EThere are events in football that can be predicted almost with certainty – for example, that FC Bayern will become German champions. Then there are things that experts – and those who think they do – have always known, but which don’t always turn out as predicted. For example, that a World Cup will take place in June and July. And then there are those special events that no one sees coming and then, in an incredible way, they become reality. This is what happened on June 27, 2018 in Kazan: The German national team was eliminated after the preliminary round of the World Cup.
There had never been anything like it. Most of them, including the then national coach Joachim Löw, saw themselves and the selection of the German Football Association (DFB) as high up. After all, the triumph in Rio de Janeiro four years earlier was still present. And even if, as after the title in 1990 through reunification, no new, strong national players were added who supposedly made the team unbeatable for years – at the time not a common expert opinion, but the error of Franz Beckenbauer – it was still unimaginable for many what actually happened.
Since 2014, FAZ.NET has published a forecast for every major tournament. Daniel Memmert and Fabian Wunderlich from the Institute for Training Science and Sports Informatics at the German Sport University in Cologne have been dealing with predictions in football for years and have developed a constantly expanded and refined model that calculates the probability of who will win a game and ultimately the World Cup. But they didn’t see the German debacle coming either: In the forecast before the tournament, the DFB team was the top favorite for the World Cup after Brazil.
Is an own goal a coincidence or not?
“Results of soccer games are very much dependent on random influences,” says Memmert. “In a study, we were able to find out that in the Premier League almost every second goal was favored by a random influence such as deflected balls, rebounds or unintentional goal preparation by the defense.” A vivid example was the European Championship 2021 with eleven own goals. “It’s debatable whether an own goal is pure coincidence, but it’s clear that no team in the world can count on the opposition scoring a team’s goals themselves.”
Speaking of goals: Compared to other sports, very few are scored in football. “Whereas a single net roller usually hardly affects the outcome of a tennis match, a single lucky goal can make the difference between victory and defeat in football,” says Wunderlich. Data makes the game more transparent, but not everything is known. Therefore, parameters are missing in the prognosis. “Fortunately, we don’t know how a player slept, don’t know all the medical data or have information about all the human conflicts in the team,” says Memmert.
The World Cup forecast uses data that is available, i.e. “the opinion of individual experts, past successes such as performance at the last World Cup, official rankings such as the world rankings or market value assessments on transfermarkt.de”, as Wunderlich explains. “On this basis, the quality of the teams can be estimated and the probable winner of a game can be selected. Additional modeling of the random influences can even be used to create a detailed mathematical forecast model.”