Physicist Hawking calculates something serious: World Cup odds

Stephen Hawking gets together with betting chain Paddy Power to offer his brain power in predicting likely winners.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

He says he's not a football fan, except when England is playing. Paddy Power

Nate Silver already knows who's going to win the World Cup. Probably.

But when one of England's great minds declares itself about the tournament his country has so rarely a chance in, it's best to pay attention.

For reasons best known to very few, Stephen Hawking has got together with online betting emporium Paddy Power to offer his own math about the World Cup, and specifically England's chances.

Should you have been lost for most of your life in an Amazonian jungle, the World Cup is by far the most significant sporting event in the world. Whole nations stop to stare, wonder, scream, and, yes, bet.

Houses will be lost. Televisions will be thrown out of windows, sometimes from houses that are shortly to be lost.

Hawking admits that he thought Paddy Power's enterprise "slightly anti-intellectual."

He explained his change of mind in a highly intellectual way: "By inviting me to be a pundit, they have proved me wrong."

He applied the best math he could to the World Cup problem but insists he's hardly more accurate than Paul the Octopus. Actually, Paul was so good at predicting results in 2010 that he received Facebook death threats.

England hasn't won the World Cup since 1966. Even then, the intervention of a mustachioed Russian linesman (or assistant referee as it's quaintly called these days) suggested his eyes weren't quite as good as he claimed when he awarded England a goal in the final against Germany.

On that day, England wore red shirts. Hawking's perusal of the data tells him that a team wearing red has a better chance.

Moreover, in England's case, it's advantageous if the referee is a European. European referees, you see, are marginally less taken in by the diving antics of certain players -- Hawking cites Uruguay's talented, but highly shifty, striker Luis Suarez.

To offer a little fair balance, might I add that perhaps the worst diver in the world for many a day was current US national coach Jurgen Klinsmann -- who played for Germany.

The English, however, being delicate souls, need to beware the weather, the time, and the altitude in Brazil.

Says Hawking: "A 5-degree Celsius rise in temperature reduces our chances of winning by 59 percent. We are twice as likely to win when playing below 500 meters above sea level. And our chances of winning improve by a third when kicking off at 3 o'clock local time."

I am not sure if the legendary propensity of certain English players to enjoy one or eight pints of beer in the evening has anything to do with this.

Another area that is vital in World Cup matches is penalties. Sometimes there is a draw (or what Americans call a tie). Then, teams must rely on the shoot-out nerves of their steeliest players. Which, too often in England's case, has meant nobody.

Hawking insists that the data tells players to take a long run-up, hit the ball hard, aim for one of the top corners of the net, and use the side of the foot, rather than the instep.

It also helps if you're fair-haired or bald. (My own experience of non-World Cup play confirms this.)

Hawking is honest enough to admit that England's chances of winning may be about as great as those of Seth Rogen winning the New York Marathon.

Supporting your home country, though, is a calling, not a choice. (As a dual US-UK citizen, this is a schizophrenic time for me.)

If you have no home country that has qualified, you might choose to support the more beautiful teams: I would suggest that Croatia, Japan, Spain, and Portugal are teams with a higher aesthetic purpose. (A contrast are teams like Italy and Uruguay, whose cynical cup, at times, runneth over.)

Hawking says the math points squarely to Brazil. The host country has actually won the World Cup 30 percent of the time. And local subterfuge has never, ever played a part in this statistic.

I did enjoy, though, the words of one taxi driver at the 2006 World Cup in Berlin. When Germany was knocked out at the semi-final stage, he told me: "It's enough to be welcoming hosts. It would be rude to win the whole thing too."