On Tuesday morning, I called the World Cup semifinal between Germany and Brazil a very evenly matched contest.
Yeah, about that …
In an astonishing 18-minute span during the first half, the Germans opened up a 5-0 lead against a Brazil squad that seemed to have given up without its superstar striker, Neymar, who’d been knocked out of the previous match with a back injury. Germany would pile on two more goals before Brazil’s Oscar netted a meaningless marker in the 90th minute to set the final score at 7-1.
How big is a six-goal margin of victory in the World Cup? Going into this year’s tournament, only 17 matches in Cup history had seen one side win by six or more goals — most recently when Portugal trounced North Korea 7-0 in the 2010 group stage. And just twice had it happened as late as a semifinal, depending on how you treat Brazil overpowering Sweden 7-1 in 1950 and Argentina’s 6-0 clobbering of Peru in 1978. (Both of those matches technically came in the stage directly preceding the final, but also in a format that used additional round-robin groups to filter teams into the final rather than the knockout-style bracket used today.)
The bewildering scoreline in Tuesday’s match had me wondering what an equivalent margin would be in other sports. One approach to the answer is to use the standard deviations of scoring margins in each sport. Lucky for us, in his book “Mathletics,” Wayne Winston, a professor of operations and decision technologies at Indiana University, has done the heavy lifting for us with regard to pro football. Following up on the work of statistician Hal Stern, Winston found that the margin of victory for an NFL team can be approximated by a normal random variable with a mean of the Vegas line (or the margin predicted by a computer power rating) and a standard deviation of 13.86 points.
Winston also wrote:
For NBA basketball, NCAA basketball and college football, respectively, Jeff Sagarin has found that the historical standard deviation of game results about a prediction from a rating system is given by 12, 10, and 16 points, respectively.
Applying Stern’s, Winston’s and Sagarin’s methodology to historical World Cup matches from 1930 to 2010, I found that the distribution of the scoring margin in a high-level international soccer match (relative to the pre-match prediction using Elo ratings and a home-field effect) is approximately normal with a mean of zero and a standard deviation of 1.83 goals. If Brazil and Germany were considered evenly matched going into Tuesday’s game (giving Brazil only credit for playing at home), we’d predict Brazil’s margin of victory to be about 0.5 goals, so Germany’s six-goal margin was 3.6 standard deviations above expected.
Going by Winston’s numbers, a 3.6 standard deviation performance in the NFL would be the equivalent of beating an opponent by nearly 50 more points than expected. If you’re curious, you can find a list of the biggest postseason blowouts in NFL history on Pro-Football-Reference.com; if we (naively) assume all of those games were considered evenly matched aside from a three-point bonus for the home team, the closest analog to Germany’s win over Brazil might be the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 62-7 demolition of the Miami Dolphins in 2000 in Dan Marino’s final game.
Put in soccer terms, the Jaguars’ margin would have been 6.8 more goals than expected. But that’s nothing compared to the the 1940 NFL championship game between the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins, which ended with the Bears winning 73-0 (on the road, no less). By soccer standards, that would be like winning by 10 more goals than expected, a mark Germany would have needed to pour on about three more goals to match.
In college football, Germany’s rout was the equivalent of winning by 57 more points than expected. That’s about the same as Tulsa’s 63-7 victory over Bowling Green in the 2008 GMAC Bowl (a game that carried just a little less importance than Germany-Brazil). In terms of bowls that had national championship implications, you’d have to go back to 1996 and the Fiesta Bowl between then-undefeated No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Florida. Favored by three going into the game, Nebraska won by 38, 62-24. But in soccer terms, that’d be a mere win by four more goals than expected — a far cry from the Germans’ performance.
Shifting gears to basketball, the Germans’ victory would be like an NBA team winning by 43 more points than expected. Basketball-Reference.com has a list of most lopsided playoff contests in NBA history; assuming evenly matched opponents with a 3.25-point home-court advantage, Germany’s win would be most like the Los Angeles Lakers’ 118-78 win over the San Francisco Warriors in the 1969 postseason. (If you’re looking for an equivalent game in the conference finals or later — probably a more apt comparison for Germany-Brazil — the most comparable rout would be the Lakers’ 153-109 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the 1985 Western Conference finals.) And the most dominant conference-finals-or-later win in NBA history, the Lakers’ 126-70 thrashing of the Golden State Warriors on the road in Game 3 of the 1973 Western Conference finals, would be like winning by nine more goals than expected in soccer.
College basketball’s biggest NCAA Tournament wins have usually come in the early rounds of the tournament, which comes as no surprise. (For instance, poor 16-seed Prairie View got pasted by No. 1 seed Kansas, 110-52, in the 1998 opener.) Isolating Final Four games, we find a pair of 34-point blowouts that took place in the national semifinal. According to Sagarin’s research, Germany’s win would be like a college basketball team lambasting an evenly matched opponent by 35.9 points.
In terms of impressive victories, Germany’s romp ranks among the most notable blowouts across sports more familiar to fans in the United States. A 7-1 win might not seem all that uncommon to baseball fans, so it might help to think of it as the equivalent of a 47-point NFL road playoff victory, or a 40-point win on the road in an NBA playoff game. It wasn’t something you see every day, especially considering it came on the cusp of the World Cup final.