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Many soccer fans often feel that some teams are more privileged than others when it comes to referee decisions, and that some referee calls made against a certain team would have not been made against another. In attempt to quantify such potential bias, computer scientists Jimmy Tanamati Soares and Lior Shamir of Lawrence Technological University in Michigan analyzed data from all teams in the four major European soccer leagues - Primera Division (Spain), Serie A (Italy), the Premier League (England), and the Bundesliga (Germany). In particular, the study attempted to find correlation between the reputation of the team and the likelihood of referee decisions such yellow cards and penalty kicks. The results showed that in the Bundesliga and Premier League, referee decisions are biased towards the more reputable soccer clubs. In the Primera Division and Serie A no referee bias was identified.
The reputation of the team was reflected by three different factors: the ranking of the team, the budget, and the average size of the crowd in home games. Using the total number of plays of each team inside the penalty box in the past five seasons, these factors were compared to the chance that a play inside the penalty box would result in a penalty kick. Similarly, these factors were also compared to the chance of a foul call to result in a consequent yellow card.
The results in the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga revealed significant correlation between the budget of the team and the chance that a foul call would result in a yellow card. That is, in the Bundesliga and Premier League, soccer players of wealthier soccer clubs are less likely to receive a yellow card after committing a foul compared to players of the less rich teams. The Italian Serie A and the Spanish Primera Division showed no similar bias.
Similarly, the results also showed that in the Premier League and Bundesliga, players entering the penalty box are more likely to receive a penalty kick if they play for a wealthier team, compared to players of the less wealthy soccer clubs. Again, no similar bias was identified in the Primera Division or Serie A. These results show that in the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga, referee decisions might be biased in favor of the wealthier soccer clubs. In the Spanish Primera Division and the Italian Serie A no referee bias was identified.
The research acknowledge some limitation of the study, which is bases solely on quantitative statistical analysis of data from the past five seasons. Wealthier teams acquire renowned soccer players, who might be more privileged in the sense of referee decisions, and therefore if such referee bias exists it can be towards individual players rather than teams. The differences can be also related to the quality of the play of different players. For instance, more talented players committing a foul might be better able to do so in a less aggressive manner, avoiding the yellow card. However, these links do not seem to exist in Spain and Italy, while the bias is significant in England and Germany.
Tanamati Soares, J., Shamir, L., Department of Comp. Sci., Lawrence Technological University, Southfield, MI, USA