The crisis at FIFA this week has been astonishing. In the thirty years that I have been a follower of football I can never remember a week like it. If stories are to be believed, the investigation has been brought to a head by former Fifa official Chuck Blazer who admitted taking payments for various events in the past, including the 1998 and 2010 World Cups. Why did the man known as “Mr 10%” break ranks and squeal to the FBI?
According to the Sunday Times this week Blazer’s decision to “go native” can be traced to a spilt-second moment in December 2010 when he and long-time friend Jack Warner voted for the 2022 World Cup. To Blazer’s astonishment he discovered that Warner, the then head of CONCACAF, voted against the United States World Cup bid (in favour of Qatar) despite the US being under CONCACAF’s remit. This was a betrayal “Mr 10%” could not forgive, and it lies at the very heart of the problems facing those at FIFA today.
Blazer is now not alone. This week Jack Warner has said he is prepared to ‘tell all’. One can only assume this is to minimise, or attempt to avoid, the list of criminal charges that are coming down the track at him. Will others follow their lead? Probably.
It appears the classic economic concept of the Prisoner’s Dilemma has worked a treat. This concept demonstrates how an equilibrium for a game can generate a sub-optimal outcome for all parties involved. With co-operation higher pay-offs could be achieved to the benefit of both players. This is what has been happening at FIFA for years. Now however, the FBI have really stacked the incentives so the conditions for mutual cooperation are absent.
The following scenario is posed: Two criminals are detained by the police for questioning following their suspected involvement in a recent burglary. The police have enough evidence to convict both suspects for at least a minor charge. The two are brought to separate interrogation rooms and grilled by local detectives. They are each individually offered a two options by the detectives.
The two prisoners, Mr USA and Mr Trinidad & Tobago (T&T), have two choices to decide upon; confess to their crime or remain silent. No communication with their co-accused is possible. The following matrix describes the options on offer.
Mr USA & Mr T&T will serve just one year if both remain silent.This is the best outcome for the group. It seems obvious to stay silent when, if both confess, they will serve 2 years each.
However, here's the catch. As neither can know for certain what the other will do, the strategy of confessing is strictly dominant for each player. This means that whatever the other player does, confessing yields an outcome at least as good as, and possibly better, than remaining silent.
If one confesses and the other remains silence, the confessor (due to their willingness to co-operate with police) serves just 6 months, while the one remaining silent is handed a sentence of 10 years! As communication is not possible both Mr USA and Mr T&T fear the other will confess, which forces them to individually confess.
Remarkably, what the Prisoner’s Dilemma demonstrates is that even when people do what is best for them, the outcome for the group can be sub-optimal. In other words, the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows how rational, self-interested people each acting individually can make decisions that lead to an irrational outcome for the group as a whole.