William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

World Cup Statistics and Predictions for the Final

A prediction (made on Monday, 28 June) verified:

Although—and this has nothing to do with the issue at hand—Argentina’s goaltender Sergio Romero stinks, and that’s putting it nicely. Every shot on goal Mexico made—and there just weren’t enough—flummoxed the poor man. Klose, Podolski, and the rest of the German side are going to eat him alive Saturday.

It’s nice to be right once in a while. This was that while: taking into account Romero’s performance, it was easy to guess that Argentina would never have a chance against Germany.

But can we work our statistical magic for the rest of the tournament, and answer such questions as: Is the World Cup getting harder to win? Is the game becoming more rambunctious? And what will be the likely outcome?

The first Cup was held in 1930: there were only 13 teams that participated, and over the course of 18 games, 80 goals were made. Only one man was sent off (two yellows or one red card) in all of the 18 matches. By 2006, there were 32 teams in the tournament, with 64 games: 147 goals were scores and 28 men were sent to the showers early to curse their fate.

Here’s a picture, through time, of the goals per game scored (note that there were Cups while the world was engaged in its global folly):

World Cup Statistics: Goals per game

Are you able to answer this question? What is the probability that the number of goals per game was lower in Cups played after 1958, than in those Cups played before that date? The probability, given the data before our eyes, is 1: were are certain that there were less goals per games since 1962.

In fact, we are certain that there is a downward trend in the GPG (goals per game); we are certain, because that is what happened. Now, the only question is: will this trend continue? This can be answered with a model, which is the dark line over-plotted on the data. The black dot over 2010, and the red lines above and below it, indicate the guess of how the 2010 tournament will finish.

So far—by my count, which might be off—there have been 133 goals in 60 games, for 2.2 GPG (I did not use any 2010 data in the modeled predictions). Unless something remarkable happens—and with Germany scoring like it has been, it’s possible—then the prediction of 2.38 GPG (from 1.83 to 3.10), looks to be on target.

Conclusion 1 Scoring is becoming more difficult in World Cup games.

Here’s a picture of the average number of men sent off per game, or SOPG:

World Cup Statistics: Sent off per game

Quite a shocking upward trend! This could mean that men are meaner now than they used to be, or that the referees are more card happy, or a combination of the two. Either way, we are close to the point where there is a 50% chance of a man going off in each game.

The prediction for 2010 is 0.44 SOPG, (from 0.27 to 0.61). So far (again by my count, which is possibly in error), there have been 16 men who have had to walk in disgrace through the tunnel before their teammates. That’s 0.27 SOPG already, which is on the low end of our prediction. And even if, for example, 2 more men are red carded over the four final games, then the SOPG will only grow to 0.28. That means that this year’s cup will likely have fewer altercations than the last one.

Conclusion 2 More are being sent off with red cards at World Cup games.

How about the goal differential of the final? Here’s a quick table, then a picture.

Winning Score
Losing 0   1   2   3   4   5  
0 1 1 1 1 0 0
1 0 1 3 3 1 0
2 0 0 0 2 3 1

This table shows the winning numbers of goals crossed with the losing number of goals. The most common results are 2 to 1, 3 to 1, and 4 to 2. That last would be my guess for this final, which I predict will feature the Dutch and the Deutsche. There have been two ties at the end of play—0 to 0, and 1 to 1—which were decided on (yuck) penalty kicks.

Now a shot of the winning goal differential (WGT), calculated by subtracting the losing number of goals from the winning number of goals: zeros indicate a tie in regulation play.

World Cup Statistics: Winning goal differential

Up until the 1980s (or so), the WGT bounced around from 1 to 3, but after that started the ties. This, don’t forget, is also the era of lower number of goals per game scored, so this result fits in with the trend.

The model predicts a 30% chance of a tie for this final. It also says that there is a 47% chance of the winner besting the loser by just one goal: a two-goal lead has a 20% chance; a three-goal lead is unlikely at 4%. (These percentages are rounded and don’t quite add to 100%.)

If there is a tie, that means penalty kicks will decide the winner.

Conclusion 3 More World Cup finals will be decided by penalty kicks.

What are your predictions?

Raw statistics for this article were culled from this website.

Update The other cup—the one with manly steel ballsstreaming live right now! Monday, 5 July 11 am EST.

6 Comments

  1. View from the Solent

    4 July 2010 at 10:59 am

    “.. and 4 to 2. That last would be my guess for this final, which I predict will feature the Dutch and the Deutsche”

    Looks like a good prediction, my oranje hemd is washed and ironed ready for Tuesday’s formality. Can’t see Spain on Wednesday offering even as much as Argentina did against Germany. (Argentine wimps, I backed Germany to win 3-0 at 50/1 and was laughed at.)

