Wednesday, March 19, 2014

World Cup Final 2006 - A case study on decision making under pressure

Issue 11 of excellent football magazine The Blizzard has a very interesting interview with Horacio Elizondo. Elizondo officiated the 2006 World Cup Final between France and Italy, and was the person who sent off French captain (and football legend) Zinedine Zidane for a violent headbutt on the Italian defender Marco Materazzi. Here's an excerpt from the interview in which Elizondo runs through his decision making process.

Q. Obviously, that decision was correct. A headbutt to the chest — no room for doubt there! But discussion has continued about the role of the fourth official in that decision. In 2006, did you get a word in your ear from the fourth official?

"It was all done over the headset. When Materazzi fell to the floor, the ball was up the other end of the pitch and of course I was keeping up with play over there... So immediately I ask my assistant, Darío García, [touching a finger to his ear to indicate the headset] “Darío, did you see anything? What happened? Why’s he on the floor?” He tells me, “I don’t know, I see him there on the floor but I didn’t see what happened.” Then I ask Rodolfo [Otero, the other assistant referee], who was on the other touchline, in the other half of the pitch — without much hope, because he was a long way away — and he tells me, “No, me neither.” And that’s where I start to think... [blows out his cheeks] I had a lot of doubts, clearly something had happened, but if no one saw what it was... and then Luis Medina Cantalejo’s voice [the fourth official] appears in my headset, and he says “Horacio, Horacio, I saw it,” he says to me. “A really violent headbutt by Zidane on Materazzi, right in the chest.”

So obviously, when I get to the spot, I already know Zidane is on his way. I got to the spot, to where Materazzi was, and the Spaniard [Cantalejo] had already told me what I needed to know to make the decision that Zidane was going to leave the pitch. What I then asked [Cantalejo] was, “Why did he headbutt him?” — whether he’d seen whether Materazzi had done anything beforehand — and he replied, “No, honestly I don’t know. I just saw the headbutt.” And when I got there, I realised that the players didn’t know what was going on either...And the noise in the stadium... the crowd just went silent, as if to say, “What’s going on? Why is that player lying on the floor?” And me in the middle of it, thinking, “Right then... how do I make this decision clear? Zidane’s going, he’s standing there calmly.

It didn’t seem very correct, to me, to just BANG! take a red card out like that, as if from nowhere, with the crowd and players all having seen that I’d been in the other half and hadn’t seen anything. So, since the headsets were only new you can see if you watch it on video that I go over to Darío García... I went over to Darío, but I knew Darío didn’t know anything! So, why? Well, because that is understandable. Everyone understands if you go over to the assistant that it’s because the assistant is going to tell you something to help you make a decision. So I get to Darío, and I just say to him, “Focused!” — I say it to him and I say it to myself, to remind us both, “there are still 10 minutes to go, stay focused.” — I turn around and go to Zidane and take out the red card."

Q. Even though he hadn’t been the assistant who told you...

"No, he didn’t tell me anything. How could he, if he didn’t know? When I realised I needed to get the card out I thought, “Right then, let’s see, how can I make this easily understood?” And I say to myself, “If the assistant calls you over, everyone knows that’s because he’s going to tell you something. It was a little bit of a disguise, but it contained some truth as to how the decision was taken".


Anonymous said...

Mark, thanks for posting this (it touches on two of my main interests!). I was wondering what facet of decision-making you thought was most at play here? For example, did the Ref display incredible awareness of framing effects by placing his decision in the context of a second opinion for the benefit of the crowd, or was there some other phenomenon at play? Thanks, Cathal

Unknown said...

I was thinking that myself Cathal. I think you can draw on two (cross-disciplinary) explanations to explain the problem and the solution.

The problem was that Elizondo felt he couldn't issue a straight red-card without causing a riot. Sending off the most important player (in his final game no less!) in the most important game in the world 10 minutes before the final whistle, when most of the crowd hadn't seen the incident, would have likely caused a lot of confusion and outrage by the French fans in the stadium.

The Theory of Mind offers an explanation for Elizondo's thought process here. ToM is a fundamental theory in psychology which refers to a person's ability to infer the existence of an independent mind in other people, and understand that they have different thoughts, knowledge, emotions, etc. It might sound almost too common-sense to spell it out like that, but there is for example research on autistic individuals who lack this ability. So in this context we're talking about Elizondo's ability to introspect, put himself in the shoes of the crowd and realize a bit of theatre was needed.

That theatrical solution is explained by signalling theory in economics. Elizondo had a problem of asymmetric information - he knew why he had to send off Zidane but the crowd didn't. You might think of this problem as roughly analogous to a young person who wants to signal to a prospective employer that he is a good potential employee and worth hiring. He might send such a signal by attending a prestigious university. Although the things he learns in university may not be terribly relevant to day-to-day performance on his desired job, his degree functions as a signal that he is motivated and has a reasonable level of ability. Similarly with Elizondo, his conferring with the linesman had no inherent value because it didn't tell him anything he didn't already know, but it served as a signal to the crowd that he had information that was informing his subsequent decision to send off Zidane.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark, the Ref certainly overcame any ambiguity aversion! Though looking back at the footage and the length of time he speaks to the linesman makes me think he may now be suffering from choice-supportive bias!