Today, on 15 June 2010, the Football World Cup in South Africa is in full swing. Since my experiences in trying to make myself understood with regard to my thoughts on the matter have had little success so far, I am taking a completely different approach today. I touch on this and I touch on that. Without any particular polemics or aggressiveness. These are observations that are to be described. There is no concept. I come along everywhere that has to do with the game of football, and I even certainly go a bit beyond that, since it is almost about a world view.
The world view is, of course, thinking in probabilities as usual. That’s how I see the world and I haven’t found a better approach. On the other hand, it is striking that people resist thinking in probabilities. That, too, is gradually becoming understandable. For a statement like “I’ll come to your place tomorrow at 4 p.m.” is popular. It indicates an appointment. Contingencies do not exist and are undesirable. There are people who are considered reliable and others who are considered unreliable. Depending on the situation, everyone has their own picture of the probability of occurrence, but immediately suppresses it. Some people add: “… if nothing comes up.” But the statement: “98.3% of the time I’ll be on time at 4 p.m. tomorrow and 1.63% of the time I’ll be late, between 1 and 30 minutes, but 0.04% of the time I won’t be there at all.” Answer: “And why not?” This should be omitted if possible, otherwise there is the following instruction: “The failure of 0.04% is divided to a large extent into really unforeseen important things that do not tolerate postponement, and a probability of accidents. Of the accidents, road accidents are of course the most likely. But it could also be a household accident, which is not far behind, apart from the really abstruse accidents like lightning striking or flowerpot falling on head. Of the accidents, there are a high percentage that prevent my coming for the moment but are done with an outpatient hospital stay. Others lead to an inpatient stay and the rest to a transfer to the cemetery. Apart from that, the percentages still divide into a part where I can cancel the appearance in time – assuming you are available – and those where I can no longer manage it in time and finally those where it is impossible for me.”
This rather true answer is not only not gladly heard, it is even completely out of the question. It would mean that one would paint the devil on the wall and with such a behaviour would fundamentally stand in the way of making appointments, so none would be made with one any more. One is forced to keep quiet about the remaining percentages. Nevertheless, my father was quite happy to say the following addendum: “I’ll be there tomorrow at 4 pm. God willing.” Because it included everything. He wasn’t a believer, he just put it that way for others to save more difficult words.
Yes, the World Cup. Exactly. I’m almost there. Germany will be world champions. The BILD just wrote that. Polls confirm it. In fact, after the great game and the gigantic opening victory against Australia, the betting market has moved. The odds are going down. Whereas before the World Cup the odds were 15.0, today they are only 11.5 on the betting exchange betfair, for example! That is a huge movement after only one win against a (supposedly clear) underdog. And that brings us to the context. How high is the probability really? Is there a real probability at all? Instead of “really”, you could also say “true” probability. That would have already earned you a pleonasm error at school. “Probability” already contains imponderability. Something seems true. It becomes true or it does not become true. It occurs or it doesn’t. Since the event is in the future, it only seems true. And that to a certain extent.
The question is, of course, whether there is any truth at all. But the discussion should not be opened at this point. There are events that lie in the future. These always have a probability of occurrence greater than 0 and less than 1. The occurrence of these events is possible, but not certain. Impossible would be 0, certain 1. After the experiment has been carried out, after the event has taken place, the value from before moves somewhere between 0 and 1 to exactly 0 or 1. Before it is never 0 or 1, after it is never other than 0 or 1.
Of course, everyone would like to be clever and know what is coming. Restrictions on this would only cause confusion now (does one want to know one’s day of death?). In the knowledge, however, that one never really knows, one likes to wait for the outcome of the event in order to be able to explain afterwards why it could only turn out that way. German football commentators are experts at this, by the way, and have explanations for the outcomes after every game. They always try to be prophets when the score is 2-0 with 5 minutes to go. “The thing is through!” Daring. And in the event of an equaliser, they naturally have an explanation ready, alluding above all to the stupidity and carelessness that, in the feeling of certain victory, led to a few catastrophic mistakes. This does not expose the reporter, but only and exclusively the team that suffered. The fact that there is a probability that there could still be two goals is simply ignored. The fact that one robs oneself and the spectator of any suspense with the remark “Ding ist durch” is another small side aspect. That one would have to become a reporter in itself, because one always hopes to be able to capture the very big spectacle and rather the other way round would have to hope that something still happens, especially in this game, that one would actually have the obligation to tie the spectator to the event, to captivate him by keeping alive the hope for this small miracle, is an aspect that will be of even greater importance elsewhere.
But this kind of thinking is also widespread in other ways. One has a result and tries to draw conclusions from it as to which decisions that could have been influenced caused this result. However, one often enough neglects the fact that the only criterion is the outcome. Possibly there could have been other outcomes. Possibly these were even more probable and one had a favourable influence on them that did not have any effect. Nevertheless, the conclusion would remain the same: There were mistakes. And: it had to happen that way.
