Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Jumping into conclusions in soccer tournaments

It is well-known that soccer is a very unpredictable sport. Narrow scores, a fluid game and a round ball conspire to make it fundamentally uncertain (with some structure). That’s why one should be careful before jumping into conclusions, or at least keep questioning them all the time.

For example, for some years now, the initial conclusion by Palacios-Huerta and Apesteguia that 60% of the time, a penalty shoot-out is won by the team kicking first, is now questioned with better evidence (it is probably closer to a non-significant 53%, and in the last World Cup most shoot-outs were won by the team kicking second).

Being a socialdemocrat from a non-capital city, two of my preferred hypotheses about soccer are that western European national teams are better than the Eastern teams basically because of socialdemocracy integrating immingrants (as suggested by the great journalist Simon Kuper), and that club teams from non-capital cities are better than teams from national capitals (as suggested by Kuper and Szymanski in Soccernomics, if I remember well). I love it when evidence is consistent with these hypotheses. But then the Czech Republic defeated the Netherlands, Ukraine defeated Sweden (a socialdemocratic paradigm country) and Chelsea defeated Manchester City.

One option that would make me happy is to credit socialdemocracy for the victories of western European teams and blame managers and referees for the defeats, but it is probably fairer to provisionally conclude that socialdemocracy needs constant renewal… also in sport.

The next game may always qualify a previously clear story. The non-scoring Spain of the first two games of the Eurocup is now the top scoring team, after 10 goals in the last two games. Now everybody in Spain believes of course that Spain will win the tournament. I would urge patience and openness to the idea of defeat.

Yesterday, Gary Lineker put to bed his “Germany always win” phrase. As Branko Milanovic argued in a nice paper some years ago, inequality has increased among club teams, but decreased among national teams. That is probably because any country in the world now sends the best players to the top club teams in Europe, with the best facilties, medical doctors, colleagues… But there still seems to be a middle income trap, because no African or Asian team has ever won the World Cup or reached the final.

The home field advantage (HFA), which seemed immortal, has declined over time, to the extent that UEFA has finally eliminated the double value of the goals scored away in too-leg rounds. VAR and the pandemic have almost eliminated the contribution of the referees to the HFA, but there is still some residual HFA, which means that factors other than referees (which were supposed to have vanished according to the book “Scorecasting”) still remain.

I would love Luis Enrique’s Spain winning the Eurocup. It would confirm some of the hypotheses I love: a manager that does not like superstars, a national team without members of the big capital club team, offensive play and ball possession… However, if the Spanish national team reaches the final and wins, it will basically be by luck.

No comments:

Post a Comment