1) Preliminary skirmish

Naturally, I watched and followed the eagerly awaited clash between Werder Bremen and Hamburger SV, the UEFA Cup semi-final first leg of the 2008/2009 season, on television last night. The “special eyes” with which I, as a professional player, always have to look at it, I can put it this way in advance:

There is, of course, a certain “basic assessment” for such a match as far as the distribution of chances is concerned. Two questions are certainly interesting: Who will advance? And: How will the game end today? There are betting offers for both questions on the betting market that you can deal with. And then there is the additional question: How do I position myself personally? What do I bet? Or do I accept the current assessments and play nothing?

You can derive this basic assessment in different ways. I am supported in my work by my computer, which I have not only fed with heaps of data, but which is also capable of calculating the parameters classified as relevant with each other and, in turn, making an assessment. An “assessment”, in contrast to the work of a prophet (of whom I know very few really successful ones, but that’s certainly my fault), involves “coming up” with probabilities for the possible outcomes of the game. Since I approached the matter in a principled and very basic way, my computer provides me with numbers (these are probabilities) for all possible events. However, I have concentrated on events that are “appropriate for the game of football and its character”. So my computer does not tell me how many corners one team or the other will have, or what percentage of possession one team or the other will have. The numbers may be “interesting”, but they are not really “relevant” for the outcome of the match.

So my computer “only” calculates how many goals one team or the other will score. If you add up these numbers of goals, you get a probability for each possible result (this is untrue: 20 goals or more for one team is the end, results beyond that go under “residual probabilities”). Then you add up all the results in which team 1 scored more goals, that’s the home wins in percent, you add up the results in which both teams scored the same number of goals, that’s the draws (in percent, and that’s by putting them in proportion to the total number), the rest are the away wins.

So I then have probabilities for all results in particular, but also overall for win, draw, defeat. In addition, my computer is able to “predict” the first and second halves, according to the same principle, only divided between halftime 1 and halftime 2 (after long-term studies, the effect is of course sufficiently taken into account per parameter that there are clearly more goals in the second half than in the first).

This assessment, which my computer has produced, is of course checked intuitively by me. My computer and I have long since become good friends. I know in advance where it could exaggerate with certain effects and where else it could “get it wrong”, contradict intuition. One task then, of course, is still to find out where he is nevertheless right, despite his contradictory intuition, and when he is really “wrong”. But one can at some point with experience, even without much effort, make all assessments out of one’s head. Just as many of the conventional oddsmakers have been doing for ages (“Hertha – Hannover? That’s a 1.70”).

But then the market comes in. And nowadays the market “reacts”. In the past, there were often so-called “fixed odds”. The provider wrote down a number (i.e. the odds), trusted it and “stuck with it” until kick-off. Today, the odds are simply “adjusted” depending on which side is betting more. The whole market “moves”. There are betting exchanges where the teams are “traded”, there is the Asian handicap, which allocates the handicaps in such a way that the entry probabilities for both sides are as balanced as possible. The point of this is to keep the attractiveness equally high for both sides and thus ensure balanced betting behaviour. In any case, it affects practically every game that is offered and bet on in the betting market that the prices move and then one can use the finicky term that one has to “position oneself in the market”. Of course, this means that you have to find a favourable time, if possible, to “buy in” to the side you would like to support. The laws are very similar to the laws of the stock exchange. But in football and football betting nowadays there is an additional effect: you can bet on the game “live”, i.e. during the game.

Of course, any number of things can happen that shift the odds. One is the advance of time, which of course already inevitably causes a shift in the odds (exception here sometimes: very even games). Normally there is a favourite in a game. And if that favourite does not take the lead for a long time (needless to say: this is anything but the exception), then its chances of winning the game worsen. Another effect that causes a shift in chances is, of course, red cards. But the greatest influence comes from a goal.

In the Werder – HSV match, too, all this happened before the game. I had made my assessment, the market had a little bit of an inclination towards a Werder success. You can see that in the fact that the price is falling a little. The more money is bet on Werder, the worse the price, the odds. Clearly. The providers (it certainly refers to all the others, but I only play on the Asian market because of the higher limits and the hassle-free gambling, as well as the fairest betting offers). At the same time, HSV rises because this is supposed to “attract” bets, i.e. money. Then the game evens out again from the provider’s point of view and he has a reliable profit on all possible outcomes (at least in theory).