However, it is difficult to prove that one did everything right and yet the wrong result came out. You have the wrong result, the one you hadn’t hoped for, and you supposedly make it up as you go along, instead of looking for the error, which, according to common opinion, should lead to an insight. Objectivity is the magic word. But there are already far more than just efforts to carry out such analyses. Here, backgammon is the game where computers have already come a long way with it. Today, backgammon programmes are able to calculate the probability of winning a match based solely on the quality of one’s own moves compared to those of the opponent. Since this is calculated independently of the result and the judgements are no longer doubted by the computer (which is so astonishingly objective that it will even stamp you as “outplayed” in a move if it initially judges you to be wrong on the set analysis level, but right on the next higher one; so in very rare cases you can outplay the computer and find a better move than it would have found; the objectivity is beyond doubt, especially with the ability to make such judgements), you have played better than your opponent, for example. One would have had 58% on the match, even if it was lost.
Very popular here is the example of the substitution of Lothar Matthäus in the 1999 Champions League final, when Bayern was leading 1:0 against ManU, Matthäus also hinted at a substitution according to legend, Bayern was as good as “home and dry”, but conceded two goals in injury time. Afterwards, the coach and Matthäus were criticised for the substitution, and in some cases even blamed. My view: Perhaps the substitution increased the chance at that moment from an already very high 88% to 90% that Bayern would win the title. Because Matthäus was battered and exhausted (speculation!). The fresh man was the better choice. And yet the inconceivable happened, or, to put it better for the example, the more improbable (please bear in mind that there were still a few minutes to play at the time of the substitution, so ManU could have scored the 1-1 before the start of injury time, insofar the chance was perhaps “only” 90% at the time of the substitution; in injury time it was of course far higher). In this case, the substitution would have been the right decision, as it had a positive influence on the outcome, but still the wrong result. Bad luck would be the correct term for it.
Today is 16.6. You can go through the games played so far. You can examine them for quality and entertainment value. You can examine the whole game of football. You could have a go at the really sad coverage here in Germany, which once again seems to be justified by the gigantic performance of the German team against Australia: All very, very weak games. Except when Germany plays. Nevertheless, there seems to me to be something questionable about the verdict “very, very weak”. Günter Netzer, by the way, after the Japan-Cameroon match: “The peak of horror.” The only thing was that the next day, when New Zealand played Slovakia, it was said that this was really the weakest of all the games played so far. It couldn’t get any worse.
Yes, I understood. I’m not supposed to watch. Billions are spent so that the viewer can be lulled to sleep with pleasure. No, really: watching Die Sendung mit der Maus or Queen Mum visits Berlin are by far more attractive pastimes.
Football today is like that. First of all, one should realise that. Leaving aside the exceptional play of the Germans. There is practically never an open exchange of blows any more. Nor do goal festivals or turned games occur. The games in which both teams score a goal at all have to be looked for with a magnifying glass. In this tournament, after 14 games played, there have been four games in which both teams have managed to do so. The 1-1 draw by New Zealand yesterday was a real sensation, as it came in injury time, when, as usual, people seemed to have long since resigned themselves to a 1-0 victory – on the reporters’ side anyway, but also here with the teams. In other words, the spectators had already switched off or were asleep. This did not make it exciting. At the most, after such an event you say to yourself: “Oh, it can happen after all. Then maybe I’ll watch again next time”. North Korea’s 1:2 goal in the evening against Brazil was also only a waste of time. The Brazilians were already leading 2:0 and had everything so far under control. So there was no more suspense in the remaining 5 minutes.
In general, it is – as I predicted, but I am happy to repeat it here, as the trend is guaranteed to continue – the World Cup of low goals. It was already apparent at the 2006 World Cup in Germany that the number of goals was going downhill. At the last World Cup, too, the splash of colour from Germany made us forget some of the uninteresting, boring games. There were neither exciting progressions nor many exciting scenes. That’s been done away with. And the saying: “The game lives from the suspense about the outcome” has long since worn itself out, since this suspense is simply not to be found in the absence of goal scenes.
In the current World Cup, it is being blamed on the first games, where the tension and the worry about a bad start to the tournament are being used as arguments, so that no one is releasing the handbrake. Only I promise it won’t be a bit different in the second round. Especially not in the knockout phase. There, the worries of throwing away the whole tournament because of one mistake will be even greater. By the way, the question about the score of a match, which was so often heard from people passing by a pub where the TV is, can generally be answered: “It’s 0-0.” The few exceptions where it’s 1-0 can almost be forgotten and also just mean: “Oh, how much longer?” “Yes, it’s almost over.” So the winner is decided. It’s always 0-0 until it’s 1-0 and then you know who’s won. Tension? Zero.
