Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Another Batch of World Rankings

The idea of world rankings in soccer always has struck me as something of a fool's errand.

Especially when it is statistically driven ... by anything more sophisticated than who beat whom and where in the last year or so.

Certain sports lend themselves to statistical analysis ... because the numbers they generate are so enormous that, eventually, you have a sort of "truth" revealed by close study.

Baseball is the prime example of this, with 162 games in the major leagues, and 600-plus plate appearances for position players and 180-plus innings for starting pitcher. A bad player is not going to compile good numbers over that large a sample.

Basketball isn't far behind. Especially the NBA. Again, lots of games, lots of numbers.

Soccer? I am convinced that any dozen reasonably well-informed fans from anywhere on the planet are as likely to pick out the quarterfinalists of the upcoming World Cup as is the numbers-heavy system unveiled today.

The U.S.-based sports network commissioned Nate Silver, best-known now as a left-leaning but numbers-driven political analyst and blogger and, previously, as a mover in the "Baseball Prospectus" brands.

He has compiled a top-100 ranking of the world's soccer rankings for, which indicates the self-proclaimed "world-wide leader" finally is sitting up and taking notice of the sport.

I am a proponent of statistical analysis, and I give credence to the conclusions in many cases -- particularly in the two sports named above.

Soccer, however, is different. I am sure of it.

Not enough matches. Not enough matches against comparable competition. Not enough matches by the key players.

And, also, soccer is a famously fluky sport. In a goal-scarce universe, one lucky shot can lead a bad team over a good one, or a middling team over a great one.

But at the end of the World Cup, we almost all know who is going to be hanging around. And we don't need statistical analysis to tell us. We don't need a million numbers crunched.

Right this minute, I will give you six teams that will be in the quarterfinals at South Africa 2010: Brazil, Spain, England, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

I did that without adding up goals and comparing scores and giving points for a country's players who do well in club competition. We already know that.

What Nate Silver is doing for is interesting. It's fun. It stimulates discussion. But it doesn't tell us anything we don't already know.

There is the global elite, most of which can be depended on to go deep into the World Cup. There is the second tier of 10 or 12 nations that have a reasonably good shot of getting to the knockout phase. And there are the next 20 or so who might be in the current World Cup, but have little or no chance of surviving group play.

We all know this. Without studying statistics.

Bringing on a Big Brain like Nate Silver is an interesting concept. But I believe he has little or nothing new to tell us about the World Cup, and how it will sort out. The game resists statistical predictions much more specific than "never bet against Brazil."

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