Monday, 14 July 2014

The numbers speak German

This article was published in The Malta Independent on Sunday - 13th July 2014

The second Sunday of July every four years is World Cup final day. Tonight, the biggest TV audience for any sporting event watches the game that decides who will be crowned World Champions of the beautiful game for the next four years.
Unlike elections, the results cannot be surmised through scientific polling surveys. The winner will be decided by what happens on the ground between the two teams and not by the opinion of lovers of the game who cannot influence the outcome in the same way that they influence elections through the ballot box.
Yet the numbers speak and, for tonight, the numbers speak German. According to the World Economic Forum, Germany is already the winner of the Competitiveness World Cup, as they crush Argentina in the four criteria selected to measure their international competitiveness. Here are the results:

Gender equality
Tech. Readiness
Trade Openness

But the numbers also favour Germany when sticking strictly to football statistics. Whichever team wins the semi-final against the home side must hold great prospects for winning the final against a less formidable opposition. But Germany did not just win the semi-final against Brazil. They demolished Brazil on their home ground in the first half-an-hour and then walked through the rest of the match without sweating too much as they marched on to the Maracana.
To qualify for the final stages of the World Cup, Germany played 10 games, winning nine of them and drawing the other one, at home against Sweden. They scored 36 goals and conceded 10. Argentina had to play 16 matches, of which they won nine, drew five and lost two. Argentina scored 35 goals, one less than Germany, even though they played six more games, and conceded 15. Just in the qualifying round for the Brazil World Cup, Germany boasted better figures.
In the group stage in this World Cup, Argentina won all three of their games, whereas Germany won two games and drew the one against Ghana. Argentina scored six goals and conceded three, winning each game with a one goal margin. Germany scored seven goals and conceded two. Although Germany was unable to beat a gallant Ghana side and had to settle for a two-all draw, they emerged from the group with a better goal difference than Argentina.

In the knock-out stage, Germany won every game without recourse to penalty shoot-outs and had to play extra time only against Algeria to qualify for the quarter finals. In the quarter finals and semi-finals Germany won the game in the normal ninety minutes. In the three knock-out stage games, Germany scored 10 goals and conceded just two. Compare that to Argentina’s record in the knock-out stage where they had to play extra time twice and won one game, the semi-final against The Netherlands, on penalties. They scored just two goals without conceding any.
So in this World Cup competition, including the group qualifying matches, Germany has not lost a single game and has never gone through penalty shoot-outs. Argentina lost two games and qualified for the final with a penalty shoot-out.
The history of their performance in previous World Cups is also neutral to positive in favour of Germany. The teams have met in a World Cup final twice already. In Mexico, in 1986, Argentina won 3-2 and four years later, in Rome, Germany won the rematch 1-0. In all, Germany has played in seven World Cup finals – in 1954, 1966, 1974, 1982, 1986, 1990 and 2002. They won three and lost four, generally in alternate sequences. They lost their last final, in 2002, against Brazil – so it is time to level the score. Argentina has played in four World Cup finals – in 1930, 1978, 1986 and 1990. They won two of the games and lost two. Germany has a rough pattern of reaching the final every 12 years and winning alternately. They won in 1954 and lost 1966. They won in 1990 and lost in 2002 and now, 12 years later in 2014, they can win again. Argentina’s World Cup history numbers have no such patterns.
These two teams met in direct elimination clashes in the last two World Cup finals: 2006 and 2010. Both were quarter-finals, won by Germany with penalties in 2006 and with a 4-0 thrashing in 2010. Seventeen of the players on the field in that last match in Cape Town, South Africa, could still be in the final line-up this evening so that match gives a better understanding of the relative strength of the two teams. Germany still has 10 of those players, whereas Argentina has seven.
There are other numbers that speak German. German had one extra day to rest following their semi-final match against Brazil and had quite an easy passage, given they were 5-0 after half-an-hour. With one day less to rest, Argentina had to play extra time against Holland in the semi-final and then had to go through the psychological stress of a penalty shoot-out to qualify for the final.
Although the Final is being played in South America, support for the two teams could be pretty even. Obviously, given their proximity, there will probably be more Argentineans than Germans on the stands but there is no doubt that the Brazilians, who secured their place hoping to see their team in the finals, will be behind Germany. The pain of a humiliating elimination will be rendered more acute if Argentina were to win the World Cup in Brazil.
As it happens, the Argentineans cannot even have the advantage of papal prayers from Pope Francis, a former Bishop of Buenos Aires. The Germans still have a Pope in Benedict XVI and although he is no longer sitting on St Peter’s throne, papal prayers are papal prayers.  On that front both teams are even.
Of course, each game has its own history and these numbers could count for nothing, once the game begins. To win at this level it takes skill but it also takes a dose of luck. A ball finding the net after hitting the post could change the dynamics of a game in a way that a ball that just rebounds off the post does not.
The games played so far show that, whilst Argentina has more skilled individuals in Messi, Higuain and De Maria, Germany has a more solid collective with precision passing, impressive accuracy in first control of the ball and individuals ready to sacrifice personal glory for collective success. They boast impressive discipline in passing to a colleague in a better position to score rather than making an attempt from a difficult position. This collective behaviour has rendered Germany a formidable goal machine in this World Cup so far, scoring 17 goals and conceding just four. Argentina, superstars and all, has scored only eight goals and conceded three – even though they played half-an-hour more.
Since the 1982 World Cup in Spain, the final game is determined by playing two semi-finals. Prior to that, in 1974 and 1978, the winners of two sub-sets groups would play the final without going through a semi-final. Only Germany, in 1990, won the World Cup Final after reaching it through a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final. But then their opponents – Argentina – had also reached the final through a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final against Italy. Germany lost the final in 1982 against Italy after going through extra time and a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final. Brazil lost the final in 1998 against France after reaching the final through a penalty shoot-out after extra time. Going further back in time, when semi-finals were played, Italy lost the 1970 final to Brazil after going through to the final having played extra time against Germany in the semi-final, but without a penalty shoot-out. Playing extra time in the semi-finals does not seem to bode well for winning the final.
The only numbers that materially speak for Argentina is that no European Country has ever won the World Cup on the American continent and that, in the last direct encounter in a friendly match on 15 August 2012, in Germany, Argentina won 3-1 with much the same team it has at present but against a depleted German side playing with 10 men for most of the match after their goalkeeper was sent off for a penalty foul.
Ultimately this will be a clash of the brilliance of individual talent against the solidity of teamwork. My money is on the latter as the numbers speak German.  

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