Football is like that these days. The answers of the esteemed Otto Rehhagel, which are: “Whoever wins has played well”, are unfortunately archaic. You have to think of the paying spectator, think of all spectators. Football is on the verge of final ruin. Only no one notices. Pure results thinking, which is what the media pretends, should have been abolished long ago. Spectacle must be provided, irrespective of the (demanded) justice and the consistency of the application of the rules. If it goes on like this for a bit longer, eventually no one will watch it any more. It’s a sham that can only be maintained because people are almost forced to. Of course, exactly, because everyone belongs to a nation and thus follows its fate or even the games.
Otherwise: people ask for the result (of the other games), but they don’t watch a game anymore. It is impossible to try to sell something as exciting by explaining to a spectator that he only has to watch patiently for another 10 minutes and then there will surely be a goal. The 10 minutes would be too long anyway, apart from the fact that the shot on goal doesn’t even hit the target and if it does, it is of course easily intercepted, with the comment “too unplaced”, so that if you haven’t slept yet, you will fall asleep at the latest afterwards. “Wake me up after the game and tell me how it ended. 0:0 or 1:0? And if 1:0 then: for whom?” That’s as wide as it gets. The three other games with goals for both teams – almost sensational – were 1:1 games. Then there were two other 2:0s where the already beaten opponent (of course, because: how are you supposed to make up for a 0:1?) conceded a second one in their pointless run.
There is, of course, a very simple way to create tension. The suspense – think of individual exciting scenes, which of course have to be called “goal scenes”, but also exciting sequences; a turned 0:2 or even a 3:3 final result – comes with the goals. That’s just the way it is. The banal “salt in the soup”, without which it simply doesn’t taste good. The remedy: rethinking. This refers primarily to officials, media and the referees. The officials would have to start applying the so simply formulated rule, formulated for the World Cup in the USA of all places in 1994, especially in offside decisions, “in case of doubt for the attacker”, first for offside and later also for foul situations or handball.
There are scrambles in the penalty area at every corner. You can just see that. But there is never a penalty, only a striker’s foul. Is the opinion seriously that it’s always the attackers who foul? For me, the case is even clear that the defenders “work” more on the opponent. Above all, it is the case that defender intervention, the slight tugging or pushing or pulling is so gigantic in its effect that it simply cannot result in a controlled header on target. So if the striker pulls, pushes, shoves in the same way, it hardly bothers the defender because he only has to head in any direction anyway – except into his own goal. Conversely for the attacker, the tiny obstruction already prevents him from taking a targeted shot, so that it is either blocked or misses the target. A rethink here too: When in doubt, give the attacker the benefit of the doubt. Or just like that: balanced. Sometimes for. sometimes against. In any case, “offensive” thinking is demanded: We want goal scenes. The whole world needs the tension again. Demand to all, referees and officials: the goal action is the desirable one. The whistle is the anti-climax.
Perhaps there will be a little too many penalties to begin with. But who do they harm? Only the few fans – compared to the whole world who just want football and spectacle – of the team concerned. Surely their lobby can’t be that big to want to/be able to prevent that? Later, however, the defenders learn what is allowed and what is not. Then you see fair duels. And you would be amazed how often the really excellent attackers would succeed in turning them into goals. Everything would be fine again.
The same goes for handball. The current state of affairs: if they jump to a striker’s hand, the balls, only minimally, he controls the ball as a result, is interrupted. Free kick! If it happens to a defender, he even sticks his arm out, deliberately, it is generously overlooked. “How could he…?” may be heard. But he did, and no harm comes to him. So he repeats.
But woe betide him if the ref otherwise penalises a defender’s handball – and thus decides a game by the penalty, – which is not clearly classified as such by all sides. That was it for his career. Something like that simply must not happen. The referees have developed a simple method and are absolutely solid with it: to always and as early as possible decide against the striker. These “mistakes” – if proven to be such – are very mercifully overlooked and treated leniently.
Here, too, rethinking helps. A goal that is not given, which can decide a game just as much as a goal that is given, should have the same effect in terms of media attention. An offside that is wrongly whistled and often prevents the attacking team from having clear opportunities should either be considered just as bad as an unrecognised offside, or even worse. In practice, however, it happens much more often that offside is given when it was not, than that it is let go when it was. The reason for this is, of course, the media reaction on the one hand, but on the other hand also the fear of deciding the whole game by a wrong decision – which is only felt to be the case with goals that actually do not deserve recognition – and to prevent the referee from reacting emotionally whenever it can be justified. At the very least, the neutral spectator is cheated, robbed of goal scenes.
