What can science tell us about the FIFA World Cup?


“Compared to football I think Quantum Physics is relatively straightforward.”

For once, Professor Stephen Hawk­ing is out of his depth. While most of us are content to root for the boys this summer by donning the colours of Saint George and watching the group D clash­es down at the pub, the former Lucasian Chair of Mathematics has taken a more active role in following the plight of the Three Lions in Brazil; he’s undertaken a study resulting in a formula express­ing the probability that England will win a given match, as well as a formula incorporating the factors to consider for taking the perfect penalty (presumably since Englishmen are notoriously bad at this aspect of football.)

He does admit, however, that “it’s a funny old game” where “all mathemat­ics, science and rational thought go out of the window”. And while it’s impor­tant to stress that his study is all “a bit of fun” (and this is according to betting agent Paddy Power, who commissioned it) – there’s certainly no need for Roy Hodgson to brush up on his maths skills – Hawking is not the only person to offer scientific analysis of the 2014 FIFA World Cup ahead of the opening matches.

Scientists across the globe have contributed their own studies of some aspect of this year’s tournament, add­ing to the deliberation and excitement surrounding the sporting event. But is any of their science actually useful in predicting how the competition will pan out?

There may be ‘exciting finishes’ as teams with greater stamina overpower their opponents

Let’s start with Hawking: a world-renowned and highly decorated theo­retical physicist he may be, but his latest project won’t bring him any commen­dation (only short-lived publicity); his models are completely meaningless.

He has analysed the outcome of previous tournaments – the 45 Eng­land matches since their 1966 glory and the 204 penalties taken in all the shootouts to date – and related them to several variables which he believes are ‘explanatory’, such as temperature on match day, stadium altitude and ref­eree nationality in the case of England’s matches and player age, length of run-up and goalkeeper movement in the case of penalties.

But it is arguable as to whether the empirical equations he has formed from this scrutiny even count as science – many would demote them to the rigour-deficient area of “pseudo­science”.

However, in his defence, while it is sil­ly to try and form a mathematical equa­tion with them, most of the variables he has identified will have an effect on the tournament outcome. Many have been studied in depth by others.

For instance, sports scientists from participating countries with more tem­perate climates have been investigating ways to help their players cope with the stifling heat and humidity experienced near the equator. The conditions mean that players produce more sweat and they also become fatigued more rap­idly due to an increased heart rate as the body diverts blood to the skin.

The result is that players who can just about endure 90 minutes in their cooler home country are likely to tire significantly near the end of matches in Brazil – consequently there may be ‘exciting finishes’ as teams with greater stamina overpower their opponents.

What other scientific analysis is avail­able to football fans?

Several researchers have tackled the Brazuca, the official ball of the tourna­ment. The two predecessors to the Brazcua (which were also designed by Adidas, who have provided every World Cup football since 1970) were criticised for having an erratic flight path; fortu­nately for competitors in this tourna­ment, researchers have unanimously concluded that the trajectory of the Bra­zuca is predictable.

The main reason, according to NASA engineer Dr Rabi Mehta, who is among those to conduct aerodynamic testing in a wind tunnel, is related to the rough­ness of the ball exterior.

“The smoother you make the ball, the higher the speed at which it knuck­les” he said, referring to the “knuckling effect”, whereby the ball wobbles as it moves through the air. 2010’s Jabulani was smoother than the Brazuca and hence knuckled at greater speeds – those which coincided with the typical kicking speed of 80 to 90 km/h – thus it generally followed a capricious path that proved a nightmare for goalkeep­ers four years ago.

On the contrary, the knuckling speed of the Brazuca is too low to have much of an effect on the average shot or pass, as with most traditional footballs. Adi­das ensured this was the case by add­ing small dimples to the ball surface and manipulating the geometry of the seams and the number of panels.

The stable behaviour of the Brazuca is likely to result in a higher amount of shots on target relative to the to­tal number of shots, but goalkeepers should be more competent when faced against a more calculable projectile, so there will not necessarily be more goals.

Finally, several companies including Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg have been number-crunching in an effort to predict this year’s winner – of course alongside the bookmakers, who have the opportunity to make excessive sums of money from the tournament.

However, nothing is certain in foot­ball – one of the reasons it is so exciting. It’s safe to say that the Brazuca may be predictable, but the football will not be.


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