Study: Why the best soccer teams don't always win

October 1, 2009 by Lin Edwards weblog

( -- A recent study, published in the October edition of the Journal of Applied Statistics, looked at soccer as being an experiment to determine which of two teams is superior, but their analysis found a high statistical probability that the best team might not win.

The study, carried out by Gerald Skinner and Guy Freeman from the University of Maryland, used a Bayesian approach to analyze the games in various types of competitions, including the 2006 World Cup.

The authors proposed that if the games really did reveal which team was best, an intransitive triplet could not occur. (This is where team A plays B and wins, then team B plays C and wins, and finally team C plays A and wins.)

The analysis of the scores of the 2006 World Cup games found that intransitive triplets occurred in 17% of the 355 triplets, which is not much better than the expected random result of 25%. The initial stages basically represent repeated experiments and should produce a more reliable result, according to the study's authors, but the knockout rounds played by the 16 winning teams are not like repeated experiments, and therefore the results are not reliable. The analysis found that in 2006 the best team had only a 28% chance of winning.

The study suggests that a level of confidence could not be obtained unless the game was changed radically, but the idea the authors propose, of having the game continue in extra time until the goal difference is large enough to yield an adequate level of confidence is not workable.

Fans of the 'beautiful game' may also actually like the idea of not knowing for certain which team was going to win anyway.

More information: Journal of Applied Vol. 36, No. 10, October 2009, 1087-1095, 10.1080/02664760802715922
Also available: arXiv:0909.4555v1

© 2009

Explore further: Statistically 'Proven'! Germany Will Be Next Soccer World Champion

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

The hand and foot of Homo naledi

October 6, 2015

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Oct 01, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Oct 01, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 01, 2009
That's exactly right: soccer is really exciting to watch also because the outcome is more random, more than many other sports like baseball or NFL football.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 01, 2009 is really exciting to watch...

I can't believe you have this point of view and still call it soccer... isn't that some sort of cardinal sin?
4 / 5 (1) Oct 01, 2009
Any footer fan will say this is blindingly obvious.
Players often get injured, coaches experiment, refs can make bad calls, the lads can have a night out before the game, monte zumas revenge, ... the list goes on.
Clearly these sporadic events can influence the outcome. Score is a poor metric of a quality. I would want to see more frequent metrics like possession time, shots on goal, passing success.
I think this article is a case of bad statistics.
1 / 5 (3) Oct 04, 2009
I use to be a leader of a boys group. During game time I often placed all the best players on one team and all the poor players on the other. It always amazed me how the poor players kept up with and often beat the better players. What I observed was that the good players tended to play as an individual, while the poor players kept passing the ball to other team members.

I also coached a first grade basketball team (perfect season) our goal was that everyone would get a basket during the season and purposly told the better players to pass the ball to weaker players to achieve this. The other teams couldnt figure this out. They knew who the better players were and guarded them, but our good players passed to weaker players and they scored.
I think poorer teams can beat better teams if they play as a team.
not rated yet Oct 05, 2009
in typical american fashion, the article was illustrated with a photo of women football.
not rated yet Oct 06, 2009
While it's true that "minnows" often have the opportunity to knock off the elite squads from time to time, over the long run quality, especially quality of depth, will allow the better teams to rise to the top year after year. The English Premiere League is a prime example as the "Big Four"--Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea--routinely vie for the premiere league's championship. However, in response to the interesting study, the FA Cup, an all-league tournament open to the smallest teams as well as the top leagues, includes many exciting and unforeseen upsets that make every game a potential, "for-all-time" event that local fans will recall for decades. That's one reason why I love to watch whatever games are broadcast in the States.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.