FC Servette, Greece and the Game of Chicken
FC Servette has been saved, at least from bankruptcy. The local Geneva football club has found sponsors to pay CHF 5 million to erase its debt and avoid an ignominious relegation. As the talks on Greece’s debt also come down to the last moment – certainly more important on the world stage but less actual for Geneva fans – similarities between the two situations are evident: Who will blink first?
In the first case, Geneva fans and officials have not let the glorious, historic club fade into oblivion. The Greek case, reaching its climax, involves a chain of negative outcomes in Europe and eventually the world economy if the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU) allow Greece to default on its debt of 2.5 billion euros. Will Greece accept certain conditions in exchange for a further bail-out?
The Servette saga and the Greek debt crisis resemble the game of Chicken. Immortalized in the film Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean, Nathalie Wood and Sal Mineo, two teenagers singly drive stolen cars off a cliff to see who is the bravest. The chicken is the one who jumps out of the car first; the bravest is the one who stays in the car the longest. In the movie, James Dean stumbles out of the car before it goes over the cliff, but his adversary gets his sleeve caught as he tries to escape and goes over the cliff with the car. There are no winners in this game. Other versions of Chicken, such as driving straight at each other on a narrow road to see who will swerve first, are well known in certain circles. There are many other versions of the game, but there is no need to elaborate; you get the idea.
FC Servette has had several crises in its long history. Founded in 1890, the club has won 17 Swiss league championships and seven Swiss cups. In February 2005 the parent company of the club was declared bankrupt with debts of over 10 million Swiss francs. Until its bankruptcy, Servette was the only Swiss club to have remained in the top league since its creation. While I am not a great fan of football – watching FC Barcelona an exception – there is no question that the recent threats to its survival have touched a nerve among many sectors of the local population. Difficult to call yourself a major, international city if the regional club goes broke while playing in second division and is relegated even lower.
Immediacy is crucial in both situations. The Swiss football league had a deadline for clubs to show that they are financially secure to play the next season. Guarantees were necessary. The Greek government also has deadlines; it has payments due to its creditors. While negotiations continue, if no solution is found Greece could be declared bankrupt and leave the European Union.
One of the most intriguing ways of looking at the situations of FC Servette and Greek Government is game theory, developed by the recently deceased Princeton Professor John Nash, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and the subject of a biography and movie “A Beautiful Mind.” The game here involves several players, each with separate interests as well as common interests. There are many scenarios possible, from optimal - sponsors saving Servette while it remains in its current league or Greece finding a way not to enact a drastic austerity program while having its debt reduced – to suboptimal – Servette defaults and is relegated to the lowest league, Greece defaults and withdraws from the Eurozone.
How to get optimal results? This is where the game of Chicken comes into play. If in the Greek case the EU believes that Greece will eventually cave in to major structural reforms, it will continue to insist that the loans will not be extended. If the Greeks believe that the EU will not accept their default or leaving the euro, they will continue to refuse severe austerity measures.
Who will blink first? In the Geneva case, a compromise was reached whereby money was found to erase most of the debt, a new structure was put in place, and the club was relegated, but not as far down as it might have been. No one won or really lost; an acceptable suboptimal result was achieved by both sides.
In the Greek case, the jury is still out. The Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has written on game theory and is a known admirer of John Nash. Is he playing an irrational player ready to go over the cliff for his beliefs? In the movie, James Dean technically lost the game because he jumped out of his car first, but the winner was never able to celebrate.
Switzerland has a long history of compromise and consensus. Game theory is rarely applied to domestic Swiss politics. That is both a strength and weakness, especially when dealing with great powers like the United States. Americans frequently use their power to get their optimal results. Uncle Sam does not have a long history of compromise, similar to all great nations. Greece is confronted with the power of the EU, but the possibility of default is dramatic.
Games are games. They have their own rules, their own objectives. To look at real-life situations through the lens of game theory dehumanizes what is involved. Talk of winning or losing may apply to sports, but is limited. FC Servette was saved through a reasonable compromise. One can only hope the Greek debt crisis can find a similar compromise, avoiding anyone going over the cliff.