In the summer of 2002, a great crime was perpetrated against the entire nation of Italy. Or so at least tens of millions of Italian soccer fans insisted after the country’s national team was knocked out of the World Cup by upstart South Korea. The heavily favored Italians had scored an early goal against the Koreans and had clung to their 1—0 lead for most of the game, before yielding a late equalizer and then an overtime goal that sent them packing. The Italian performance had been mediocre at best. But the team was victimized by a couple of very bad officiating decisions, including one that disallowed a goal. Had those decisions gone the other way, it’s likely Italy would have won.
The Italian fans, of course, blamed the referee, an Ecuadorean named Byron Moreno, for the defeat, Strikingly, though, they did not blame Moreno for being incompetent (which he was). Instead, they blamed him for being criminal. In the fans’ minds, their team had been the victim of something more sinister than just bad officiating. Instead, the Italians had fallen prey to a global conspiracy—perhaps orchestrated by FIFA, soccer’s governing body—designed to keep them from their just desserts. Moreno had been the point man for the conspiracy. And he had carried out his orders perfectly.
The Milan daily Corriere della Sera, for instance, protested against a system in which “referees … are used as hitmen.” La Gazzetta dello Sport editorialized, “Italy counts for nothing in those places where they decide the results and put together million- dollar deals.” A government minister declared, “It seemed as if they just sat around a table and decided to throw us out.” And Francesco Totti, one of the stars of the Italian team, captured the conspiratorial mood best when he said, “This was a desired elimination. By who? I don’t know—there are things greater than me but the feeling is that they wanted us out.” In the weeks that followed the game, no proof of an anti-Italian cabal or of Moreno’s supposed chicanery surfaced (despite the best efforts of the Italian. papers). But the fans remained unwavering in their conviction that dark forces had united to destroy Italy’s ambitions.
To an outside observer, the accusations of corruption seemed crazy. Honest referees make bad decisions all the time. What reason was there to believe that Moreno was any different? But to anyone familiar with Italian soccer the accusations were completely predictable. That’s because in Italian soccer, corruption is assumed to be the natural state of affairs. Every year, the Italian soccer season is marred by weekly charges of criminality and skulduggery. Teams routinely claim -that individual refs have been bought off, and request that particular referees not be assigned to their games. Refereeing is front-page news. Every Monday night, a TV show called Biscardi’s Trial devotes two and a half hours to dissecting officiating mistakes and lambasting the officials for favoritism.
The effect of all this on actual Italian soccer games is not good. Although the players are among the very best in the world, the games are often halting, foul-ridden affairs repeatedly delayed by playacting, whining players more interested in working the refs than anything else. Defeat is never accepted as the outcome of a fair contest. And even victory is marred by the thought that perhaps backroom machinations were responsible for it.
So what does Italian soccer have to do with collective decision making and problem solving? Well, although the teams in a soccer game are trying to defeat each other, and therefore have competing interests, the teams also have a common interest:
namely, making sure that the games are entertaining and compelling for the fans. The more interesting the games are, the more likely it is that people will come, the greater ticket sales and TV ratings will be, and the higher team profits and player salaries will be. When two soccer teams play each other, then, they’re not just competing. They’re also, at least in theory, working together—along with the officials—in order to produce an entertaining game. And this is precisely what the Italian teams are unable to do. Because neither side can be sure that its efforts will be fairly rewarded, the players devote an inordinate amount of time to protecting their own interests. Energy time, and attention that would be better spent improving the quality of play instead goes into excoriating, monitoring, and trying to manipulate the referees. And the manipulation feeds on itself. Even if most players would rather be honest, they realize that they’d only be asking to be exploited. As Gennaro Gattuso, a winger for European champions AC Milan, said in October of 2003, “The system prevents you from telling the truth and being yourself.” Hardly anyone likes the system the way it is, but no one can change it.
What Italian soccer is failing to do, then, is come up with a good solution to what I’ll call here a cooperation problem. Cooperation problems often look something like coordination problems, because in both cases a good solution requires people to take what everyone else is doing into account. But if the mechanism is right, coordination problems can be solved even if each individual is single-mindedly pursuing his self-interest—in fact, in the case of price, that’s what coordination seems to require. To solve cooperation problems—which include things like keeping the sidewalk free of snow, paying taxes, and curbing pollution—the members of a group or a society need to do more. They need to adopt a broader definition of self-interest than the myopic one that maximizing profits in the short term demands. And they need to be able to trust those around them, because in the absence of trust the pursuit of myopic self-interest is the only strategy that makes sense. How does this happen? And does it make a difference when it does?