    The 4-2 seems a likely guess – Germany are rampant and Netherlands seem to be warming up- but who will be involved in the quadruple? Klose and Muller, or the noble Sneijder?
    That’s the important question. 1974 again, or atonement?

  2. The yellow/red card system was introduced only in the 1970 World Cup. This formalization must surely have increased the dismissals as now two non-dismissal offenses led to automatic expulsion, whereas previously a player was sent off only for a particularly egregious foul. Persistent fouling under the old regime could have also led to a sending off but this was very much up to the discretion and judgement of the referee without any formal recording of previous fouls as now exists.

    Furthermore one needs to take into account the changing culture within the game reflecting changes in the culture at large. In the 60′s and 70′s far greater tolerance was shown to physical robustness(!) such as tackles from behind (now invariably carded) and sliding tackles with studs showing, as well as “going over the top” (i.e. boots into the shins of the other player), shoulder tackles (which are still formally legal but very often the ref awards a free) and other forms of mayhem as elbows in the face, stamping on opponents, elbows in the ribs etc.

    In other words though less players were sent off before, I would hazard that as much if not more “send-offable” play occurred. PelĂ©, for example, was targetted in the ’66 World Cup and ended up so battered that he had to sit out the remainder of Brazil’s games from the sidelines. In the old days the boots were of a far more “agricultural” type than the glorified slippers they wear today and were correspondingly more lethal.

    Furthermore, diving (pretending to be knocked over by an opponent), rolling around in affected mortal agony (to put moral pressure on the ref) and such hyperventilating flim-flammery were frowned upon back in the day when such behaviour was regarded as a sign of a sissy. Pressuring the ref, as now happens almost as a matter of course, to book and send off an opponent was then viewed as very unsporting and rarely occurred.

    The Golden Age of World Cup soccer in the televised period was from 1966 to 1982 when the Tournament was a true jamboree of joy for the aficionado of the “beautiful game”. 1986 was adorned by the genius of Diego Maradona but it’s been a steady decline ever since. In soccer as in much else of our cultural life we live in the shadows of departed greatness.

    The 1990 Final in Italy between Germany and Argentina was a wretched affair which the Germans deservedly won through a phantom penalty kick that the ref conjured up to put us all out of our misery. The 1994 Final in the USA between Italy and Brazil was a nil-aller which was decided by a penalty shoot-out (double, no make that triple yeuch!) which Brazil won. France were excellent in ’98 against a dismal Brazil but ’02 (Brazil) and ’06 (Italy) were so dreadful that I can recall nothing about them but the dismay they inspired.

    The emphasis on physical fitness above all else as well as the role of the manager as a strategic genius of Napoleonic proportions have decreased the importance of natural talent and individual inspiration. The perceived need not to fail rather than the wish to triumph gloriously or go down in flames has also sucked the poetry out of the play. It is noteworthy that the much trumpetted “greats” – Rooney, Ronaldo, Kaka, Robinho, Messi – have all failed to make an impact and Germany, to date the most exciting and admirable outfit, have no true international Superstars in their line-up.

  3. I predict the vast majority will not care one way or the other.

  4. OK, we’re all up to speed now the word “soccer” is an invention of the Limeys, not us Yanks, right? Way back in the mid-19th century. So it is perfectly proper for us Americans to emulate our distant cousins and call it that name. Even though they have – among other things – very short memories.

    On to the game. There’s been rough – and rougher – play in soccer for decades so the gradual changes in the way penalties are called and imposed are more reflective of tighter refereeing than anything else, in my opinion. And this result was brought about by bad press from things like the WC abuse of Pele, as mentioned by liamascorcaighabove, and others.

    What’s needed now is the introduction of a new card, maybe blue?, for “flopping”. This new card could be used either against a player or a team. Two flops by one player per game and it’s SOPG, or in the alternative three accumulative flops against a team and the player drawing the third and subsequent cards would also take a walk of shame. But until FIFA does something about all that ridiculous flopping there will be no support for claiming soccer players are “in better condition” than other athletes. In fact with so much flopping going on I could see certain pudgy MLB relief hurlers cross-playing with MLS.

    But in the long run, put me down as being on Mike D’s. side.

  5. Re. conclusion one.

    While it may be the case that goals are becoming more difficult to score, it may also be the case the teams are becoming more cautious about attempting to score goals.

    That is something that anecdotally an experienced observer would note about the world cup, expecially in group phases, where of then the intention is simply not to lose – which does not require the team to score.

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