Werder had opened at the Asian handicap with -0.5 goals and a rate of around 1.90. The 0.5 goals they had to make up represent the traditional winning rate. Whenever they score at least one goal more than HSV, they have made up the 0.5 goal deficit and won in that sense (also traditional), whenever they do not make up the 0.5 goals, they have lost in the sense of the handicap. Whoever plays Werder needs the event “victory Werder”, whoever plays HSV needs the event “no defeat”. Draw is just as good as victory HSV.

Through the course shift, something else still happens: another handicap is offered. To explain this handicap, I would like to mention it here only briefly (I have the entire explanation in an additional chapter “The Betting Market”): The handicap that is offered is then the handicap “-0.75 goals”. The effect triggered by a quarter-goal handicap can be described as follows: If Werder wins by exactly one goal and you played Werder with -0.75, then you only win half of the bet. Only if Werder wins by two goals do you win the entire bet. On the other hand, if you played HSV with +0.75, then if HSV lost by exactly one goal you would have lost only half of the bet. Intended effect on the part of the provider: Werder was bet (much) more than HSV. The provider is possibly threatened to actually lose money if Werder wins, he is “at risk”. He doesn’t want that, so he makes the betting offer on HSV more attractive (these are market movements, sure; but market movements refer not only to prices, but also to the handicaps themselves). Then perhaps a few smart people (and it is fair to say this in view of the actual HSV victory) bet HSV with the improved offer. Both sides, provider and player, have achieved their goal: the one has received an attractive odds offer (more favourably than anyone before him), the provider has, in the true sense of the word, “balanced his book”. He has stepped out of the risk.

The elaborateness with which I explain the whole thing here was not at all planned or intended in this form. It “just happened”. But I find it both interesting and understandable. And who says at which point one has to acquire which knowledge? Nevertheless; much more in-depth explanations in the chapter “The Betting Market”.

The market was oriented towards Werder. Quite understandable for me. In the last two weeks, the media have been telling us that Werder is the fresher team, that HSV is losing strength, and that Werder is the “better team” anyway. On top of that, Diego has “worked his magic” lately and Werder has already “won” the DFB Cup match (not in my sense; a victory in a penalty shootout has no greater significance for me than a coin toss; on the other hand, I still admired Tim Wiese’s saves).

So you can even see what the market is oriented towards. Taking all this into account, and consulting my computer, I came up with a “pass”. That was my position on the game: no bet. How nice, just to watch football. Restful, relaxing.

2) Now to the subject:

There are always two things that stand in the way of pure anticipation of such a game: one is the mostly unpleasant interpretation of the rules by the referees (I also have plenty of “material” on this, primarily texts; but it doesn’t belong here now) and the second annoyance for me is our reporters. Well, I have already given plenty of vent to this topic elsewhere (for example, those interested could visit my homepage paule@wetten.de and read the section “Views on Football”). Nevertheless, I’ll make it an exemplary topic here. every crisis is an opportunity, I thought to myself, my crisis was a “betting crisis” (I simply hadn’t placed any) and our dear Premiere channel has a very serious reporter crisis.

So I grabbed a paper and pen and jotted down some of the highlights. I’ll even content myself at this point with the first 10 minutes, which should actually force any thinking person to switch off. But I persevered…

The game began. The friendly gentleman was obviously in great form, because at the beginning he even managed to get a certain, meaningful vibration in his voice. At the beginning, one really had the impression that he was not yet sure how the game would end, that he himself might be tense, and even more that he might want to live up to his calling as a sports reporter and convey this tension to me (as well as to the other spectators, of course). I can’t be fooled so easily and I only succumbed to the fallacy for a very short time, no, I didn’t even draw it in the first place.

After only one minute, Olic suddenly appeared alone in front of Wiese. Of course, I would have thought that the spectators would have been involved, that they would have observed a moment of suspense, that they would have felt suspense themselves, and that they would have had no inhibitions, on the contrary, that they would have felt a form of euphoria, that they would have been allowed to be present at this exciting moment, and that they would have had the exclusive right, as the first and only person at this moment, to convey this moment of suspense to the spectators. The reporter did anything but that. At least in terms of content, his voice yesterday remained surprisingly and far above norm “excited”: “Olic, with a slight offside suspicion.” At the word “…suspicion” he pulls his voice up like this, which would indicate tension just by the tone of voice. The content, of course, is a clear drop in tension. Because if the goal were to fall now, then the “error analysis” would be opened immediately, already with this sentence it is virtually prepared. If he were in it, he would not convey drama and enthusiastically shout “Tooooooor”, but merely want to check his judgement: “Yes, 1:0 for HSV (monotonously spoken, voice dropping). But we have to check whether it was not offside.

