Jul 3, 2014

Is This World Cup Really Better Than Previous Two?

The World Cup in Brazil is perceived to be the best World Cup tournament among the last few ones. This is according to my circle of friends and acquaintances and me as much as I could be a reliable source. It made me think about what makes a football tournament a good one and why exactly this one is better than the ones in 2006 and 2010. I asked around to gather some opinions and I also decided to go and see some data to find whether it could tell bit more about that.

Why just the previous two?
I did not go further back than 2006 for few reasons. One is that the football has not changed that much for this period. It was a very different game 30 or 40 years ago. Many of the then legendary players would not meet the harsh requirements of the modern game. Another reason is that line-ups are not that different in the broader sense and there is still the influence between the players is still strong. Last but not least is the time for processing the data. 

The data
World Cup publicly available data ready for exploring is not that readily available as one might think. There is good number of websites that provide information for the standings and results but none offers free data for download that you could load into your data processing software. I found one exception only - the Open Football Project. Many people contribute to this database and it seems to include extensive data not only for the world cups but also for clubs and football associations across the globe. However, I did not use this source as the data I could download is in a format that required fair amount of efforts and time to make it suitable for my purposes. I have limited time for this curiosity exercise also. I used the data from another comprehensive source - The Soccer World Cups. I copied the data for the groups and playoffs from the web page, formatted it, cleaned it and did some data quality. I removed some data to make sure each year has all group matches and 8 playoff games as current tournament is still on. The data set includes 48 group and 8 playoff games.

What I looked for?
The quality of a tournament could be measured in many ways - subjective and objective ones. I focused on the ones that are measurable and available as data. This is football so the goals matter the most. My line of thinking is that good tournament is defined not only by the number of goals scored but also their timing and how often they come.

A first glance
At  a first glance, Brazil'14 is the most productive tournament of the three. It has 154 goals score so far vs 132 and 123 for '06 and '10. The average goals for is also much higher with 2.8 vs 2.4(2006) and 2.2(2010).

There is the first numerical evidence that this WC is better - there are many more goals for the enjoyment of the viewer. Look below for the distribution of the goals per game. The high average goals per game is not because of few matches with very high score but is due to higher results for many games.

Many goals but is that everything?
Many goals are more than welcome in a game of football. However, simple number does not tell lot as the timing of the goal also matters. For example, if a team scores 3 goals in the fist half, the suspense is killed more or less as it is unlikely the other team to fight back for a win. These things happen and this is one reason to love the game but taking into account relatively equalized quality of teams and players most viewers turn down their expectation for the outcome thus making the game seem to less interesting. I prepared a chart with the distribution of the goals over time.

This chart is too choppy and difficult to read so I rescaled the time interval to 15' and the result is on the chart below.

 Another way to look at it is the cumulative goals over the time as shown on the chart below.

The goals seem to come later in the game compared with '06 and '10 matches. I in my point of view the later goals keep the tension up for longer as a team has to score to advance in the tournament as well as there is shorter time for the opposing team to score back and that results in a faster pace and more shots at goal. Also, some teams tend to close any paths to their goal if they come in lead and avoid offensive plays and nobody like defensive football.

What is the pace of the goals?
I thought it might be interesting to see how often the goals come - does the viewer has to wait long for the next one or there is plenty of time to open up another beer. I put the time between goals for the three WCs and the result is below:

Another way to look at it is the cumulative percentage of goals as displayed below:

The charts show that the next goal in WC'14 tends to come sooner compared by '06 and '10. This fact puts more light on why this tournament is perceived to be better than previous - more goals happening more often! This is not a surprise after the findings in the previous section but now we have a scientific fact on the belt for future analyses in the pub.

What is the conclusion from this short look?
The analysis could run further and deeper but even this quick look shows there are more goals in total in the tournament with more goal per match as well as the goals come later in the game and faster one after another. It does sound like a great World Cup even based on these few facts! Maybe we are witnessing the renaissance of the great football?!

What else could I include in the analysis?
I would be the first to agree that the goals are not the only measure for the quality of the games. I would also put there the number of shots on the goal, number of passes completed, distance covered by players as well as the number of falls, yellow and red cards. I could not put a hand on data to cover these facts to include in the current analysis but comprehensiveness was not my goal on the first place.

Final notes
Perception for the quality of a tournament is influenced by much more than numbers can tell. I would mention the style of football played, the fair play, the charisma of players and coaches, the airing time, weather temperature, the creativeness of commercials in the breaks as well as the quality of most recent watched games and many more. The participation of the national team is also a very influencing factor. It is worth noting also the level of surprises -underdogs winning over the favorites. Most of these factors are difficult to influence or predict and a good World Cup is a product of luck and all we could do is leave the analytics to rest, sit back and enjoy the games that come.

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