How big a role does luck play in football?

Players and experts differ on luck’s role in football and how critical it is in teams’ success in big tournaments.

football goal post
Unlucky? Ball hitting the post and staying out [Francois Lenoir/Reuters]

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Football is prone to strange things happening.

A deflected goal, a player slip-up or ball hitting the post. It’s all routine in the beautiful game.

Croatia’s Ivan Perisic twice hit the inside of the post during World Cup 2018. So close, yet so far in being on the scorers’ sheet with those attempts. Unlucky, some would say.

But chance can work in opposite ways. There is an argument that teams like Croatia and England reached the last-four because of being on the “easier” side of the draw. They were dealt a good hand.

In other words, they were lucky, the argument is.

But how much of a role does luck play in football, especially at a World Cup?

Even footballers believe in the invisible force of chance albeit to varying degrees. 

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Lutz Pfannenstiel, former goalkeeper and current head of International Relations and Scouting department at Bundesliga club Hoffenheim, thinks luck does play a modest role in football.

“It’s about being in the right place at the right time. Skill and training can cut down the luck factor quite a lot but you still need the 20 percent,” Pfannenstiel told Al Jazeera.

“Luck is when Harry Kane gets hit by a shot and the ball deflects to the back of the net. But Kane works hard for his luck and he has the right instincts.”

However, the other school of thought reckons chance is a much bigger factor than previously thought.

In Chris Anderson and David Sally’s book ‘The Numbers Game’, football comes down to 50 percent skill and 50 percent luck.

Anderson, an Economics and Politics Professor at Warwick University in the UK, said “football is driven more by luck and chance than other team sport”.

“There’s the 50 percent that can be controlled, like tactics, team selection and preparation. The other half is all chance.”

But there is a huge difference in how players and experts perceive the luck factor.

For Germany’s 1990 World Cup winner Thomas Berthold, chance’s influence on the game is not more than five percent.

“There are sometimes situations where a ball takes a different direction and that can lead to lucky or unlucky situations,” said Berthold who added “luck played no role in Germany’s 1990 World Cup victory”.

Some go back to the 2014 final, arguing that if Gonzalo Higuain had not squandered chances, things could have turned out quite differently for Argentina.

Berthold, though, put that down to skill.

“In 2014, there were quite a few games where luck or Manuel Neuer were on the Germans’ side.”

This is an argument that Pfannenstiel endorses.

“It was no luck because Germany was the best team over the whole period.”

But the truth is probably somewhere in between. Germany were favourites, they were gifted with depth and talent. But skill alone does not win you trophies as others argue France and Belgium were just as talented.

But what about the weaker teams?

While winning is complicated and ultimately boils down to multiple factors, for Germany it was a matter of preparation meeting opportunity. Still, an element of luck was still necessary.

But that does not explain how lesser teams win tournaments – Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004.

Pfannenstiel reckons momentum and the right mentality played a large role in Denmark’s win.

In 2016, Portugal, were always a tournament team and they had Cristiano Ronaldo, he added.

“Greece, I still can’t believe. I think it was 50 percent down to their good defensive structure, 20 percent due to growing confidence, 10 percent due to the stupidity of their opponents and 20 percent luck.”

So does luck favour the favourites or non-favourites at a tournament?

In the Word Cup, we play a relatively small number of matches and luck has an opportunity to influence outcomes more

by Chris Anderson, Economics and Politics Professor at University of Warwick

“In the Word Cup, we play a relatively small number of matches and luck has an opportunity to influence outcomes more,” said Anderson.

“The regression to the mean also favours the lesser teams. That’s why it’s so surprising that a weaker team has never made it.”

So if luck favours the weaker teams, where is the World Cup version of Greece 2004 or Denmark 1992?

No long-shot has won the World Cup since the first edition in 1930.

Only eight teams have lifted the trophy – Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, France, Spain and England.

One possible explanation could be the gap in skill levels. 


“The distribution of quality in the teams is narrower in the Euros than in the World Cup,” said Anderson.

“If teams are similar to each other in quality, you have more room for other things to make the difference.”

Some would argue, however, that the individual quality between France and Portugal At Euro 2016 was huge apart from Ronaldo, who didn’t even play in the final.

The closest an outsider has ever come to winning the World Cup in recent years were the semi-finals – South Korea and Turkey in 2002, Croatia in 1998, and Sweden and Bulgaria in 1994.

But come Sunday, Croatia has its first shot at World Cup glory.

Some argue that Croatia were a dark horse rather than an outsider at Russia 2018.

But with a population of just over 4 million, perhaps the outsider label doesn’t sound so far-fetched after all.

“Turkey had a good team, a good draw and a great run,” said Pfannenstiel.

“South Korea were carried on home support. But in the end, the big teams make the final. Croatia is a football country with amazing individual talent. They can always go far, maybe all the way in 2018. Who knows, they need a bit of luck.”

People forget that football is witness to many strange things. There’s the miracle of Istanbul in Champions League but also outliers like Germany’s 7-1 hammering of Brazil four years ago and the 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia at the hands of Russia.

“The odds are there. Something freaky will happen. Everything you can imagine will happen at least once,” reminded Anderson.

It’s just a matter of when and where.

Is the football world cup truly a global event?

Source: Al Jazeera