It is almost routine that the slow motion then clearly revealed the “not offside” and that our esteemed colleague does not focus on his error at all. He is and remains clever, and cleverer than me and you. We can do whatever we want. And even shout at the screen: “No, you see, it was offside.” He doesn’t say anything more about it.

But of course he can talk himself out of it by saying that Werder had a great chance (as I saw it) on the other side. Diego had made his way through very well and was able to shoot quite freely from about 18 metres. The shot was also well placed. Nevertheless, I would not be a little surprised if the goalkeeper still held it. For me, all around a successful and exciting action, top performance, and that is possible, from both parties. I found it exciting, the question of whether it would go in or not. I also didn’t know if it would be a goal. But the reporter had already put his focus on a detail that, for me at least for the moment, was absolutely irrelevant: “Rost lets the ball bounce forward.” An HSV defender then got to it first, the situation was resolved.

Look, for me it would be like this: a game cannot start more beautifully, more excitingly. It was two excellent, great actions that simply whet the appetite for more. If I were a reporter, I would try to captivate the spectator. And if I actually knew what all was wrong with which action and how much, then I would still see my task in conveying a tension to the viewer. Comparable, then: if you are watching a crime thriller with a partner and you already know the culprit, so you are watching for the second time, I don’t think it is advisable to name that culprit. Nor to comment on the next scene or what who will say next and how that scene will resolve, who cheated on whom and when what will happen. You know, but you have a sacred duty to keep it to yourself.

So does this speaker: he already seems to know that Diego’s shot is “holdable”, that there’s “no way it’s going in”, the only relevant question is: does he hold it or drop it? But even that is already answered by him with “he lets it bounce forward…”. The only sense here is that the mistake has already been made. Now the ball just has to hit the ground. The culprit has already been identified. Do you understand?

So if the rebound were now to be sunk by a Bremen attacker, the tension would be out of the scene, above all because of this preparatory commentary. Now it’s in. Then, of course, it’s: “Yes, Rost can’t hold the ball, but if he can, he has to deflect it to the side. So we (very important, this “we”, although I’m absolutely not in the boat with the man; I don’t blame anything at all; I want suspense and have my own judgements) simply have to chalk it up to the goalkeeper.”

There is no such thing as a “quality of action” for the man. A successful dribble, a body trick, a well-placed shot, all that exists only in my imagination. What makes football, what makes it exciting and fascinating, is wiped off the table with a single, devastating sentence. Goalkeeper error and that’s it. They let themselves be taken by surprise.

Among other things, I’m mentioning this here because I really got a picture of it. I only listen to sound option 2 on Premiere, the foreign games with foreign commentary. Yesterday, for example, on the eve of the match Kiev – Donetsk. And although I may claim (with little pride) that I don’t speak a word of Ukrainian, I can assure you that the tone of voice of the announcers alone (! Yes, there are always two or more abroad; prevents the one we have from just talking nonsense and no one can correct him) conveys to me a tension that makes me just watch it, that almost forces me to do so.

Our speakers are simply, and I am deliberately using a word they themselves introduced into the vernacular, “underground”. Take the tension out of it, always be clever, always confirm misjudgements themselves (typical: “For me, that wasn’t a foul. Let’s look at the slow motion – yes, we can see it there. Clearly, no foul!” Unfortunately, I, the beginner, the brainiac, I, the giant dummy, saw a foul. But my TV doesn’t react to shouts. It’s still the same guy talking … and still celebrates himself…”). And it is very important to be a prophet. And here, too, I follow a well-known proverb: “True prophets wait for events to happen.” So in the 88th minute, with the score at 2-0, you can confidently say: “Nothing more is happening here.” I could puke. Not only does he want to rob me of any remaining tension. He also wants to be clever. To use what everyone knows intuitively as a prophecy. And, even worse than that: if he were to experience the one game where it would still come to an equalisation, he would have already lost his audience. All those who trusted him, for whom the tension that was never really tightened anyway finally went completely slack, had long since left the programme. And it doesn’t matter to them whether the party that was still in the lead “gave the game away” through “sheer carelessness”, “serious lapses in concentration …”, “they all checked it off too early” or because of “collective deep sleep”. But even if I was still listening to it: the man has missed his job. Or do they all think so fondly of the heartbroken spectators, whom one must by no means excite too much?

