Thursday, June 14, 2018


The World Cup starts today, and I haven't been this excited for anything in four years. Wait — my wife just reminded me that our daughter was born less than four years ago. So it's a push.

Not all the World Cup games will be great, but they'll all be meaningful, because the emotional health of millions of people is riding on the result. So if you see a soccer fan, give him or her a hug — and buy the next round. 

  • Data vs. narrative debate: What stats matter?
  • Real potential for national embarrassment
  • The United States (and Mexico and Canada) wins something
Robert Lewandowski scored 16 goals in World Cup qualifying for Poland.

The data that explains the narrative

The two most important statistics in a soccer match — the score and how much time is left — don’t ultimately tell you anything about how the game is played. 

That’s why broadcasters will ramble on about shots on goal, passes completed and even the number of corner kicks a team takes. 

Those stats are accurate, as FIFA does a pretty good job of recording data using digital scorecards and optical-based camera tracking systems. Many of the stats tallied during the World Cup may even be interesting. Only some of them will be meaningful. 

The soccer nerds I spoke to — economists, data research scientists at internationally renowned universities and authors of thick books — agree that the most important measure of how a team is doing, and how likely it is to win, is “expected goals.” 

This measures the number and quality of chances created to determine the probability of a shot being scored based on the success of similar shots in the past. 

“It’s a nerdier lens to look through when talking about things that we all pay attention to during a match,” said Will Gurpinar-Morgan, an environmental scientist who also uses his considerable brainpower to write intelligently about soccer statistics. 

These stats have become useful tools, and for the first time at the World Cup in Russia FIFA will make real-time data available to coaches to help inform their decisions. 

Most of the time, the data tells us what we already know: Robert Lewandowski scores lots of the goals you’d expect him to score, and David De Gea stops many you would expect to go in.

“Maybe 10 percent of the time the data is more right than the narrative we all understand,” Gurpinar-Morgan said. “Other times data is missing something and the narrative is correct.”

Those differences can come down to luck, a mistake by the referee or any number of other variables that make life and soccer unpredictable. 

It’s why World Cup favorite Brazil, despite its statistical superiority, only has a 18.5 percent probability to win, according to a Goldman-Sachs analysis

Gurpinar-Morgan told me that those sorts of simulations, updated during the World Cup, can help put a team’s progress in context, but they're not very useful in explaining how or why a team wins or loses.

“Useful in a pub discussion with your mates,” he said. “Not always great for determining who will win the World Cup.”

The more I talk about the World Cup with friends, the less interested I am in the favorites and the more excited I am about the stories of players and teams defying expectations. The stats are useful there too, Gurpinar-Morgan said. 

“Data allows you to put a number to something that you chat about at the pub.” 


Match Day 1

RUS vs. KSA, Group A, Luzhniki Stadium Moscow, 11 a.m. ET
The first game features the two worst teams at the tournament, and real potential for national embarrassment. Russia, the host, and Saudi Arabia, the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup, is a better geopolitical matchup than it is a soccer rivalry. The FT called it the "oil state derby."

The Russian government supports President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and is cozy with his Shiite Muslim backers in Iran. The Saudis side with Sunni opposition groups, and are engaged in a wide-ranging proxy fight with their Iranian rivals for influence in the Muslim world.

And more than 30 years ago, the Saudis supported the mujahedeen, sending money for weapons and fighters to Afghanistan to counter Soviet invaders.

None of that will be evident on the field, where the players will try not to be embarrassed by a team representing a country they’d feel ashamed to lose to.  

Read my recent story about Saudi Arabia. And why Russia makes an awkward host.

RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. Italy's Marco Materazzi said that to win the World Cup, a team must be united as friends, not just soccer players. "The day of the final Italy-France, at 5:30 p.m., after the afternoon snack, a few hours before the match … I was in my room on the PlayStation with Francesco Totti and Vincenzo Iaquinta — that says it all."

Read more from Materazzi in The Guardian.

2. Fernando Hierro, who will lead Spain in the World Cup, pleaded with Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales not to fire coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament. Rubiales did anyway. On Twitter, defender Gerard Piqué cited the 1989 University of Michigan basketball team as an example of a squad that emerged victorious despite a huge last-minute coaching shake-up. In case you forgot, the Wolverines won the NCAA title after replacing head coach Bill Frieder right before the tournament with his assistant, Steve Fisher.

Read more about Hierro's first news conference from AS.

3. The United States, Mexico and Canada won the right to host the 2026 World Cup, with global support. The North American bid received 134 votes to Morocco's 65. Though most of its fellow African federations supported Morocco, Asia, Latin America and most of Europe backed the Americans — though Brazil went with Morocco. It was important for North America to get the World Cup, but it was vital for the United States. To suffer two big losses — one on the field in failing to qualify for Russia, and the other in the boardroom — would have been devastating for U.S. Soccer.  Whew. 

4. I got to banter about the World Cup on CheddarTV. Watch me talk about the North American bid, why Spain's decision to fire Lopetegui probably won't affect the team and who I want to win compared with who I think will win. I reserve the right to change my mind multiple times during the tournament based on results.

Watch the video.
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The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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