Wednesday 14 June 2006

Footy Science

You might think that the last thing going through a soccer player’s mind would be science. It’s difficult to imagine a striker contemplating the current nature of the universe just before game time, or the coach giving a short tutorial on statistics for inspiration. Soccer may be the beautiful game, but what of the science behind the artistry?

With the soccer world cup currently being played in Germany, and with the great Australian team performing exceptionally well, it is a good time to take a look at the Science of Soccer.

Excitement Plus:
Many football fans probably know this, but now science has proved it. Soccer is not only the most popular sport on the planet, but it is also the most exciting. Eli Ben-Naim, Sidney Redner and Federico Vazquez at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico took a look at a range of sports to find out which one had the most upsets – that is, when the underdog, the team with the worst record, actually won. They reckon that the more often a score line is unpredictable, the more exciting the sport. The team analysed results from over 300,000 games of hockey, American football, baseball, basketball and soccer. Their results showed that the frequency of upsets was highest for soccer, followed by baseball, hockey, basketball and finally American football. This suggests that soccer is the most exciting sport on Earth.

And the winner is….
There are some scientists out there who think they can predict the winner of the World Cup. Decision Technology, a firm of prediction experts who claim to be the best predictors in the world, has invented a computer program that boasts a better record than any bookmaker. The computer has studied the score lines of 4,500 games between 200 countries since 2002 and come up with forecasts for every initial group match in the Cup. It has correctly predicted 53% of English Premier League games since 2002, compared to newspaper tipsters, who predicted at 43%. For what its worth, they predicted Brazil to win followed by France, Germany and Holland. The fact that it didn’t pick Australia to win tells me that it can’t possibly be accurate!

Red cars go faster
Could the colour of your jersey really make a difference? Russell Hill and Robert Barton from Durham University in the UK tracked the winners of boxing, taekwondo, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling, and found that in these sports where the athletes do not wear national colours, but are randomly assigned either red or blue, the red competitor won over half the bouts. But it was in close matches where the red garb really mattered – the red side won at 62% in these encounters. Such effects may be due to instinctive behaviour. Perhaps human competitors experience a testosterone surge while wearing the colour, or feel submissive when facing a maroon opponent.

Don’t get me offside
But in some bad news for sports fans, scientists in the Netherlands have found that it is almost impossible for linesmen to keep their eyes on the players and the ball at the same time – meaning that bad off-side calls and terrible goal judgements are inevitable – and anyone who saw the Japanese goal against Australia knows what I mean. Raoul Oudejans from the Free University of Amsterdam asked three professional linesmen to assess 200 potential offside situations, and found that they got it wrong in 40 of those cases. They think that this is because of perspective error caused by the linesmen having to work on the sideline, and they suggest that they should work from the stands where such problems can be countered.

Head problems
And in more bad news for soccer players, heading the ball has been linked to various peculiar head and spinal injuries, whilst it has also been linked to an increased chance of motor neuron disease.

Fight for your right to party
But just be careful partying if your team wins. Studies suggest that crowds are more unruly when their team wins than when it looses. Mind you, with games on at 3am in the morning, I’ve been too tired to party. Go Australia!

See for more science of soccer stories.

We are publishing this one early due to recording constraints with CRI.

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