I know it sounds like the beginnings of a joke, but in 2010 an octopus hit the limelight through successfully “predicting” the results of the football World Cup. When the next World Cup rolled around in 2014 there were a plethora of other animals jostling for the honour of following the octopus’s metaphorical (and wet) footsteps. The success or otherwise of these animals’ ability to predict results shows that predicting football results, particularly in the football World Cup is rather tricky. Chance may do similarly well as experts. If anyone was able to predict football results with regularity the game would be both financially lucrative for them and also rather dull. One of the beauties of football is that is hard to predict, but why?
There are clearly multiple contributing factors to what makes football unpredictable (even if you are octopus), the even quality of teams, the high value of one goal and difficulty in analysing every player and team are just some of the more obvious ones. The current World Cup is even tougher as it accentuates these factors.
Firstly, the qualifying process for the World Cup is generally tough and long, with just 32 teams making it to the final tournament. When almost every country in the world considers football an important, if not the most important, sport the rigorous qualification process ensures all the included teams are strong.
The tough qualifying process leads on to the second point, that when teams are relatively evenly matched the usual importance a single goal becomes amplified. Football is almost unique in its small margins of victory. One event in the passage of 90 minutes can easily decide the result. Fully controlling the game for 90 minutes is challenging even for the best sides. This is a contributing factor to why refereeing is so often discussed. Anticipating all the possible chance events that could occur within a match is largely impossible, as such is predicting who will win a tight match.
The third, but by no means least important factor is it is very difficult as a fan, or as a professional within football for that matter, to accumulate and analyse the necessary information needed to make a judgement on the quality of an international football team. It is therefore tempting to base predictions on what one already knows. That is to assume the lands with strong leagues, or superstar players (England & Messi being two such examples) will also have good teams. But this is faulty logic, particularly when it concerns strong leagues. Football, as noted, is a game that encapsulates the entire world, the best leagues’ teams have the most money and are capable of finding and recruiting players from the world over. This can theoretically even have a damaging effect on the development of a national football team. Superstar players clearly have a more direct, positive impact on their national sides, but one individual presence cannot compensate for 10 other poorer players. Research into basketball suggests deciding to use your salary cap to pay for a superstar player works as well, if not better, than trying to spread your budget wider. But basketball has 5 players on the court. The reduced influence of a single superstar player in a football team makes understanding and judging the other players in each World Cup team more important than just knowing the stars. Unfortunately, where the World Cup is concerned the average fan will not have even heard of the majority of players. It isn’t possible to follow every world league in any depth. Even following just one countries highest league could, and often does, consume a great deal of attention.
Whilst trusting a octopus is strange, basing predictions on current knowledge is only natural, but it is fraught with bias and misinformation. Combine this with the other factors affecting a football match’s outcome, such as official’s decisions, and prediction becomes incredibly tough. It is an impressive tribute to the human brain’s ability to fill in the gaps and make a judgement that can be right even some of the time.