The Brazil-Germany Match Shows That Sports Predictions, Odds And Data Analysis Are Bullshit
All due respect to the great Nate Silver and his wonderful site FiveThirtyEight, which is staffed by intelligent and engaging writers whom I like and appreciate for their unique perspective -- but if yesterday's Brazil-Germany match taught us anything, it's that the "odds" of a team winning, or losing, a game by any particular margin are pretty much bullshit.
Going into the match, FiveThirtyEight -- which, so far in this tournament, has had a pretty decent run at picking group stage finishes and knockout round winners -- gave Germany a 35 percent chance of beating Brazil, with the odds adjusted to account for the loss of Neymar and Thiago Silva. Thirty-five percent isn't bad, but it's still underdog status, especially on Brazilian soil.
As we saw, that's not what happened. Germany crushed Brazil with five goals in the first 30 minutes, including four in a six minute span. Silver himself wrote today that his prediction "stunk." He "eats crow" for the remainder of the article, but he notes how unlikely it was that Germany would win by this margin:
The Soccer Power Index (SPI) match-predictor (which uses a poisson distribution to estimate the range of possible scores) gave Germany only a 0.022 percent probability (about one chance in 4,500) of scoring seven or more goals. Likewise, SPI gave Germany a 0.025 percent probability (one chance in 4,000) of beating Brazil by six goals or more.
(Note: Silver created SPI back in 2010.)
But he also explains why numbers might have failed us on this one:
Statistical models can fail at the extreme tails of a probability distribution. There often isn’t enough historical data to distinguish a 1-in-400 from a 1-in-4,000 from a 1-in-40,000 probability.
Basically, once Germany started pouring it on, there was no way for numbers to account for how badly Brazil would break. That's what turned a 1-0 game into a 5-0 one in a matter of minutes.
And yet, the reality is: It happened. Those goals were scored. That game was real. And the numbers, however much they were backed up by analysis and calculator crunching and amalgamations of different systems, etc., couldn't hang. That's because there's no accounting for the sheer collapse of the team under the weight of such an onslaught, missing two of its best players, at home, in the biggest match of their collective lives.
This is what always stands in the way of a sure bet. There is no accounting for extraneous variables such as tactical errors (on and off the pitch), mental fortitude (or a lack thereof), misplayed reads, and any of the other thousands of things that can a tip a match's momentum one way or the other. Soccer, which has its fair share of deflections for goals and blown calls, is particularly prone to this. The betting odds were even for this game, but anyone who took the "over" on six goals for Germany (read: probably nobody) looks like a genius today, rather than Silver.
So why even discuss things like odds and predictions for games, when in reality nobody has a clue how a match will turn out? Why did they even bother updating their odds for the last three remaining teams at numbers like 64 percent for Germany, 14 percent for the Netherlands, when we just saw how useless those numbers can be?
Clicks, of course.
In fact, most websites that publish predictions about who will win a sporting event are likely looking for clicks. For The Win -- another site I like and appreciate -- published an article called "Why Roger Federer will beat Novak Djokovic and win record 8th Wimbledon title" before Sunday's Wimbledon final. The article got over 22,000 shares on social media. Very nice. Except that Federer lost. No skin off their back, though: They followed that up with an article called "Roger Federer's Wimbledon loss shows he's likely to win another Grand Slam." That's a nice, vague prediction the site can take to the click bank (15k shares, according to their metrics).
Times like these make us appreciate a guy like Charles Barkley, who comments on and analyzes basketball for a living but refuses to make predictions, because he's "not an expert." Nobody is an expert -- especially not at picking winners, where claiming that you win 70 percent of your bets just proves you're a lying asshole.
And hey -- we make predictions too. But they're mostly for fun, and never (as far as I know) based on anything other than personal biases and gut reactions.
Will this game prevent sites like FiveThirtyEight and For The Win and SportsGrid from making predictions, or crunching the numbers down to the decimal point to see who is "most likely" to advance? Of course not, and it shouldn't -- half of fun in sports is trying to decide the outcome beforehand. But let's not pretend like these numbers actually mean anything. It's bullshit. Fun, easily repeatable and easy to shrug off bullshit.
Photo via Getty
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