World Cup Math Prediction: Brazil 48.5% Chance of Winning!!!


The World Cup is back, and everyone’s got a pick for the winner. Gamblers have been predicting the outcome of sporting contests since the first foot race across the savannah, but in recent years a unique type of statistical analysis has taken over the prediction business. Everyone from Goldman Sachs to Bloomberg to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has an online World Cup predictor that uses numbers, not hunches, to generate precise probabilities for match outcomes. Goldman Sachs, for instance, gives host nation Brazil a 48.5 percent chance of winning it all; FiveThirtyEight puts the odds at 45 percent while Bloomberg Sports has concluded there’s just a 19.9 percent chance of a triumph for the Seleção.

Where do these numbers come from? All statistical analysis must start with data, and these soccer prediction engines skim results from former matches. A fair bit of judgment is necessary here. Big international soccer tournaments only come around every so often, so the analysts have to choose how to weight team performance in lesser events such as international “friendlies,” where nothing of consequence is at stake. The modelers also have to decide how far back to pull data from—does Brazil’s proud soccer history matter much when its oldest player is 34?—and how to rate the performance of individual players during their time playing for club teams such as Manchester United or Real Madrid.

Wherever the data comes from, the modeler now has to incorporate it into a model. Frequently, the modeler translates the question of “who is going to win?” into the form “how many goals will team X score against team Y?” And for this, she relies [PDF] on a statistical tool called a bivariate Poisson regression.

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Statistics and mathematics is useful after all! Only time will tell if the prediction is correct.

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