Brazil vs. Argentina: Can economic principles apply to soccer games?

As the South American giants face off, economists test a theory about the timing of effort exertion in a finite-length bilateral industry contest. In other words, is it risky to anger Brazilian players with early goals?

Ricardo Mazalan / AP / File
Argentina's Sergio Aguero (16) scored his first goal as Brazil's Renan, left, and Marcelo defend during a men's soccer semifinal game at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Of the 90 matchups between the two titans, each country has 23 wins, 23 losses, and 33 ties. Both teams will be looking to end the tie when they face off in Qatar on Nov. 17.

Bitter football enemies Argentina and Brazil (combined 7-time World Champions) square-off yet again in a friendly next Wednesday. The match is in (of all places) Doha – since the match coincides with the final evaluation of Qatar’s ‘no expense spared’ 2022 FIFA World Cup bid, it is hard to imagine the reasons for the choice of location are anything other than economic! It will be the 90th all-time meeting between the two giants of South America, with the previous 89 failing to separate them, at 33 wins apiece and 23 draws (Argentina are ahead slightly on goals scored, 143-137), though Brazil have had the better of the results in recent times. The game will also be a useful tune-up for both sides ahead of next year’s Copa América, hosted on this occasion by the Argentines.

Owing to my girlfriend being from Buenos Aires, one’s loyalties in this game are cast clearly in favor of La Albiceleste. However, I have recently been working on testing an old myth that it is unwise tactically to score too early in the game when playing against Brazil. The underlying intuition here is that doing so merely makes the Brazilian players angry (waking the sleeping giant), giving them extra incentive to attack and score freely thereafter as a ‘lesson’ to the opposition. This is not a frivolous applied microeconomic exercise, as it provides further evidence about the choice of timing of effort exertion by an underdog in a finite-length bilateral (but asymmetric) industry contest against a more favoured opponent, drawing upon inspiration from Avinash Dixit’s seminal 1987 piece in American Economic Review.

Despite an ardent belief that this myth is well-known to many fans of the game (at least in the Anglo-sphere), finding hard-source material validating it is proving more difficult than imagined. The only successes thus far are a quote in the 2000 autobiography by former Liverpool and Scotland centre-back Alan Hansen, as well as an old video of an SBS1 TV (Australia) telecast of a 1997 Confederations Cup group-stage match, where the English commentator states it explicitly.

If anyone knows off-hand of any citeable source on this one, please share with TSE readers via the comment section above. For the record, using data from 267 full ‘A’ internationals involving the Seleção between 1993 and 2010, the myth is found to be, in the words of Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman: ‘totally busted’!

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