The World Cup is upon us. Thirty-two teams from around the globe are ready to slog it out on the football pitch – or the soccer field to US readers. The tournament kicks off this afternoon (14 June) with host nation Russia taking on Saudi Arabia.
The good news for Russian fans is that a machine learning programme developed by researchers from the German Technische Universitat of Dortmund, the Technical University in Munich, and Belgium’s Ghent University, has predicted that opponents Saudi Arabia have a zero percent chance of winning the World Cup.
However, the bad news is that home fans have only slightly better odds of seeing the motherland go all the way: Russia has been given a just a 0.1 percent chance of lifting the trophy.
England fares rather better: a place in the last eight, but only a 7.1 percent chance of winning the World Cup, as things stand at the beginning of the tournament.
Predicting the winner
In order to come up with a programme able to generate the likely winners and losers, the researchers had to plug in several factors and plenty of statistics that could go some way toward determining the outcome.
These included the controversial FIFA rankings, bookmakers’ odds, the average age of the players, the number of titles that players have won before and, of course, each team’s likely road to the final.
They then ran a tournament simulator 100,000 times that took into account all of these factors, and came up with the following table:
There’s a sense that this year’s tournament is breaking new ground – of a sort. The host nation has strained diplomatic relations with much of the watching world, while the suppression and intimidation of both the media and any opposition to Putin’s regime go against the democratic values of FIFA’s flagship event.
Despite that, there is familiarity on the pitch, and some things in international football never seem to change – at least according to a computer simulation. One of those is that, as footballer and pundit Gary Lineker once famously observed, “Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”
Indeed, the researchers’ simulation suggests that the holders are second favourites behind 2010 champions Spain at the outset. However, if Germany makes the quarter-finals, it becomes the favourite.
“According to the most probable tournament course, instead of the Spanish, the German team would win the World Cup,” says the research paper.
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Presumably the predictions of Spain’s passage through to the finals didn’t take into account Spain’s manager, Julen Lopetegui, being sacked on the eve of the tournament. And as for a tournament hosted in Russia? Don’t bet on anything being impossible.
• Germany was knocked out of the World Cup on 28 June. For the time being, it seems, computers don’t know everything – Ed.