Back to the probabilities: In every game there is a market estimate. This is expressed in odds. The classic bookmaker may still have his justification, but the greater turnover is almost made on betting exchanges, where private individuals bet against private individuals. This (almost) eliminates the profit margin, which the provider of the betting exchange only gets paid by the winner for arranging the bet, in the lower percentage range. The odds reflect the assessment, or the probability of occurrence, with a fairly simple mathematical relationship. This relationship is called a reciprocal. The reciprocal of the probability of occurrence is the odds, and the reciprocal of the odds is (roughly) the probability of occurrence.
So if Germany is paid with odds of 11.0, the probability of occurrence for the event “Germany will be World Cup winner 2010” is about 1/11 or 9.1%. Of course, this is only the market estimate. If you think it is more likely, you can bet on Germany by clicking on “back” at betfair, or if you think it is less likely than 9.1%, you can go to “lay” and pay the price. If you win, the provider, in this case betfair, takes about 5% of the net profit(!).
Today, by the way, the price fell to 10.0. The reason is clear to me: the allegedly weak performance of the Brazilians against North Korea. Nevertheless, the Brazilians are still ranked ahead of Germany, their odds on becoming world champions are 6.2, so they are roughly given 1/6.2, about 16%.
Here is a table of the chances of advancing on 16 June. The figures are based on the results of a simulation of the specially developed football programme.
Holland 95.10% 4.90%
Germany 92.90% 7.10%
Spain 91.80% 8.20%
Argentina 91.20% 8.80%
Brazil 86.40% 13.60%
Italy 81.10% 18.90%
England 80.90% 19.10%
Ghana 68.00% 32.00%
Japan 66.70% 33.30%
Paraguay 64.20% 35.80%
USA 63.90% 36.10%
France 61.10% 38.90%
Republic of Korea 57.90% 42.10%
Portugal 57.70% 42.30%
Uruguay 56.00% 44.00%
Côte d’Ivoire 50.40% 49.60%
Mexico 48.40% 51.60%
Chile 47.70% 52.30%
Slovenia 44.80% 55.20%
Nigeria 43.70% 56.30%
South Africa 34.50% 65.50%
Slovakia 31.50% 68.50%
Switzerland 31.00% 69.00%
Honduras 29.50% 70.50%
New Zealand 23.20% 76.80%
Serbia 21.20% 78.80%
Denmark 19.90% 80.10%
Cameroon 18.30% 81.70%
Australia 17.90% 82.10%
Algeria 10.40% 89.60%
Greece 7.20% 92.80%
Korea DPR 5.50% 94.50%
There is a good reason why Holland are the biggest favourites: they beat the biggest rival in their group 2-0 in their opening match. The upcoming opponents Japan and Cameroon have produced a winner (Japan), but the latter “only” won 1:0, which could also work to Holland’s advantage in the end. Germany on 2 is clear: high win and easy group. Spain hasn’t even played yet, but is the favourite for the title even for the computer, which of course gives them a high favourite position in the (easy) preliminary round. Argentina already has a somewhat more difficult time despite their opening victory: their opponents South Korea won by a higher margin (2:0 compared to 1:0) and Greece is also not considered a “walkover” despite their weak play. The situation is even more difficult for Brazil, who had “only” the easiest opponent (North Korea) and also won “only” 2:1. Portugal and Côte d’Ivoire cost them quite a few percent as big-name opponents.
It is understandable that North Korea is affected: they lost their opening match and still have Portugal and Ivory Coast as opponents. Very difficult. Greece has it almost as hard: lost to South Korea, Nigeria and Argentina ahead of them. Hard to solve, but still 7.2% remain. Algeria also lost to an easier opponent (Slovenia) and has England and the USA ahead of them. Despite a relatively easy group and a defeat against a top favourite (Germany), Australia also has poor chances, but still has an impressive 17.9%.
Here are the chances of winning the title, generated with the same simulation:
Who will be world champion?
South Africa 0.80%
Republic of Korea 0.50%
Côte d’Ivoire 0.50%
New Zealand 0.00%
Korea DPR 0.00%
It’s baffling that Spain emerge as clear favourites here too, especially as they have yet to play a match, which should put them at a disadvantage against their already victorious rivals. Argentina at 2 is also slightly surprising, but may very well have to do with favourable subsequent pairings after the preliminary round, as they will face teams from the fairly easy Group A in the round of 16. Brazil, of course, always stay in, Holland is already discussed, behind them still England, which seems surprising given the unfavourable result in the first game, but from the relatively easy draw in their group with Algeria and Slovenia they can still pretty well finish 1st, presumably avoiding Germany, thereby having an easy draw again with the group runner-up. Speculation, sure. But in computer logic, percent comes to percent, in its own way. So Germany only follows in 6th place, but this is essentially in line with the market assessment.
There would be many more exciting results, but for today we will stick to these two.