Between the Lines

"Of all unimportant subjects, football is the most important" – Pope John Paul II

The Best Team Unlikely to Win the World Cup (and so is England)

Posted by hakanrylander on October 30, 2009

At the recent World Cup qualifier in Ukraine a poll among the English journalists present showed that one third believe that Brazil will eventually win the trophy, one third predict that England will lift the cup and one third think that someone else will. To most self-appointed analysts outside England (including this correspondent) this is a ridiculous exaggeration of England’s prospects. It now turns out that science has (kind of) proved that the sceptics are correct.

In a paper published in the October issue of Journal of Applied Statistics G. K. Skinner and G. H. Freeman conclude that the best team (which I would say is Spain, few would say it’s England) has a probability of only 28% of winning the cup, if it reaches the last 16. In reality the probability is lower since there is always a danger of being knocked out at the group stage. And the probability of England winning is again even lower, but the study doesn’t specify just how low.

The basis for their conclusions is the simple fact that the outcome of any football match is uncertain. The best team doesn’t always win. And in the knock-out stages you need to win four straight games to win the cup. In the latest World Cup only 5 games out of 64 had scores that indicated that you (or a gathering of statisticians) could be pretty certain (better than 90% confidence) that the best team won.

Are soccer matches badly designed experiments? by G. K. Skinner and G. H. Freeman (Journal of Applied Statistics).


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