Nate Silver, head of ESPN’s data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, is most famous for being significantly more accurate in his predictions for the 2008 presidential race and nailing 49 of the 50 states while, in the process, turning into someone who’s educated guesses have merit. So when Nate Silver’s crew decides to dedicate their craft toward nailing down who has the best odds of advancing in the World Cup, people pay attention. The fact that his team of writers are using a power rankings system that he created back in 2010 is just icing on the cake.
This methodology, called the Soccer Power Index (ESPN loves Power Indexes), is well thought out, and explicitly explained in this blog posting right here from all the way back in 2009. For those of us lacking the time to read all about the ins and outs of mathematics we might not have the inclination to parse, here’s the quick and dirty breakdown nestled in the midst of the introduction:
The SPI proceeds in four major steps: Calculate competitiveness coefficients for all games in database; Derive match-based ratings for all international and club teams; Derive player-based ratings for all games in which detailed data is available; Combine team and player data into a composite rating based on current rosters; use to predict future results.
Sound good? Of course it does. To simplify it even further, the competitiveness coefficient is a measure of how seriously players take a given match (and the tangible differences in effort); match based ratings are essentially offense and defense rankings for the team; while the player based ratings are offensive and defensive rankings for, you guessed it, the players; and then you take those numbers and project them against the same numbers for the rest of the field.
6. France — SPI: 86.1, 4% Chance of Victory
5. Chile — SPI: 86.7, 4% Chance of Victory
How can both teams have an equally low likelihood of making it all the way to victory when Chile has the better team per their SPI rankings? Is it a rounding error? Not quite — it’s a testament to how the World Cup works, especially in the early rounds. In the beginning of the tournament, each team is seeded into one of eight groups. The only way to make it into the round of 16 is to finish in the top two of the group round, which is a round robin against each team in a given group. Make sense? Of course it does.
Silver and company have helpfully broken down each group’s likelihood of making it through to the next round, so we can see exactly where the disparity lies. France, in Group E (along with Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras), has a 79 percent chance of making it to the round of 16, and the remaining percentages per round break down as 45, 24, and nine. Chile, meanwhile, in Group B (with Australia, Netherlands, and Spain — which we’ll get to below) has a slightly better score but a rougher time making it into the round of sixteen and onward, with percentages breaking down from 16 to the final as 70, 33, 21, and 11. Essentially, Silver’s model is predicting a harder road for Chile until the Final, and the inverse for France.
4. Spain — SPI: 89.1, 8% Chance of Victory
La Roja provides a perfect example of the ways that Silver’s Model can lead to unexpected conclusions. For the first two rounds, Spain has the same predicted likelihood of making it through as France. That is, a 79 percent chance to make it to the round of 16 and a 45 percent chance to make it to the quarter finals. The differences, though, crop up shortly thereafter, with Spain’s chances of making it to the semis and the final round coming in at 30 and 18 percent, respectively. Actually, Spain has a higher SPI score than the next team on our list, because a large part of what makes the World Cup so interesting (and so hard to predict) are the matchups.
3. Germany — SPI: 88.9, 11% Chance of Victory
Germany is going to be one of the teams that’ll likely send the United States home early. Our Group G cohabitant (filled out by Portugal and Ghana, which are both most likely going to contribute to our early departure), Germany’s got the strongest SPI of the group, and a very high 89 percent chance of making it to the round of 16. In fact, Germany’s odds at the outset of the tournament don’t dip below half until they hit the semis, and then just barely (45 percent.) They really drop off in the projected finals, though, and that hurts.
The last time Germany hosted the World Cup was in 2006, they finished third. Since YouTube is a wonderful thing, you can go back and watch every goal from that ’06 run. It’s pretty awesome, but be warned: the video is over two hours long, start to finish.
Update: This article originally misreported Germany’s finish in the 2006 World Cup, it has been updated to correct the error.
2. Argentina — SPI: 90.0, 13% Chance of Victory
Just like March Madness, even the best teams hold a very low likelihood of making it all the way in the World Cup. Argentina has, by almost nearly every reckoning, an outstandingly good soccer team, but even they’re “only” 13 percent likely to make it all the way to victory at the end of the tournament. Like with Germany, though, the Argentine teams are projected to breeze through to the round of 16 (they’re far and away the best team in Group F, which is filled out by Bosnia, Iran, and Nigeria) and while they’re two percent less likely to make it to the quarter finals as Germany, 67 to 69 percent, their fall off isn’t nearly as rapid, as the projections taper off to 47 percent in the semis and 28 percent in the finals.
1. Brazil — SPI: 91.8, 45% Chance of Victory
Then there’s Brazil. When Silver wrote his companion piece to their findings, he likened Brazil’s forecast dominance as a punchline that wasn’t even worth explaining. Basically, it boils down to the fact that not only is Brazil staggeringly good at soccer (and staggeringly bad at hosting World Cups), they don’t lose at home. Ever. They’re on a home field winning streak that stretches back over a decade, having not lost an international match since 2002 — and that was friendly.
“To a find a loss at home in a match that mattered to Brazil [remember, a large part of Silver’s SPI is how teams play in games that matter] — in a World Cup qualifier, or as part of some other tournament — you have to go back to 1975,” the FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief wrote, before noting that no one on Brazil’s team today was alive when it happened. They’re the national team that puts the Cold War era USSR team to shame, basically. The only time their odds for losing even go below half happen when looking at their odds of winning the whole shebang.
For the completist: Brazil’s odds by ascending round are 99, 80, 70, and 57 percent. You can check out the entire list, which will be updated as the tournament commences, here.