Don't try picking a World Cup winner. Just sit back and enjoy the show
I admit it: I predicted that Brazil would win the 2014 World Cup, but before you laugh, I wasn't the only one.
Goldman Sachs, the U.S. bank whose predictions for financial markets are followed breathlessly, gave Brazil a 48.5 percent probability before the tournament of becoming world champions. The London bookmakers also made the host the tournament favorite, generally at odds of about 3-1 (if you bet $1 and got it right, you won $3).
Given how silly I felt after the 7-1 defeat in Belo Horizonte, this time I'll let other people bore you with their predictions. The bookmakers are now making France, Germany and Brazil joint favorites next summer at odds of about 5-1 each. In the coming months you'll hear endless learned analyses about the supposed qualities of all 32 squads, but the fact is that World Cups are among the most unpredictable events in sports, for three basic reasons:
1. As any honest investment adviser will tell you, past performance is a poor guide to future performance. Every World Cup, stars go in with big reputations and come out a fortnight later looking like tired old men (the possible fate of Luis Suarez, who will be 31 when the tournament starts) while unknown youngsters steal the show (recall Thomas Muller in 2010).
2. Luck matters more in soccer than in other ballgames. In baseball, each team has 27 outs, so an individual at-bat is rarely decisive; tennis Grand Slams are played over five sets, so Roger Federer can afford to lose two and still win. But in the knockout stages of a World Cup, a game is typically decided by one goal -- or by a penalty shootout.
3. The World Cup's format favors unpredictability. If this competition were a league, played over 38 games, the best team would most probably win. Over the long run, luck tends to even out. One week the referee will wrongly give your opponents a penalty; the next week, he'll give it to you.
But a World Cup is too short for luck to even out. The competition is a lot like the playoffs in U.S. sports: the format is thrilling, but the random element means that the best team often doesn't win. In World Cups, the difference between going home to rotten tomatoes after the first round and making the semifinals is often a matter of a few inches here or there on a couple of shots.
Just look at how many past World Cups have turned on one or two moments. Just before full-time in the final of 1978, with the score 1-1, a shot from Holland's winger Rob Rensenbrink bounced off Argentina's post; the Argentines went on to win in extra time. Twenty years later, in the hours before the France-Brazil final, Brazil's star Ronaldo suffered what appeared to have been a panic attack while sleeping; exhausted afterward, he wandered the field like a zombie, and France won 3-0.
In 2010, Spain became world champion after scoring only eight goals in seven games. La Roja played badly most of the time, and probably wouldn't have triumphed if a Paraguay penalty had gone in during their quarterfinal, or if Spain keeper Iker Casillas hadn't saved Arjen Robben's shot with his studs late in the final.
And in 2014, what if Argentina's normally deadly Gonzalo Higuain had scored one-on-one against Germany's Manuel Neuer 20 minutes into the final?
The greatest prize in soccer hinges on a few moments. Jonathan Wilson puts it well in his book "Anatomy of England": "One moment can shape a game, and one game can shape a tournament, and one tournament can shape a career. Soccer is not always fair." The team that lifts the trophy in Moscow on July 15, 2018, will have played seven games in a month, the last four of them knockout games. One bad day, or a ball that hits the post and rolls out, and you're flying home with no chance to even things up next week. Or you might lose a penalty shootout.
One of the rituals of World Cups is laughing at England. English soccer does have giant flaws, but the country has also been simply unlucky. Of England's 12 major tournaments since 1990, it exited six on penalties. In 2013, Greg Dyke, then-chairman of the English Football Association, told me about the sports bettor Matthew Benham.
"He employs top-quality math graduates. All they do is study soccer around the world. He does everything on statistics," said Dyke. "[Benham] says the single biggest factor why England haven't done well is because they've been unlucky. He says you can alter the chances of winning or losing on penalties, but not by a lot. So if the luck had gone the other way, his argument is that we'd have won one or two of those and we wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation."
Yet there we were, having this conversation.
Then there's the occasionally outsized role of home advantage at this tournament. In international soccer generally, playing at home was worth an average of a goal a game between 2000 and 2014 according to Stefan Szymanski, economics professor at the University of Michigan (and my coauthor on the book "Soccernomics"). But in some World Cups, playing at home may matter even more. I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist but there are powerful interests (chiefly big sponsors and FIFA) who want the host nation to stay in the tournament as long as possible so as to keep the home fans interested.
Many people remember the bizarre refereeing decisions that helped host South Korea beat an excellent Italy team 2-1 in the 2002 knockout rounds. Not many people know that the Ecuadorean referee in that game, Byron Moreno, was arrested at JFK Airport in New York eight years later after a customs official found "hard objects on the defendant's stomach, back and both of his legs." Italy's least-favorite ref was carrying ten plastic bags of heroin. He was sentenced to 30 months in a Brooklyn jail, but was released after 26 due to good behavior. And shortly after the 2002 World Cup, Moreno was suspended for 20 matches in the Ecuadorean league for his controversial handling of a first division match.
These revelations say something important about World Cups -- something that isn't necessarily captured in the pre-tournament predictions. Next year's tournament may have its own Morenos even if we don't realize it at the time.
I'm not arguing that World Cups are entirely random. Based on the 20 previous tournaments (admittedly not an immense sample size), we know one thing: minnows don't win. The bookmakers have Saudi Arabia and Panama at odds of 1,000-1 to triumph next summer, and that's probably right. It seems that every World Cup there are six or eight teams -- almost all of them the usual suspects -- who have a decent shot. If Argentina win this time, or Spain, or even Belgium, let alone one of the three big favorites, we'll all be able to craft a plausible story explaining why the winner's victory was predestined.
But from 2026, when the tournament expands to 48 teams, World Cups will get even more random. In the group phase, teams will play just two matches each, as opposed to the current three, so a lucky win will be enough to reach the second round. If teams are tied, there will be penalty shootouts: another randomizer. Then there will be five straight knockout rounds, one more than in the current system. The upshot will be a competition in which luck plays a bigger role. That should favor plausible outsiders such as the U.S. (they will be back) or (don't laugh) England.
Randomness is part of the World Cup's charm. We watch the tournament for the beauty, the nationalism and the experience of a global carnival, but also to witness the role of luck in human affairs.
As a failed forecaster, I've learned this truth the hard way. Now I'm with the once-great English playmaker Paul Gascoigne: "I never predict anything and I never will."
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.