We shouldn’t be here
So France vs Croatia it is. For France, it’s three World Cup finals in six tournaments, a mightily impressive feat. Croatia meanwhile become the smallest nation to reach a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950, a fitting reward for a golden generation. Our model gives France a 62% chance of lifting the trophy.
Both countries, however, will acknowledge the fine margins that got them here. According to our model, France had less than a 20% chance of advancing against Argentina when a goal down. Croatia’s chances meanwhile had slipped to less than 10% against England in the semi finals – before we account for the fact that they also needed two shootouts to progress. In hindsight their turnarounds mean the jeopardy they faced now seems less real than what it actually was at the time. And while both have done well to complete those turnarounds, it’s not impossible to imagine a World Cup without either of them in the final, and therefore a World Cup with a different narrative.
Indeed it’s been a tournament of fine margins – nine of the other fourteen teams that reached the knockout stages had, at one stage, more than a 50% chance of reaching the next round. Belgium and Uruguay saw the other side of the coin in the knockouts (avoided a more-likely-than-not elimination), and as did Sweden in the group stages.
This isn’t unique to this World Cup though. Football is constantly about fine margins; about tackles that rebound fortuitously, throughballs narrowly intercepted, shots deflected by fingertips. When we are affected by them, it’s crucial to see past the narratives and understand what could have happened – and not just pie-in-the-sky dreams but the likely possible outcomes.
Should Brazil, for example, reconsider their approach to tournament football? Perhaps not: not only were they favourites against Belgium – off the back of three solid wins – but they also created chances on the day that could have seen them through.
The decisions we make fundamentally come down to how well we understand the information before us. That’s harder in football than in many industries – and part of the reason we love the sport – but needn’t be a reason to get lost in the narratives.