this year, i backed new zealand to go all the way

Jerry Coyne ponders whether the best football/soccer team generally wins the World Cup. The answer is clearly no: any sporting event where games are settled on the basis of rare events (e.g., only one or two goals per match), and teams only play each other once to determine a winner, is going to be at the mercy of Lady Luck a good deal of the time. If we really wanted the best team to come out on top reliably, we’d probably need teams to play multiple games at every stage of the Cup, which isn’t very practical. Coyne discusses an (old) paper demonstrating that the occurrence of goals during World Cup matches is well fit by a poisson distribution, allowing one to calculate the probability of various unjust outcomes taking place (which turn out to be surprisingly high).

The curious thing, I think, is that it’s not really clear that sporting fans really do want the best team to come out on top. We don’t want outcomes to be determined by a coin toss, of course; it would kind of suck if, say, New Zealand had as much chance of lifting the cup as Brazil did. But it would also be pretty boring if it were a foregone conclusion that Brazil was going to win it all every time around. We want events to make sense, but we don’t want them to be too predictable. I suppose you could tell an interesting prediction error story about this kind of thing–e.g., that maximally engaging stimuli may be ones that seem to occur systematically yet defy easy explanation–but it’s probably more fun to sit around and curse at the television set as the Netherlands make short work of the Samba Kings (I don’t know if anyone actually uses that nickname; I just picked it off Wikipedia to make it look like I know what I’m talking about). Go Oranje!

4 thoughts on “this year, i backed new zealand to go all the way”

  1. As a big football fan, I just thought I’d confirm that this is exactly what a lot of us enjoy about the game. The fact that so many games turn on a single goal, and that goals can often come from the oddest and most ludicrous of situations – sometimes totally against the run of play and completely at odds with the expected result – is what makes it so fun. It’s what allows us to have competitions like the FA Cup, where an amateur local pub team can wind up playing a bunch of multi-millionaire professionals and it not be a foregone conclusion. Everybody loves to see the plucky underdogs fluke their way to a victory against the favourites. Unless, of course, the favourites happen to be your team.

  2. I just wait until the later rounds, for a better chance to boost my flagging self-esteem by picking a winner, and then pick a team based on totally unrelated data. This year I picked the Netherlands because they made it to the quarterfinals and I like 17th century Dutch history.

  3. I’m afraid I can’t agree with that, Brian; picking which team to back on the basis of their colonial history and recent success is kind of silly. Personally I use much more sensible criteria, like the brightness of a team’s jersey color, and how unpronounceable the players’ names are. That’s why I picked the Netherlands (once they’d made the quarterfinals).

  4. I fear our differences are irreconcilable. You ignore such important facts as 1) orange is a terrible color (but a good historical name) and 2) lots of the Dutch players just cheat on the unpronounceable front by sticking random letters into otherwise totally normal sounding names. I’m looking at you, Wesley Sneijder.

    We should ask the German World Cup Octopus to arbitrate our dispute.

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