Do you know what a really nice commentary I heard at the English game West Brom – Liverpool the other day? It was 2-0 to Liverpool after 86 minutes, for the clear favourites. I only heard the English commentary, but I’m sure that the German commentary had already started the chants of farewell (certainly already in the 64th minute, after the 2:0). But the English one: “It’s certainly now-or-never time for West Brom.” That goes down like oil, a real blessing. You watch it because he makes it so exciting, “It’s now-or-never time for West Brom.” So if they’re going to get anything else, it’s got to happen now. That’s exactly what’s appropriate. Everyone knows that a 0-2 for the underdog with four minutes to go is almost impossible to come back from. But it’s “now or never.” That’s right, nothing clever, nothing stupid, that’s the way it is and the tension remains.

Here are a few shots I took during the Werder game:
Immediately afterwards there was another exciting scene. A long ball forward, where suddenly, surprisingly for everyone, a Hamburg attacker suddenly had quite a lot of space, and that too on the edge of the penalty area. Our “heart-patient preserver” commented: “…this relatively clear offside position, not shown…”. Nothing, no tension for him. What if a goal was scored now? As above, he talks about offside. But a few more questions in this context: how did he perceive the “offside or not” so quickly? Why are there assistant referees with their flags? Why would there actually be slow motion for such cases, with which one could, even if “irrelevant”, still examine the scene later? Does he always and consistently have to rob me of any form of suspense? For me it was a goal situation, you “have to be there”. Error analysis, even if it concerned the referee team assigned to it, can only be discussed at all afterwards. That is completely subordinate. And I also have a very firm conviction for this scene: it was not offside. Why am I so lonely in the world?

Here’s another example: It was 1:0 for HSV. A beautiful attack, a “deadly pass”, even if only on the outside, an attacker, even the smallest, gets into position at the far post, the attacker, who is free on the outside, crosses the ball to the far post as instructed, a beautiful header against the direction of the goalkeeper, a kind of “header lift”, and HSV leads.

The reporter’s commentary, in unusual exuberance: “It was the best attack in this game. But that Trochowski, of all people, the smallest player on the pitch, headed…”

All the beauty, which can also be proven in detail, as I did, with quality features, unfortunately escaped the reporter. Even if he had once used the word “scholastic”, I would still be interested to know who taught it at which school or which “school” he had followed. But he didn’t even. And the wisdom at the end, I think, he essentially took from the result, namely the goal. Now let someone contradict him. It was the best attack. If you little moron considered another one that didn’t result in a goal to be better, then I’ll just laugh at you. Mine was goal, yours wasn’t, now whose was better? So even that is still being “converted” into his own footballing mind afterwards. Simply ridiculous. Unfortunately, I can’t laugh out loud like that. Because today I have to face this kind of noise nuisance again…

And in the repetition I also have to cope with the following “knowledge outburst”: “There you see the positional error.” And then the crowning touch: “You can’t give Trochowski that much space.” Oh dear. If stupidity hurt… But it just doesn’t. Or the man is painless. No, it does hurt, and it hurts me. Spare me the thought of having to think about the person responsible for the programme now. Because: the speaker here obviously can’t help it. But the one who lets him? There is also the following little detail. And that is in the “you”. You are allowed that much space… The thought he conveys unspoken: “Well, you must know, that’s just how we talk among ourselves, we Bundesliga players. And I, who played against him 12 years ago in youth and later x times in the Bundesliga, can tell you this: you can’t give him that much space. That’s where he scores his goal. So get closer next time, Per. You have to know, my old buddy, Per Mertesacker, is very talented, but here and there I still have to take him by the hand.” The man is a real “insider”. They’re all his mates. What I fear: he was never remotely qualified as a ball boy. The reason? Unsuitable!

I didn’t see any positional error. But then, I’m a layman. I’ll just say this much about it here: An Englishman would have commented on the scene like this: “They look stretched at the back.” The defence was “overstretched”. You do that by playing a “through ball”, a deadly pass where the interplay has to work perfectly to avoid offside, then you create temporary superiority because the defenders have to run out the back all the time because of the omnipresent offside trap thanks to modern tactics, but after the successful “through ball” they rush back (too late) and you have one more attacker than defender. Then there is the art of the strikers crossing, which makes it harder for the defender to cover both of them, then there is the perfection of the cross to the one who is then free, and then he must also sink the ball. Have you not read my “school book”?

None of that exists for our reporter. But I have a well-founded suspicion: he simply doesn’t know anything about all this. So how could he enlighten me? It would also be difficult for me if I had to explain to you how to milk a cow … I simply don’t know.

