Last Sunday: Third to last match day in the Italian soccer league, Serie A. At S.S. Lazio Rome’s home match against Inter Milan, Lazio fans started shouting “If you win we’ll beat you up”. The interesting thing about it: They were shouting at their own team!
What was going on?
To understand the Lazio fans we have to look at the league table prior to the match. After all other matches of the match day had been played, Lazio was five point clear of being relegated, so their season was practically over. Nothing to win, nothing to lose (theoretically, they could still be relegated, but in practice the probability is quite low). Inter Milan meanwhile was the strongest team in the league so far. Coming into the game in Rome they were second in the table, just one point behind the leaders. With a win, Inter would have had a two point lead going into the rest of the season.
So far, so good, the interesting point is whom Inter was battling for the league title: AS Roma, the other team from the Italian capital and biggest rivals of Lazio, Inter’s opponents that night.
As the biggest fear of the Laziali (Lazio’s fans) after a pretty bad season was that their local rivals could win the title, they were encouraging their team to take it easy and hand over the three points to Inter so that they could move ahead of AS Roma.
Even though Lazio players were aware of the situation and ensured everybody prior to the match that they would not “step aside”, as one banner the Laziali were holding up suggested, their performance was poor. Only keeper Fernando Muslera did not seem to have gotten the point – he played an extremely strong match, denying one Inter scoring opportunity after the other. After driving his own fans crazy for 45, a header by Inter defender Walter Samuel in the added time of the first half was too good for him and gave Inter a well deserved 1-0 lead. In the second half, Lazio was playing even worse, except for Muslera, who managed to just concede one more goal after 70 minutes, making it 2-0 Inter – a result that put a smile on the face of every fan in the stadium that night, both from Rome and Milan.
The match and the situation got me thinking about what the actual target or goal for a soccer team is. One might say it’s winning games, but I think that’s too simple. Is satisfying your fans – in that case by losing the game – also in line with the team’s targets?
There a many theories on what the ultimate goal of a company is. One option is to look at the value created for the “Stakeholders” of a company, that is at all groups without which a company could not exist. To demonstrate the approach, let me apply it to S.S. Lazio:
First there are internal stakeholders. Lazio is listed on the Italian stock exchange, but majority owner is Italian entrepreneur Claudio Lotito (note: Shareholders are usually considered external stakeholders while owners like Lotito are considered internal). While in theory owners are looking purely for a maximum return on their investment, in an emotional and well documented business like sports there may well be other values owners can derive from a club like e.g. fame, presence in the press, etc.
Other internal stakeholders include the employees. In a soccer club they range from managers and coaches to green keepers – a pretty diverse group of people. Most important are the players. Being one of them, Fernando Muslera obviously finds value in putting together a great performance as a keeper.
External stakeholders can be rather distant like government or trade unions or in our case the Italian soccer federation (FIGC). They can also be closer like e.g. customers.
This is where this discussion becomes interesting, as according to this theory, Lazio fans are quite important stakeholders of the company. Following the Stakeholder Theory, making the fans happy should therefore be defined as one of the goals of a soccer club. From an economic perspective, Lazio players did it right when they apparently did not take the game too serious.
If you still believe that there is something wrong when a team is not trying to win, you have a point. It may be unethical, as the sport is build on the idea of sportsmen given all they have to compete and find out who is the better one.
For nearly as long as the Stakeholder Theory exists, it has also been discussed in the context of morality and business ethics. Given the broadness of the approach, it is perfectly suited for this. If you consider your competitors stakeholders as well, the whole view is getting a new twist. While at first glance it may appear a bit unusual to consider AS Roma and their fans stakeholders of S.S. Lazio, this view makes sense when looking at it in more detail: Can you imagine how badly the Laziali would miss the derbies they play twice a year against AS Roma in front of a fanatic sellout crowd?
This post here can obviously only serve as a teaser to the Stakeholder Theory which is so successful because it offers a more complete framework that traditional concepts like “Shareholder Value” (in case you want to learn more about the relationship of stakeholder value and ethics, Robert Phillips’ classic book “Stakeholder Theory and Organizational Ethics” offers you a quite extensive point of view).
So was it right by the Lazio players to lose against Inter last Sunday? Well, that’s complicated. Hopefully this post helped you to come up with your own opinion.
Speaking of opinions: In the whole Lazio-Inter story, all we can talk about are opinions. Obviously Roma fans have the opinion that Lazio players wanted to lose. Meanwhile, Inter fans are sure that their team played so strong that Lazio couldn’t do any better. Whatever side you’re on, if you want to know the end of the story, just watch the final two match days of the Italian league. And while you do so always remember that this makes you a stakeholder of the teams, too.