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Nov 4, 2008

Undisputed champions of the world

I'm sorry. I know you're dying to read another of those hard-hitting, no-holds-barred, close-to-libel opinion pieces about the Bundesliga that I'm notorious for. The pieces which tell you in the clearest of terms and with the coldest of hearts who's rubbish and who's roguish in Germany.

Hold on ... or was that somebody else's dirty duty?

Ah, anyway and never mind, the long and the short of it is that there will be very little German football in the paragraphs to follow. See, I spent the last days poring over some wacky football websites and that reminded me of days when I spent even more time on even wackier sites. And since I, as a columnist, am in the enviable position of being allowed to do as I please, I will now share this wackiness with you.

Which also means I can put all those wasted hours to good use - and even make some money from it. Gosh, what a great job!

But first, let me explain why I ventured into the realm of nutty number crunchers. As you may know, two very important sporting competitions were decided last week. One was the baseball World Series, the other the chess World Championship.

Now, both of these sports have a lot to do with stats and numbers. Baseball has spawned its own mathematical sect (the "sabermetricians"), and chess is a game in which a machine that does nothing but compute can and will defeat the best human player.

Football, by comparison, is a game that doesn't readily lend itself to cold analysis. When I was younger, and when the NASL was getting a bit of coverage in Germany, our reporters used to make fun of the Americans' desperate attempts to break the game down into stats, the way they were used to from their other major sports. These days, no one's laughing anymore, as the age of The Football Database is well and truly upon us.

But doubts remain. When you compare two holding midfielders, can the numbers alone really tell you who is the better player, the way baseball stats strongly indicate who is the best third baseman? And if it seems difficult to rank individual players, what about whole teams?

And yet, since 1993, we have the FIFA World Rankings, according to which Spain are currently the best team in the world, Germany are better than Brazil and Cameroon are better than England. I won't bore you with how FIFA arrives at those standings, but let me tell you that there is a rival ranking system. It comes from - chess!

Since the 1960s, a chess player's relative strength is calculated according to a method developed by the Hungarian Arpad Elo. This is known as the "Elo rating", and while it periodically comes under criticism, it's widely accepted as valid.

Again, I won't go into detail (trust me, it's better for all of us), suffice to say that ten years ago, a man by the name of Bob Runyan decided to use the Elo system to compare and rank football teams. As we speak, this alternate ranking also sees Spain at the top, but it places Brazil ahead of Germany and considers England to be much better than the FIFA table says (6th place, not 14th).

But this Elo system isn't just different, it has a thrilling advantage: it allows Runyan and his followers to go back in time and apply the method to teams from bygone eras. Thus you'll find a section called "Biggest Upsets" on the homepage of the World Football Elo Ratings. It's a long list, beginning with Norway's victory over the combined UK team at the 1920 Olympics, right up to Ghana defeating the Czech Republic at the 2006 World Cup.

According to this table, West Germany's shock victory over Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final was an upset, but not the biggest in history. The same goes for England losing to the USA in 1950 or Italy losing to North Korea in 1966. Make no mistake, these games do appear in the list - but if Elo is to be trusted, the biggest upset took place in July of 1979, at the Copa América.

According to my admittedly sketchy investigation, Bolivia's 2-1 win against Brazil was the unlikeliest of triumphs, given that a massive 441 Elo points separated the teams. Eight days earlier, Bolivia had also beaten Argentina, despite a gap of 394 Elo points. Must have been a heck of a tournament.

(My calculations are based on the assumption that the Elo numbers given on the website refer to the ratings prior to the games in question. If they list the ratings after the games, then Bolivia's wins are even more incredible.)

All that reminded me of the hours, maybe days, I spent following the history of the Unofficial Football World Championships (UFWC). If you don't know what that's all about, let me recap the basic assumption: what if football would crown world champions as it's done in boxing?

That means the team that beats the champions in an official game, including in extra time or on penalties, is the new champion. If there's no decision, the title-holder retains the trophy.

Logically enough, the UFWC disciples went back to the first internationals in history, concluded England became the first-ever world champions in March of 1873 and took it from there. There was a lot of work involved (just imagine a single game involving a world champion would have escaped attention!), but I reckon the list is now watertight. In case you need to know: the current unofficial world champions are Sweden.

But guess what, life's never simple. Because there's a splinter group which claims its variation on this idea is the better one. Those guys don't go back to 1872/73 but to the inaugural World Cup. They consider Uruguay the first world champions, just like FIFA do. That's why their system is named after the 1930 Uruguayan captain and is called Nasazzi's Baton. (In 1931, Brazil beat Uruguay at something called the Copa Rio Branco and thus became the new bearer of the baton.)

Yet there's a further twist. Even though those guys use a FIFA World Cup as their starting point, they don't accept World Cup rules, such as extra time and penalty shoot-outs. They only look at the result after 90 minutes, regardless of whether the actual game went to extra time or not. Which is one reason why the Unofficial World Champions and the bearers of Nasazzi's Baton need not be identical, quite apart from the diverging starting points.

In July of 1966, for instance, West Germany were the Unofficial Football World Champions and also held Nasazzi's Baton. In the FIFA World Cup final, they were defeated by England - after extra time. Thus the Germans retained the baton but lost the UFWC title.

But currently we're back to normal. In August of 2002, Norway (holders of Nasazzi's Baton) were beaten by Holland (UFWC), which meant the Dutch had both titles, and since then, the two rival camps acknowledge the same champions, meaning the Swedes are currently also carrying Nasazzi's Baton.

For stattos, all this raises questions. First, have there ever been absolututely undisputed champions? Second, which games were the most important ever played? You won't find answers on the websites of the various organisations, so I'm giving them to you.

Yes, there have been quite a few ultimate world champions. From June to November 1939, Italy held all three titles (FIFA World Cup, UFWC, Nasazzi's Baton), and Uruguay later equalled that feat in 1953. As far as I can see, the last team to date to do so was Brazil in 1995.

Second, the games. All three titles were at stake on the same day four times, naturally in World Cup finals: in 1958 (Brazil versus Sweden), in 1966 (West Germany versus England), in 1974 (West Germany versus Holland) and in 1978 (Argentina versus Holland). Which, I reckon, makes those four matches the most important football games ever played.

Wow, you'd've never thought football was so fascinating, right?

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