Can England win the World Cup?

Autumn is fast approaching. The focus of the nation’s sporting interest is switching. No sooner have our boys humiliated the Australians, than a new challenge emerges in the shape of two important qualifying games for the soccer World Cup.

The comedian Bob Doolally articulated the views of many when he said: ‘If courage, endeavour and guts were what counted, England would be world champions. But as long as football games are decided by arbitrary things like skill, what chance have they got?’.

The question is perhaps rather deeper than Mr Doolally suspected. Just how far are games in the World Cup decided by skill, rather than by purely random events? An obvious example of the latter would be a referee failing to spot that the ball has crossed the goal line. With a different referee, the score would have been awarded. But the outcome of a game may hinge on a myriad of trivial events. A player slips on a divot and misses a crucial tackle, and only a few inches away he would have made it.

One perspective on this is given by the number of goals scored per game in World Cup competitions. A high average suggests that strong teams are beating the weak. Skill shows through. But with a low number per game, random events can easily affect the outcome.

The competition started in 1930. There were only 18 games in the finals, no qualifiers being played, with an average of 3.89 goals per game. Next time, in 1934, there were qualifiers, where 5.35 goals were scored per game. Teams were slightly more equal in the final stages, though the average here was still 4.12. Averages remained high until the finals of 1962. 32 games were played, 89 goals scored, an average of 2.78.

Over the next fifty years, there have been small fluctuations from competition to competition, but the trend is to an even lower number of goals. In 2010, despite an increase in the number of games played to 64, the average was only 2.25 goals a game. With such a low average, and with penalty shoot outs becoming more frequent, it is clear that the differences in skill between the teams in the final stages are pretty low. This even extends to the qualifying stages. In the 2010 competition, there were no fewer than 200 teams, almost every country in the world took part, some of them tiny.  But the average number of goals per game was only 2.71.

A new book, The Numbers Game by Anderson and Sally, analyses in depth the major national leagues, and in particular the Premier League. Using a mathematical concept known as an ‘intransitive triple’, a term familiar to economists, they show that the results of almost 50 per cent of games in the Premier League are due to chance rather than skill. Perhaps it is this very uncertainty of outcome which accounts for the enormous fascination with the game. Even England can win the World Cup.

Paul Ormerod

As published in City AM on Wednesday 4th September

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

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Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.