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Football glory remains a statistical dream

Who will be lifting the coveted trophy? Pundits have some prognoses

(Keystone)

Who will win the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa? One Swiss mathematician thinks he may have the answer – and it’s not Switzerland.

Roger Kaufmann predicts that Spain – who are in Switzerland’s group – and Brazil are in with the best chance. The Swiss team, on the other hand, may only make it to the final 16.

There is less than a week to go until the tournament begins on June 11, but Switzerland’s “Nati” has shown poor form in its warm-up friendlies, losing 1-0 to Costa Rica on Tuesday evening. No forward has scored in five matches.

Coach Ottmar Hitzfeld has said that he is “not bothered” by the team’s performance. The squad faces world champions Italy in its last preparation game in Geneva on Saturday.

Kaufmann says there is some World Cup hope. “In the group phase Switzerland have about 40 per cent chance of going into the round of 16. It’s not that great a chance, but it is realistic to go through,” he told swissinfo.ch.

“When we look further to them becoming World Champions, that’s about a 1.1 per cent chance, which is not really realistic.”

According to Kaufmann’s calculations, European champions Spain and Fifa top-ranked Brazil are the most likely to meet each other in the final. Each have around a 15 per cent chance of winning.

Spain pain

Switzerland will face Spain on June 16 in their first game. Kaufmann estimates that the Spaniards have a 60 per cent probability of winning, with a 25 per cent chance of a draw and a 15 per cent chance of a Swiss victory.

Of the eight four-team qualifying group, the top two nations go through to the last 16. Spain (ranked No 2 in the world) should go through from Switzerland’s group H, Kaufmann says, with Chile (ranked 18), Switzerland (24) and Honduras (38) all having roughly the same chance of progressing.

“Many people think Switzerland should beat [Honduras and Chile] but that’s not so likely, according to my calculations. Even against Chile, Switzerland is not really the favourite, it’s about an equal chance for the two teams.”

The 36-year-old football fan, who has a PhD in mathematics and works as a risk manager for an insurance company by day, uses criteria such as the current world rankings and the average number of goals scored per match.

Home advantage

Also considered is the home advantage for South Africa and the continent advantage for other African teams. The results are then generated through Kaufmann’s specially developed “dynamic sport analysis” system.

Predictions will be updated as the tournament progresses.

At the moment North Korea is given the smallest chance of lifting the trophy at just 0.1 per cent. But Swiss and North Korean fans should not despair, says Kaufmann.

“As long as there is a certain probability there is also a chance of doing it,” he said.

It has not been unknown for outsiders to pull off a surprise – Greece won the 2004 European championships.

Further afield

Kaufmann is not alone with his prognoses. Bookies mostly have Spain as the favourite to carry off the trophy – at 4/1 just ahead of Brazil at 5-1 and England and Argentina, both at around 7-1. Switzerland languishes at around 200-1.

Economists have also been trying to hit the back of the net. Experts using quantitative analysis at Swiss bank UBS believe Brazil will be the winners. They have discounted Spain – and England – because of their dismal histories at the World Cup.

Spain has never won a World Cup, whereas Brazil’s Seleção is five-time champion. England has won it once – back in 1966.

Goldman Sachs also favours Brazil, while JP Morgan has plumped – to much joy on the isle – for England.

Tips

Kaufmann has a few tips for Hitzfeld. If the Switzerland-Spain game stands 1-1 in the final minutes, he would advise taking risks because, statistically, the Swiss coach can gain much more from going for victory – and thereby risking losing – that he would from defending a draw.

Winning 2-1 would increase the Nati’s probability of making the next round significantly more than losing 1-2 would lower it, he explains.

“This is not intuitive,” Kaufmann said. “Most Swiss would say that a draw with Spain is a good result so why should we risk losing the match.”

Another hint: players should avoid red cards the first half as this is worse than conceding a goal, from a probability point of view.

And has Kaufmann had a call yet from Hitzfeld – a maths and sports teacher by training?

“Up till now, not yet, unfortunately,” he said. “But I would be keen to speak to him one day about these probabilities.”

Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch

Outsiders’ luck

Greece were not tipped to win the 2004 European Championships, and caused a big upset when they beat host nation Portugal in the final. Germany, Italy and Spain were knocked out in the group stage.

In 1992, Denmark won the European Championships, despite not even being in the original line-up. They took the then Yugoslavia’s place, which dropped out over its internal disputes. The Danes won against the reigning world champions Germany, having ousted defending European champions the Netherlands in the semifinals.

In the World Cup, an upset was caused by West Germany in the final in Bern in 1954. The team, not then the football powerhouse they are now, beat the favourites Hungary 3-2. Hungary were 2-0 ahead after only eight minutes, but West Germany battled back to level the score. The match winner came in the second half.

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Swiss match dates

June 16: Spain
June 21: Chile
June 25: Honduras

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