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The beautiful game

Punditry took a hiding in Germany.

One of the overriding messages from the World Cup that has just ended in Berlin is that football (that's soccer to our American readers) is almost impossible to predict. As a low-scoring game, it has an inherently stochastic quality that makes it gloriously exciting and palm-thumpingly frustrating in equal measure.

The struggle to anticipate World Cup results has taken many forms. In London, The Guardian newspaper attempted to verify the mantra of the Internet age that wisdom lies with the masses, inviting readers to vote for different betting options for each match. By the end of the tournament, the people made a profit, turning £250 (US$460) into £356. However, the newspaper's pet goldfish, which chose its bets by swimming to different parts of its tank, put them to shame, ending up with £369.

A look at more 'scientific' efforts at prediction turns up similar examples of painful hubris. A group of Norwegian mathematicians, for example, designed a computer model that simulated the complete tournament 2,000 times over (see http://www.nature.com/news). It predicted a Brazilian victory — but in reality, Brazil performed rather miserably and only made the quarter-finals.

Perhaps the tournament's least adroit piece of scientific punditry, however, came from Michael Shadlen, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. In an interview for Nature's online World Cup preview, he hailed French maestro Zinedine Zidane as the world's most intelligent footballer. Zidane certainly made his mark, winning the Golden Ball award as the tournament's outstanding player — before being sent off in Sunday's final for a disgraceful headbutt on an opponent. Not too clever, really.

At least Italian scientists can take heart from that bombastic finale. The country's footballers have returned home in glory as deserved champions, to face a match-fixing scandal that could see several of the clubs that employ them relegated in ignominy. But as researchers there can testify, flourishing in the face of official incompetence and corruption is just what all Italian professionals have to do, every day of the week.

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The beautiful game. Nature 442, 110 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/442110b

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