision restricting freedom of speech and association "for the purpose of harming the public interest and public order." Once Abe has evaded the requirements for constitutional amendment in the case of Article Nine, what is to stop him from undermining Japan's constitutional legacy through more acts of Orwellian "reinterpretation"?

During Obama's April trip to Japan, the two leaders held a joint press conference, where Abe announced that "wide-ranging security and defensive cooperation would be promoted."

But at what price? To eliminate false impressions left by the press conference, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy should state that the United States only supports military collaboration when it is in strict conformity with Article Nine. More fundamentally, the Obama administration should not prioritize seeking Japanese help in dealing with short-term provocations from other Asian powers. Instead, it is far more important to secure Japan's place as a mature democracy in the region. The alternative is unacceptable.

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