Nate Silver, the man who called the winner of 49 states in the 2008 presidential election, is predicting that Brazil will be hard to beat in its home country when the 2014 World Cup starts Thursday in São Paulo.
Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website dissects the chances of all 32 teams, based on the Soccer Power Index, an algorithm he came up with four years ago in conjunction with ESPN. According to his meticulous calculations, Brazil is the overwhelming favorite, with a 45 percent chance of winning the World Cup for the sixth time.
Argentina trails distantly behind as the second favorite, with a 13 percent chance of coming out on top, followed by Germany (11 percent) and Spain (8 percent).
And the United States? Silver is not optimistic. In fact, the statistician concluded that the U.S. has only a 0.4 percent chance of taking the cup — less than Bosnia-Herzegovina and the same as Switzerland, but better than 13 other countries, including Croatia and Cameroon.
Silver, a former baseball analyst who earned his living for a time playing online poker, makes a persuasive case for Brazil:
Argentina, Germany and Spain, like Brazil, are wonderful soccer teams. You could perhaps debate which of the four would be favored if the World Cup were played on a hastily constructed soccer pitch somewhere in the middle of the desert.
But this World Cup is being played in Brazil. No country has beaten Brazil on its home turf in almost 12 years. Brazil’s last loss at home came in a friendly on Aug. 21, 2002. That game against Paraguay, incidentally, is one the Brazilians may not have been particularly interested in winning. Brazil had won the World Cup in Japan earlier that summer; the Paraguay match was the team’s homecoming. Although Brazil started most of its regulars, by midway through the game it substituted out almost all of its stars.
To find a loss at home in a match that mattered to Brazil — in a World Cup qualifier, or as part of some other tournament — you have to go back to 1975, when Brazil lost the first leg of the Copa América semifinal to Peru. None of the players on Brazil’s current World Cup roster was alive at the time.
As of June 10 at 12:12 p.m., the U.S. team has a 34.5 percent shot at advancing through Group G, which also includes Germany, Ghana and Portugal, but only a 1-in-250 chance of winning the cup.
However, Silver does offer U.S. fans a shred of hope, noting teams that seem doomed occasionally thwart the odds. As an example, he cited the Villanova Wildcats, which he wrote had maybe a 1-in-800 chance of winning the 1985 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, based on past performance. And yet they still managed to win it all.
Silver quickly punctured any illusions, though, by emphasizing that this World Cup is top heavy, to the point that even strong teams such as England and Italy would be hard pressed to entertain thoughts of a championship. “This probably isn’t the tournament for Cinderella stories,” he wrote.
Silver said the probabilities are based on 10,000 simulations and will be updated at the end of each match. He explained the Soccer Power Index in detail, even as he noted the eye-glazing potential of “diagonal inflated bivariate Poisson regression.”
Despite his pessimism about the prospects of the United States, Silver mentioned that he’s more upbeat than the current betting odds from Betfair, a betting market, which say that the team has only a 26 percent chance of advancing to the knockout stage, compared with his own calculations.
Bleacher Report also had very lower expectations for the United States, especially after Landon Donovan was left off the team. Instead, it predicted that Ghana could be the sleeper that might topple Germany in Group G. As for the Americans, “This could be a very rough World Cup for the United States.”
Even Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. coach, is not at all sanguine about how his team is likely to fare. Last December he told a New York Times reporter, “We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament. … Realistically, it is not possible.”
Getting back to Brazil, Silver said the host country is not as heavy a betting favorite as it should be and added that, as of early Sunday evening, the team’s price on Betfair implied it has a 23 percent chance of winning the World Cup trophy.
What are other people saying about who will win the monthlong marathon, which ends July 13 in Rio de Janeiro?
Although the German team is widely viewed as a strong contender, Deutsche Bank is not picking Germany to win the World Cup, according to The Guardian:
In what could be the biggest shock at this year’s World Cup since news that the Arena de São Paulo might be finished before kick-off, England (is) predicted to win in Brazil — and the prophecy comes from Germany’s biggest bank.
Foreign exchange analysts at Deutsche Bank have developed a computer model that forecasts Roy Hodgson’s squad can see off challenges by several more fancied outfits — albeit by using some questionable metrics.
A Bloomberg News survey of economists in 52 countries concluded that Brazil would beat Germany in the championship game at Maracana Stadium, and also score the most goals in the tournament. The poll, published today, heard from 171 economists in 139 companies.
According to the Bloomberg News survey:
Projections of a sixth World Cup victory for Brazil mesh with bookmaker odds and forecasts based on economic models created by Goldman Sachs Group Inc., UniCredit SpA and Danske Bank A/S. Paddy Power Plc and Ladbrokes Plc both rank Brazil as favorite, at odds of 3/1.
“It’s kind of hard to bet against Brazil — they have home advantage, the climate, crowd and recent record,” said Peter Dixon, a poll participant and global equities economist at Commerzbank AG in London. “It’s pretty obvious if you look at Brazil’s soccer rankings who should win.”
Meanwhile, a six-person roundtable at Sports Illustrated/SI.com gave Argentina the nod, picked by three reporters. Two others selected Brazil and one went for Spain, despite the fact that a European team has never won a World Cup in the Americas, as one writer noted. Among BBC pundits, Brazil topped Argentina.
The Economist also predicted a Brazilian victory:
Your correspondent also sought the wisdom of his colleagues: asking them to select the winner, runner-up, third, and fourth semi-finalists; and attach a probability to each of the top-four teams’ chances of winning the tournament. 41 journalists submitted coherent predictions. Aggregating the probabilities (and making some assumptions about the teams not listed in the top four) again puts Brazil favourites, with a 23% chance of winning. 29% of respondents expect a Brazil-Argentina final, with the most likely result a two-nil victory to Brazil.
Silver’s Soccer Power Index did a lot of research on whether travel distance would have an effect on a team’s performance — whether Uruguay, for instance, would have an edge over Russia or Japan. The results were ambiguous.
We found, first of all, that east-west distance traveled matters much more than north-south distance. In other words, any geographic advantage may reflect the avoidance of jet lag rather than the mere fact of being close to home. However, we also found that while the travel effect was reasonably significant when evaluated based on all World Cup matches dating back to 1952, it’s been much less significant in competitive matches taken from the era for which SPI has highly detailed data (from late 2006 onward).