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Myth-busting: Are World Cup group stage matches really boring?

We go digging for the truth surrounding World Cup group stage games

by Aidan Elder | May 29, 2014

Ah … World Cup group stage games.

They sound about as appealing as a back, crack and sack wax soothed by a healthy application of Deep Heat.

It’s a necessary evil. Tolerated because they do occasionally throw up a colossal shock and it’s only fair to give everyone at least three games because they’ve all had to wait four years to get there, but mainly tight, cagey affairs in which the thought of defeat is more unwelcome than marriage advice from Katie Price.

‘Boring’ is the simple way of putting it. National pride or your neighbours looking to slag your team off for being shit can provide enough of an interest to distract you from the fact the games aren’t actually very good, but for the other 51 group games not directly involving your team, there’s a high chance that they may suck ass and prove to be as exciting as Michael Owen reading the phonebook. Or even worse, his own autobiography.

To examine the myth of boring group stage matches, we’re measured them on two metrics which aren’t always an indicator of entertainment, but are about as good as we could manage. We’ve gone with (a) the number of goals in a game and (b) the number of cards handed out by the ref. Yes, it’s not perfect, but Professor Stephen Hawking was using the company Large Hadron Collider to figure out how to take the perfect penalty, so this was the best we could muster. Here’s the diagram:


Now first of all, this is an illustration of all World Cup group stage games since 1970.

‘Why 1970? Are you selectively picking that date to hide some information you don’t want us to know so you can make a point that suits your own aims? Tell us what’s through the looking-glass, Paddy – TELL UUUSSSSSSSS!!!!!!’ you probably aren’t saying while screaming and shaking a fist at the sky right now, but the truth is much simpler. Yellow and red cards only made their debut at the World Cup in 1970. Simple. If the referee gave you a yellow card at a World Cup before then, we’re guessing it was some sort of romantic gesture.

Overall, it looks like the myth is true – group games aren’t especially entertaining. A huge chunk of matches do fall into the low scoring category. Around 48% of all group stage games feature just one or two goals (that’s the area circled in red on the diagram) with a further 17% featuring the three goals often used to differentiate between a low scoring damp squib and a high-scoring spectacle. Obviously not all 0-0 draws are dull and not all matches with five goals are crackers, but in general, it’s safe to assume that most of them are as the stereotypes suggest.

The Card Index is the points total of a game when a yellow card is given a value of 10 points and a red card 25 points. Certainly, there’s a concentration of totals around the 20 to 40 point mark (the area circled in blue) – a tally that in the vast majority of cases came from between two and four yellow cards being issued. Around 43.5% of all group stage games fall into that category and that expands to 55% when raising the upper limit to 50 points.

Refs going mental

Interestingly, there’s a surprisingly high representation of games in which the referees went absolutely mental with the cards and the Card Index shot up to and beyond the 70 point mark (seven yellow cards or five yellow cards and one red etc.) At around 15%, it’s not a huge proportion, but more than might be expected in group stages not renowned for providing huge amounts of drama. Also, a lot of the games that featured zero Card Index Points (i.e. no cards shown in the match) come from the 1970s when cards were still a novelty, breaking an opponent’s ankle was considered ‘a friendly welcome to the game’ and diving was reserved exclusively for Jacques Cousteau.

It doesn’t hold out much hope for a rip-roaring group stage of the World Cup. Some games will buck the trend, but others will go along with the trend like mindless hipsters who aren’t as quick as the other mindless hipsters who actually set the trends. Luckily, we can all cheer on England or roar abuse at England. Everyone’s a winner. Except England most likely

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