A Colombian reads a newspaper the day after Germany beat Brazil with a record 7-1 victory in their World Cup Brazil 2014 semi final. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Football is all the easier to love, or hate, because it is unquantifiable

Brazil's disintegration against Germany was shocking because it so utterly exceeded our expectations of what was likely to happen - and we enjoy football more because it resists predictability.

Sometime around the fourth goal, I descended into hysterics. No exaggeration - as Toni Kroos nicked the ball from Paulinho on the 25th minute and slotted the ball into the back of the net, almost from kickoff, moving and passing around Brazil's backline like cones laid out on a training pitch, I convulsed with hysterical laughter. When the rational disappears, we must confront the irrational and unexpected, and there was little as unexpected as Brazil capitulating as they did last night. When the fifth went in I had to leave the room.

My Twitter timeline was a series of exclamations, as close to an immediate, unmediated stream-of-consciousness as it ever has been, in fact. WOAH. WHAT. NO WAY. WHAT. WHAT. WOW. WHAT. FUCK. HAHAHA. MY GOD. For the first time in years it felt like Twitter wasn't immediate enough for us - not even during the 2012 Olympics, not even during that one hour period where Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford all won gold and the UK went delirious, had Twitter struggled to convey exactly how poorly we were understanding what we were seeing.

People calmed down and started making jokes again, though, of course, and my favourite was this:

Silver, of course, is the editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, an ESPN-owned site with around a dozen full-time staff members who specialise in data journalism and "crunching numbers". They've been following the World Cup, generating probabilities of success for each match; before yesterday's, they had Brazil with a 65 per cent chance of beating Germany (and if Neymar and Thiago Silva had been available, that would have been scaled up to a 73 per cent chance).

Today, with hindsight, Silver has written a sort of mea culpa: "Time to eat some crow. That prediction stunk." He calls it a "black swan", a term coined by Nassim Taleb in his bestselling book of the same name. Silver writes: "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." Predicting the future based on past results and rankings is all well and good, but when things go wrong, they can go very, very wrong.

His discussion of why that prediction was wrong, and what it missed, is interesting for what it shows about how suited data journalism is to a sport like football. That is, when you can't quantify every factor relevant to a prediction, you're not only limited in the accuracy of your prediction - you're limited in your ability to understand how you are limited. Silver points out that the betting markets were better than the official stats in predicting what would happen; he also ponders whether the loss of Neymar and Silva had more of an impact, and whether certain players (like goalkeeper Julio Cesar) underperformed to an unusual degree. What he doesn't appear to consider, though, is what almost every single pundit was talking about before, during and after the game: the pressure of the occasion getting to the Brazilian players, haunted by the significance of the national team's defeat in the 1950 World Cup, the infamous Maracanazo.

Silver's reputation comes from outstanding work in analysing baseball and politics. He was a prominent advocate of "sabermetrics" (as popularised by the book Moneyball), breaking the individual actions of players into statistical data that could be used to scout, coach and play more effectively than was ever previously possible. His political work was incredibly fun, too - fully aware that pundits might as well be have been picking through chicken guts when analysing the 2008 US presidential election, his blog (the original 538, not the current one) calmly, coolly, without partisan preference, did the maths and predicted the winner. By 2012, not only were many pundits angered by his repeated assertion that the race was anything other than "too close to call", there had emerged an entire counter-Silver part of the blogosphere - mostly Republican - which openly freaked out about his (correct) prediction of an Obama win. Silver's work was refreshing for its honesty - no more blowhards with agendas picking over the ramifications of this gaffe or that policy announcement, instead simple, clear polling data.

Baseball and politics, of course, are not immune from black swan events - but they're also mostly very predictable, at least at the highest level. Baseball players can only perform actions that have a limited range of outcomes, making it not too dissimilar to games like chess; sampling and polling techniques are now so sophisticated that a statistician can remove almost all doubt from an electoral race. This is not a piece that argues that football is "better" than baseball or politics as a sport because it wriggles out from under any microscope that is applied to it - but instead, this is about how loving football requires an acceptance of devastation or ecstasy, without warning, with regularity.

To illustrate this, we can turn to physicist Stephen Hawking. In May, before the World Cup began, the betting firm Paddy Power invited journalists to the Savoy hotel in London to see him deliver "an exclusive research presentation of HOW ENGLAND CAN WIN THE WORLD CUP (sic)". Hawking may well be a hack - and as much as, eg, his Specsavers ad is ridiculous, turning a career in physics into lucrative endorsement opportunities and pop culture notoriety is no easy feat - but he actually produced a report, with facts, and numbers.

You can download it here. It's very clear why Hawking didn't submit it for peer review - his data sets are small and unlikely to produce results which are statistically significant, for a start - but I still like to bring it up because it's not that much more silly than FiveThirtyEight's football coverage. The factors Hawking considers in his analysis - distance from home nation to host stadium, temperature on game day, stadium altitude, kick-off time, colour of shirt (seriously, it's a factor in many competitive sports), player ages, age of captain, referee nationality, continent of origin for opposition team, team formation - are all things that do play a part in influencing the likelihood of a football match.

It's in the generalisations, though, that we can see just how hard it is to quantify this sport. Players having to travel long distances to a game obviously changes how physically prepared they are - but how much, exactly? Does it matter if they're travelling across time zones (England to Brazil in 2014) or not (England to South Africa in 2010)? What if some players are travelling further than others because they play club football in a different country? Players in their mid-20s are going to be more dynamic, faster, quicker to accelerate than players in their 30s - but has the "prime" of a professional player changed over the decades as sports scientists have improved their understanding of how to train the human body? A referee from a certain country might be biased against or towards a team in 2014 - but what if changing geopolitical circumstances change that bias over time?

It's like trying to draw an outline around your own shadow - every move of the arm changes its shape, reveals that the shadow is an ever-changing thing. There was no way to quantify the emotional state of the Brazilian team in Belo Horizonte last night before the game, nor the atmosphere created by the crowd, nor the significance of the occasion, nor the pressure David Luiz must have felt as he led his team out for the first time as captain in a World Cup semi-final and the no-doubt nagging worry in his head that something might go wrong.

This World Cup is already being spoken about as one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all, because of its shocks. It's a competition of contradiction, in this regard. Every day brought matches which ignored predetermined narratives of who "should" win and who "should" score, and yet the sum total of our surprise has been four semi-finalists who are possibly the most predictable imaginable - Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina. In turn, we got to see Brazil taken apart by Germany more readily than any match between a giant and a minnow in the knockout rounds; it was the kind of result that should befall Costa Rica facing Italy, or Iran facing Argentina. It has been both shocking and predictable simultaneously.

I was amazed recently to discover that there isn't even an agreed-upon best way to measure possession. Football - like basketball, or hockey, and any other sport with a similar kind of freedom of expression - demands an acceptance of uncertainty in exchange for its love. The shock is the joy.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Getty
Show Hide image

"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496