I always saw Paddy Power as slightly anti-intellectual but by inviting me to be a pundit, they have proved me wrong. They recognised that as a theoretical physicist I’m marginally more qualified to make predictions than Paul the Octopus.
Analysing data since England’s triumph at the 1966 World Cup, I have answered two of the biggest questions tormenting fans.
- What are the optimal conditions for England success?
- How do you score in a penalty shootout?
Cut the WAGs some slack
So what are the optimal conditions for England success? Contrary to tabloid opinion, the presence of WAGs is irrelevant. Our chances of triumph can be worked out by looking at a number of environmental, physiological, psychological, political and tactical variables.
Statistically England’s red kit is more successful and we should play 4-3-3 rather than 4-4-2. A study, by German sports psychologists at the University of Munster, found red makes teams feel more confident and can lead them to being perceived as more aggressive and dominant. Likewise, 4-3-3 is more positive so the team benefits for similar psychological reasons.
The data shows we also need to hope for a European referee. European referees give England the best chance of success. 63% of games are won with a European referee compared to 38% when the referee is from elsewhere. European referees are more sympathetic to the English game and less sympathetic to ballerinas like Suarez.
Like all animals, the England team are creatures of habit
Being closer to home reduces the negative impact of cultural differences and jetlag. We do better in temperate climates, at low altitudes with kick off as close to the normal 3 o’clock as possible.
The impact of environmental factors alone is quite staggering. A 5⁰C rise in temperature reduces our chances of winning by 59%. We are twice as likely to win when playing below 500m above sea level. And our chances of winning improve by a third when kicking off at 3 o’clock local time.
How to take the perfect penalty – Don’t tell the Germans
I have studied all shootouts since they were introduced at the 1978 World Cup to have a formula (inset) for the perfect penalty. As we say in science, England ‘couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo’.
Let’s start with the technique. Velocity is key. For this reason, get a run up of more than three steps. Give it some welly. There is only a 58% probability of scoring if your run up is three steps or less. Considerably less than the normal 87% probability of scoring otherwise.
However, velocity is nothing without placement. If only I had whispered this in Chris Waddle’s ear before he sent the ball into orbit in 1990. Use the side foot rather than laces and you are 10% more likely to score.
The statistics confirm the obvious. Place the ball in the top left or right hand corner for the best chance of success. 84% of penalties in those areas score. The ability of strikers to place the ball results in them being more likely to score than midfielders and defenders.
There is no evidence that it’s advantageous to be left or right footed but fair haired and bald players are more likely to score. 84% of penalties by fair-haired players went in, compared to 71% for bald players and only 69% for dark haired players. The reason for this is unclear. This will remain one of science’s great mysteries.
One last tip from me for Joe Hart. Distract the penalty taker. Jump from side to side and you are 18% more likely to make a save. Who would want to be a keeper? As Ruud Guillt once said “a goalkeeper is a goalkeeper because he can’t play football”.
I’m not actually a big football fan. Shouting at the television is not for me but each to his own. What drew me to this project was not the love of football but my curiosity. Having said that, there is something special about a World Cup.
All mathematics, science and rational thought go out the window when England are on. I am an Englishman and will be cheering our boys all the way to the final in Rio …
But my money is on Brazil
You would be a fool to overlook Brazil. Hosts have won over 30% of the World Cups. As we know from the study, there are significant environmental and psychological benefits of being close to home. It doesn’t look like a vintage Brazil team to me but I’m sure they have enough quality to lift the World Cup for the sixth time.
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If you’re that way inclined, you can download the entire Stephen Hawking report here (PDF file)
Keep your eyes peeled for more articles by Professor Hawking throughout the World Cup.
Professor Hawking will split the fee for his services to the Motor Neurone Disease Association and Save the Children’s ‘Syria Crisis Appeal’