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
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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.

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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.