Pressure Kicking: A behavioural take on football

Economics is a science of scarcity, of utilising finite resources most optimally to derive the maximum possible utility from a given circumstance. If you look closely, you can see economics in almost every aspect of your life—from your choices at the supermarket to the thought process that led to you choosing to read this article. Unfortunately, the hypothetical rigmarole that characterises our economic theory has distanced common man from this interesting science. So, this is an economics lover’s desperate attempt to make economics relatable to the man on the ground. Let’s talk about Football!

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You’ll wonder, what has economics­—the designated ‘dismal’ science—got to do with football—a beautiful and exciting game? Well, football can be understood as a utility maximising venture under resource constraints. On the football field, the scarce resources are time, players and the scoring area, i.e., the goal, and these resources are optimally utilised when the actions of players transform into goals. The strategist in a football game has to decide the best way to utilise these resources so as to achieve the highest level of utility, which in our case is victory in the match. Thus, decision making in the game of football can be subjected to economic analysis.

Football can be thought of as a zero sum game; a goal for one team comes at the cost of disutility for other. The players involved in this game have to make strategic decisions to secure a win. But what is it that determines the players’ actions and thereby the outcome of a match? There is plethora of research that studies a football match as a zero sum game and seeks to explain players’ strategies through game trees and payoff matrices. However, football is much more than a two dimensional gaming grid and footballers hardly base their on-field decisions on hypothetical Nash Equilibria. The players on the field do not have clear-cut action sets to choose from, nor do they have a measurable estimation of the probable outcomes. The actions of players are influenced not just by their perception of the opponents’ strategies but also by the pressure that is a natural component of any game. After all, (most) footballers are humans and so their decisions are not always ‘rational’—or utility maximising—but may be subject to certain psychological biases.


One thing that is sure to trigger biases and affect decision making, is pressure. Pressure can cook minds and one game that best personifies the kind of pressure acting upon footballers is the legendary match between Ghana and Uruguay at the FIFA World Cup, 2010. As the only African team to have made it to the quarterfinals, the pressure on Ghanaian players was ruthless. Expectations of the whole continent—and perhaps the whole world—were weighed upon their shoulders and with that kind of pressure acting upon their nerves, the Ghanaians were sure to make mistakes.

The match was an assault on the nerves. Ghana, which started well with a lead from Muntari’s goal, was put back into the game when Forlan scored an equaliser through a free kick. Throughout the match, the Ghanaians were seen making formidable attempts to get back their lead, but were plagued by countless misses and errors. Many of these errors came from taking on unreasonable risks and wrongly interpreting the odds. A single glance at the match stats makes it evident that Ghana was clearly the dominant team to begin with. But as pressure mounted, errors plagued the Africans. What had started off as a tactful game soon descended into a war of attrition; victory was to the team that could take the pressure the longest. As fate would have it, that happened to be Uruguay.

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Image Source: FIFA Official Website

The pace of the game was unrelenting and Ghana, which had 5 shots at the goal and a possession of 60% in the first half began to fall behind. Forlan’s 55th minute equalizer and Gyan’s missed penalty only amplified the pressure and ultimately ended in a loss for Africa’s last team in FIFA.

Image Source: Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters / July 2, 2010

Such intense moments are a characteristic of many a football games, particularly when there is a lot at stake. It is often seen that matches that look breezy and easy-going to begin with become fervent warfare towards the end, with the desperation of the lagging team converting the football field into a battleground. This phenomenon is evident when one looks at the game statistics of any major league. It is seen that during the last 15 minutes of most games, the number of attempts made by the trailing team (as a percentage of their total attempts made during the game) increase, while the number of attempts made by the winning team decrease indicating the urgency to score for the trailers.

The Risk-Shift Phenomenon can explain this observation. The idea behind Risk-Shift is that risk appetite increases as one draws to the end of the action period. So, as the game approaches the end, players shift the risk of failure from taking rash decisions to the possibility of losing because of running out of time. It is somewhat like a Formula 1 racer accelerating beyond manageable levels while approaching the finish line. Or even a video gamers’ reckless assault of the console when confronted by a blitz. When players see their action sets narrowing, pressure pushes them to take rash decisions. If we were to talk about the Ghana-Uruguay match, Suarez’s hand ball trying to stop an imminent goal was a clear instance of rash decision making under pressure. Faced with the possibility of giving up a goal, Suarez instinctively did the most ‘handy’ thing in his action set—blocked with his hands—despite the inevitability of receiving a penalty.

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It was only out of sheer luck that Uruguay averted a near-certain goal on the penalty. Ghana could have settled the contest with this penalty. But Asamoah Gyan missed, as his powerful penalty struck the crossbar. A result of the intense pressure? One wonders.

While Saurez’s sleight of hand (excuse me) could be blamed on the impulses, there is enough evidence in football of teams consciously increasing their risk appetite in the face of defeat. This can be explained through the Loss Aversion bias. In most matches, we see that the scoring attempts of the trailing team are higher than that of the leading one, especially in the second half of the match. It is also common for trailing teams to take on unreasonable risks in the final minutes of the game, many of which often end in a fowl. Loss Aversion Bias basically says that we dislike losing more than we like winning, i.e., losses are more salient than gains. When faced with a highly probable bad outcome, we are more willing to take risk to try and convert that into a good outcome rather than accept the loss passively. In other words, our risk appetite increases when we are losing.


In the beginning of a game, the cost of ‘giving up a goal’ is greater than the cost of ‘not making a goal’. Thus, initially, teams tend to be more defensive, focused on avoiding a goal rather than on scoring themselves. But as the play progresses, the pressure to score pushes them into risk seeking behaviour. Teams switching to offensive formations post first half and goalkeepers moving out of the goal area into the play are manifestations of this very bias.

Needless to say, with all these biases playing on the minds of the players, football is bound to be one electrifying game. What we read so far about Football in general and the Ghana-Uruguay match in particular is merely a speck of dust in the limitless expanse of the football universe. If I were to try and fit it all in this one piece, I would probably lose your interest and gain the wrath of my editor. So, I’ll see you next week, this time with an economic take on the sensational penalty shootout that earned the Ghana-Uruguay match the title of being ‘one of the most legendary matches’ in the history of Football.

-Naomi Satam (With special thanks to Shaun Joseph. Ghana lost that day but they live on this article thanks to him)


Kahneman, D., & Egan, P. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Random House Audio.

Dubner, S., & Levitt, S. (2015). Think Like a Freak. HarperCollins USA.

Apesteguia, J., & Palacios-Huerta, I. (2008). Psychological Pressure in Competitive Environments: Evidence from a Randomized Natural Experiment. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.1373669

Pirlo, A., Alciato, A., & Palmer, M. (2014). I think therefore I play. [Glasgow]: BackPage Press.

Thaler, R. (2015). Misbehaving – The Making of Behavioral Economics. Misbehaving – The Making of Behavioral E: W.W. Norton & Company.

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