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Stats and the World Cup

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The brief debates about the use of statistics in soccer that erupted on the match thread from USA-ENG yesterday reminded me of a story from my past.  (Before I forget, thanks to Citizen ClippersUK for posting and hosting that thread.)

As I believe I've mentioned in the past, I was the Director of Development for two World Cups, in 1994 and 1998, while working for EDS.  I was responsible for designing all of the software application specific to the World Cup, from the accreditation system to the press information systems.  It was a great job, I don't mind saying.

One of the really fun applications to design in 1994 was the match results capture system, and then of course the various displays and reports that flowed from that.

I was not a soccer guy at all at that point - it was before I had kids so I was not yet an AYSO coach, and I didn't really play soccer growing up.  (Though I did have a bit of a surprise recently when my daughter discovered and leafed through a scrapbook from my school days, and found therein a certificate documenting my membership on my school's eighth grade 'All Star' soccer team; I can honestly tell you, I had no recollection whatsoever of that.  That would have been about 1977, and with AYSO still in it's relative infancy, we literally knew the two or three kids at our school that played any form of organized soccer.  There was Steve M, and that guy Mike, and I think that other guy played.  So the eighth grade 'All Star' soccer team probably consisted of those three guys, and some others who displayed some level of interest and some amount of athleticism during PE class.  I fell into the latter category.) 

The starting point on the match results capture application seemed to be that we had to keep track of goals, yellow cards and red cards.  So what's that?  Six to ten events in a 90 minute period?  Being a bunch of Americans, not to mention being tasked with creating 'showcase' applications for a company that was involved in the World Cup as a marketing opportunity, we pushed hard to capture more events.  Getting them to allow us to capture shots wasn't that tough.  Corners and fouls were pretty acceptable as well.  But we wanted to go much further (even though we didn't even know much about the game, at least not those of us on the technology team).  I honestly don't recall where we ended up, but suffice it to say that in the end we were capturing far more information than had ever been captured at a World Cup to that point.

The Final Draw for World Cup 94 was in Las Vegas in December 93.  Part of that event was to preview some of the applications for the members of the press who would be the primary users of certain systems during the actual games.  I remember very distinctly sitting with a group of British journalists, proudly demoing the match results applications, showing them all of the information that they would be able to access regarding the matches.  When I'd finished my spiel, all proud of myself, I asked them what they thought.  And one of the journalists replied (in that particular London accent that ends every sentence as a question) "Well, you've turned it into baseball, haven't you?" 

I was crestfallen.  We'd been warned that no one felt they needed more information, but I felt convinced that they'd see the value if it was there in front of them.  I never expected that they'd be openly hostile toward the additional data.  But to them, it was an affront, an obvious indication that Americans didn't get "the beautiful game", and probably yet another reason that it was a travesty that the World Cup was being held in the US at all.  What more did they need to know other than the final score, and what they could see with their eyes?

Nonetheless, there are many more stats in the world of international football today than there were in 1994, and there will no doubt be even more in the future.  That door only opens one way - every sport, soccer included, adds stats over time, without ever taking any away. 

I know in retrospect that we were naive in 1994, not least of all about the game itself.  We had access to 'soccer people', but not nearly as much as we needed, and no one on the team had enough knowledge to even recognize obvious mistakes.  We wanted the time to add up to 90 minutes.  We wanted overtime kicks from the penalty spot to add points to the final score.  But even in our naivete, we persevered and created an application of which we were proud, and which advanced the use of statistics in international football, if only a little.

Another time, perhaps I'll tell you the story of opening day in the Dallas venue, when the system was completely broken and I was the only one who noticed.  Or the story of the names of the Saudi Arabian players in 1998.  Or the one where I made a recommendation to Sepp Blatter about how they should arrange the groups for European Qualifying for World Cup 2006.  I've got a bunch of World Cup stories, people.