World Cup 2018: Of Predictions, Past Patterns and, Well, India!
The FIFA World Cup 2018 gets underway in Russia on Thursday night with the opening fixture between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The FIFA World Cup 2018 gets underway in Russia on Thursday night with the opening fixture between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia.(Photo: Reuters)

World Cup 2018: Of Predictions, Past Patterns and, Well, India!

Gary Lineker, the former English striker, is credited with one of the game’s greatest aphorisms: “Football is a simple game. Twenty two men kick a ball around for 90 minutes. In the end, Germany wins.”

The football World Cup kicks off in Russia, Thursday, 14 June, the biggest sporting event on the planet. Through the tournament, television viewership worldwide is expected to be 3.4 billion, a little less than half the global population.

Since TV broadcast began in 1954, the viewership of the football World Cup has surpassed anything on Earth, including the Olympic Games.

With that sort of excitement, can fans, experts, punters, Tarot card readers – and investment banks – restrain themselves from predicting which out of 32 competing national teams will finally lift the trophy on 15 July?

(For complete FIFA World Cup 2018 coverage, click here to visit our special WC page)

The Predictions Game

UBS, a global investment bank headquartered in Basel, Switzerland has been publishing its predictions about FIFA World Cup outcomes for the last few editions. To cut out the suspense, it predicts Germany will win the 2018 edition, with a 24 percent probability, ahead of Brazil and Spain.

UBS claims its result is based on running 10,000 simulations by a dedicated team of 18 analysts. Their forecast mirrors Lineker’s maxim. (Caveat: it predicted a Brazil victory in 2014, when Germany romped home with the trophy.)

America’s Goldman Sachs has picked Brazil as winner, using it says, sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms. These purportedly chew up thousands of data points, including player characteristics, team dynamics and so on from all national games played since 2005. (Caveat: Goldman has predicted a Brazil victory for the last three World Cups; wrong each time.)

Dutch bank ING (the Netherlands failed to qualify for Russia 2018) predicts a victory for Spain. Its methodology is relatively simple. It has simply summed up the market value of every player in every team and finds Spain to have the costliest team – the underlying assumption being, market value is an accurate index of performance.

Japan’s Nomura adopts more or less the same approach with some bells and whistles and predicts France will meet Spain in the final. Perhaps sensibly, it stops short of predicting who’ll win that game.

The Other ‘Winners’

In 2009, former football writer Simon Kuper teamed up with University of Michigan economist Stefan Szymanski to write ‘Soccernomics’ – a data driven approach to a game generally governed by instinct, adrenaline and animal spirits. Their main conclusion is, three things determine success in international football: Population, wealth and experience.

At the time, they predicted that the next great football powers would be the USA, China and possibly India. Nine years later, this seems laughable. America couldn’t qualify for Russia 2018; China has qualified once, in 2002; India has never come within touching distance of making it to the World Cup finals. The most successful World Cup team in history is Brazil, with five victories. It’s followed by Germany and Italy (which couldn’t qualify in 2018) with four each, Argentina and Uruguay twice and France, England and Spain once each.

The Winning Formula?

The Economist magazine recently speculated that autocratic, totalitarian regimes do well in sports that need rigid discipline and little individual creativity. It pointed to China’s success at the Olympics and its failure in football, which requires a mixture of teamwork and individuality. It sounds plausible, but I wouldn’t push the link between football and politics too hard.

Argentina won its 1978 Cup under the heel of one of the most brutal dictatorships in south America; Brazil’s first three victories between 1958 and 1970 came during a period of political turmoil, including a military coup in 1964. Italy won its trophies through the 1930s and 2006 in a political climate which witnessed 61 regimes between 1946 and 1994, and all pervasive graft after that.

The other factor – wealth – dominates football today, but need not always be thus. In Uruguay’s heydays, in 1930 and 1950, its economy was in a shambles. In fact in 1930, its GDP was below the level in 1913.

Brazil was a poor country during its initial, great run – the average Brazilian made around $3,400 in the 1960s, compared to $14,000 per Briton during the same time. Argentina, with an average income of $5,300 in the 1960s, fared better than Brazil, but nowhere close to prosperous UK.

That leaves experience, the one factor that cannot be disputed. Argentina’s Leo Messi, the greatest player of our time, plays in Barcelona, as does Uruguay’s Luis Suarez; countryman Sergio Aguero is in Manchester City; Brazil’s Neymar is in Paris, Phillippe Coutinho in Barcelona.

African nations like Senegal, which blow up most of their cash on soccer bureaucrats (300 have arrived in Russia), not on players or infrastructure, can still make it because so many of its players ply their trade in European clubs. Egypt’s icon, Mohammad Salah is Liverpool’s and English football’s poster boy.

All these nations which export football talent to wealthy European clubs gain when the expats come home for the big event every four years. This is proof how free movement of people across borders can help both host and home.

I won’t ask you who you’re rooting for in 2018. With the feast of talent that’ll be on display, I wouldn’t hazard a guess about the ultimate winner. But purely as a sentimental aside, this is likely to be Messi’s last Cup and a victory would put him on the same pedestal as the great Maradona. For that, I shall cheer Argentina along. Whatever happens, a great month lies ahead. Enjoy.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached @AbheekBarman.)

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