US statistics guru says Brazil is World Cup favourite

US statistician Nate Silver came to fame when he accurately predicted the results of the 2012 US presidential elections. Now he's crunched the football figures ahead of the World Cup in Brazil and claims the home team is poised to raise the trophy.

Photo: AFP

Two years ago Silver infuriated US conservatives by consistently (and in the end, accurately) predicting that Barack Obama would win re-election in the 2012 presidential poll.

As the World Cup kicks off in the city of Sao Paulo this week, he risks enraging people on all sides of the political spectrum after throwing the weight of his mathematical prowess on the side of Brazil.

Silver, who initially made a name for himself by predicting baseball results, is not the only one predicting victory for Brazil. Indeed, bookies largely agree that Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain have the best chances of winning the tournament, with the host most likely to keep the trophy.

However, Silver says that Brazil’s chances of earning a sixth World Cup title are even better than many people think, and it may not be about which country has the best squad.

Location, location, location

Silver’s football forecast derives from a complicated maths equation that places high importance on home-field advantage, a factor he says looms large in the world of professional football. In a blog posted Monday, he drew attention to the fact Brazil has proven impossible to beat on its own turf in the past 12 years.

His estimates of home-field advantage are based on recent data, but decades of World Cup historical precedence could be in play.

“In World Cups in the Americas since 1950, South American teams have 39 wins, 21 losses and 15 draws in games played against teams from Europe. Indeed, no European team has ever won a World Cup played in the Americas.” Silver said.

As top-tier football clubs become more international, the location of a sports tournaments may play less of a role in predicting their outcome, and Silver said other factors contributed to making Brazil his frontrunner.

In the past four years Brazil has proven a daunting adversary in high-stakes games, compared with relatively unimportant friendly matches, chalking up six wins and zero losses during that period.

Room for surprises

Silver has also based his overall prediction on computing Brazil’s chances of victory against each of the teams it will face as it moves forward in the competition.

The samba squad has a 56 percent chance of reaching the final, and 45 percent chance of winning it, according to Silver. In comparison, the London-based Betfair website gives Brazil just 23.3 percent chance of winning the Cup.

Silver's other calculations may draw surprise and scorn from other corners of the globe. In general, European teams fare worse on Silver’s pre-Cup scorecard as compared to competing guesstimates.

For example, while they are both ranked in his top 10, France is granted a measly 3.7 percent chance of winning the Cup, and England only 1.8 percent chance of total victory. Italy, a World Cup champion in 2006, has just 0.5 percent chance of repeating the feat in 2014, according to Silver.

For those unhappy with Silver’s maths, there are of course other potential oracles to turn to.

Paul the octopus, who correctly predicted Spain’s World Cup victory in 2010, is now floating in Cephalopod heaven. But scientists in central China have announced they will use baby pandas to predict World Cup winners this time around.

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