A few more examples? Alright: HSV has a counterattacking opportunity. But they don’t take advantage of it, they “don’t play it out”, in the best reporter’s jargon. They take the tempo out and temporarily play ball control. All legitimate and for me “normal”. They were also under pressure at the time. Nothing happened at all. Our expert also analysed the situation very aptly: “Of course the Hamburgers are in no hurry.” A positive highlight. What’s this all about? Well, I’m just imagining the scene from Bremen’s point of view, where it could have happened in exactly the same way. Because sometimes it’s the case that our reporter’s beautiful imagination starts to blossom and when he’s on the counterattack, which obviously then always promises a lot of free playing space, he wants to drive the attack forward with his own power and it just doesn’t make sense to keep running forward. You wouldn’t create a goal, you’d get bogged down. Imagination or not. Then it also happens that “the tempo is taken out” and one waits for the teammates. You simply have to. Not every attack can lead to a goal. In fact, much less than that: practically no attack leads to a goal. A goal is the absolute exception. But if it had happened to Werder, the same scene, he would have commented on it, but differently. And it would have been like this: “It has to go faster… he’s already taking the pace out again…. now the situation is over.” What would happen if he didn’t know the score?

Here’s a very nice commentary: Werder, who are already getting a lot of gloating because of the score, try a pass to Diego during another promising attack (and there were several in the second half), which doesn’t go in (well, too high). Our reporter shows himself equal to the whole drama of this situation as follows: “Kick-offs to Diego at a height of 1 meter 90 have a manageable success character.” How nice. Great job, I propose it for the “saying of the year” competition. But only for the “gloating” category….

Then even our reciting bore couldn’t escape the tension for a moment (he assured me he tried; but it just got the better of him). Naldo pulled off, who really has a tremendous “pound” and even an often accurate one, and he stooped to such an incredible turn of drama as, “Naldo…. Naldo… And that’s where Rost had to go.” Imagine that! The situation was already so dramatic that HSV already had to resort to its goalkeeper! It’s unthinkable! So there are two possibilities in attacking actions: for one the goalkeeper has to go, for the other not. Goals? Not to think about!

3) Is there another way?

Just so that you don’t accuse me of not at least having thought about whether it couldn’t be done differently. And in the past I simply thought it was the famous “reporter’s German”. For lack of alternatives. Until one day I heard a game with English commentary for the first time. And, surely not entirely by chance, I immediately memorised the first sentence in perpetuity when the English speaker said: “This game could go either way.” I was fascinated, almost blown away. Someone said what I felt about almost every game. Practically every game is close, competitive. And in principle, that’s how you want it. A game that is 3-0 after 30 minutes only interests the fans of the leading team. They can live out their fanaticism for another 60 minutes and shout a few more things at the front. But the neutral spectator? It has to be exciting, close, competitive.

The man didn’t care whether a German wise guy, who theoretically also comments on the game, waits until one team takes the lead to then spout his absolutely ridiculous “…that was indicated in the last few minutes”. He just doesn’t know what’s going to happen, the teams seemed evenly matched, he wants to keep the viewer with him and he says what he thinks. “This game cuold go either way.” The game could go either way. If I ever heard that line from a German announcer…. He doesn’t know either, but he hides it until he knows how it turned out, and then puts it with the inevitability he has long observed. Embarrassing, one would call such a thing. No, you have to call it that. Only: the man simply can’t help it. Stupidity is not such a bad thing. One can rather regret it.

So I’ll now comment once again on all the scenes listed above from an English point of view. First of all, Olic was free through: “There is Olic, Olic, goes for goal, Rost turns out to be winner.” “Good start here. Good opportunity, good keeper, comes out right on time.” “They may have snatched an early lead here.” And “Now, lets look at the replay. No, no offside, clearly onside. Good decision by the referee.”

Then Diego: “Good stepover by Diego, gets into position, steadies himself, Diego lets one fly, Rost just gets a hand to it, noone there for the rebound.” No comment, no analysis, above all no mistake. Just the way it is. Just exciting. And no “smart ass”.

The scene before the 1:0 is already described above. “Good through ball, no offside, they look stretched at the back, perfect cross, and Trochowski puts it away.” No mistakes, no analysis, just capture the action.

It can be done differently, yes, it can definitely be done differently. How high is the edge of your plate?
Look over it, just for today. Listen to a game with English commentary, a game with Spanish, one with Italian, one with French. But what’s the point. We as Germans? The inventors of the world?