Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”
Gary Lineker, BBC Sport presenter and former England captain
“When the Germans play well they become world champion; if they play poor they reach the final.”
Michel Platini, President of UEFA and former France captain
Within the first eight minutes of the 1954 world cup final, Hungary had raced to a two goal lead. No one believed that West-Germany – or anyone – could beat Hungary. The previous year the “Mighty Magyars” became the first team to beat England at Wembley. But this did not stop Germany from staking their first claim to a reputation for being a team with a winning mentality – and a team that scores late goals. Helmut Rahn waited until six minutes before the end of the game to score the winner. The final whistle blew with the score at 3-2, sealing Germany’s first world cup. Since then the German national team has been among the most successful in world football, having won the world cup three times (1954, 1974, and 1990) and been runners-up four times (1966, 1982, 1986, and 2002). They have won the European Championship three times (1972, 1980, and 1996) and been runners-up three times (1976, 1992, 2008). At odds of 14 to 1 Germany are hardly favourites to bring home their fourth world cup this time round, but with such a record few would dare rule them out.
German-born Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger has put the success of the German national team down to attitude and planning: “The German national team plays the way its general staff prepared for the war; games are meticulously planned, each player skilled in both attack and defence. Intricate pass patterns evolve, starting right in front of the German goal. Anything achievable by human foresight, careful preparation and hard work is accounted for” (Kissinger 1986).
What determines success?
Previous studies on the achievement of national football teams have focused on the effects of population size, GDP and the number of world cup appearances as indicator of a “learning curve” (Houston and Wilson 2002). These studies, unsurprisingly, find that these factors play a positive role. If you want to have a successful national team it helps to be big country and a rich one (see Hoffmann et al. 2002, Macmillan and Smith 2007, Leeds and Leeds 2009).
There are clear analogies between sports economics and labour economics. As Kahn (2000) indicates professional sports offer a unique opportunity for labour market research. Winning a sporting contest depends on relative, not on absolute performance. Talent will migrate to wherever it is most valued. This general rule may apply to club teams, but, apart from some naturalisation, it does not apply to national teams. Players are not bought and sold – their eligibility to play depends on their nationality. Once a player has represented the senior national team of country, the player is not allowed to play for a different national team. Thus, national teams have more or less exogenously given resources as the labour market for players is restricted on the basis of nationality.
Playing for the national team is never a footballer’s main job – as many club managers are at pains to point out. But there are clear incentives to participate in national teams because the market value, i.e. earnings capacity goes up once a player has been selected for a national team. It is also considered such an honour to be chosen that hardly any player declines an invitation. One might therefore expect that the performance of national teams is related to talent skills – and not to incentives.
National identity in the dying seconds
The common element within a team is the team spirit since (most) players share the same “national identity” – whatever this may be. In a recent discussion paper (van Ours and Van Tuijl, 2010) we ask whether national identity influences the outcome of international football matches, with the hope that this can provide insights for the wider labour market.
We focus on goal-scoring in the “dying seconds” of important international football matches – where national identity becomes most apparent. We analyse goal-scoring in more than 1500 important football matches played by the national teams of Belgium, Brazil, England, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands since 1960.
Final results (after 90 minutes plus extra time)
Table 1 shows the importance of scoring in the last minute or in the last five minutes. In 4% of our matches a goal is scored in the last minute, 13.9% in the last five minutes. In 1.9% of the matches the countries conceded a goal, 6.8 % in the last five minutes. This provides some support for the resignation “…and then Germany win”. German teams score in the final minute (including added time) in 5.5% of their matches, well above average. It should be noted however, that the Netherlands have scored in the last minute in 5.9% of their matches.
We also estimate simple a linear probability model and find that England, Germany, and the Netherlands are up to 4.5% more likely than Brazil to score in the last minute. Often this makes all the difference. If a team scores in the last minute it is up to 26% more likely to win and 12% to 14% less likely to lose the match. We find that the Netherlands have the highest probability of scoring a goal in the last five minutes while Germany has the highest probability of conceding a goal.
Does it matter whether teams play at home? We find that teams playing at home are 4.2% more likely to score and a 2.3% less likely to concede. Home teams are about 20% more likely to win if they play at home and 12% to 16% less likely to lose.
When two teams are tied in a knock-out game, and extra time cannot provide a resolution, the game is decided in a penalty shootout. Sometimes, as in the last world cup, this even happens in the final. Table 2 gives an overview of penalty shootouts in the World Cup and Continental Championships. Whereas England, Italy and the Netherlands have a poor performance, Brazil has a much better performance, and Germany has an excellent performance with five wins against France, Mexico, Argentina and twice against England. With the exception of the Belgium national team which participated in penalty shootouts only once, the German national team has the highest percentage of goals scored in penalty shootouts (94%) in the World Cup and in the European Championship (90%).
Scoring goals is a team effort – though it does help to have a good striker to transfer team effort into results. Scoring goals is also determined by the support of the crowd watching the game. We find that national teams have a clear home advantage when playing important matches.
Whereas there is a random element in goal-scoring which makes football matches all the more exciting to watch, there is also persistence in performance of national teams, with Brazil and Germany almost always performing well. Although the differences between the best national teams tend to get smaller, over the period 1960-2009 Brazil had a much better track record of winning games than for example Italy, Germany, England, and the Netherlands.
But national teams not only differ in their success, their overall goal scoring and goal conceding, they also differ in how they score and how they win. Brazil and Italy do not like to lose and reduce their effort to score a goal in the last minutes to avoid conceding a goal. England, Germany and the Netherlands are risk seeking, and increase their effort to score a goal at the risk of conceding one. Only for Germany do we find that the risk of conceding a goal increases significantly. Apparently, Germany wants to win whatever the cost.
Of course, the probability of winning is mostly determined by team quality. But it seems that not only home advantage, skills, and luck matter; so does national identity. Nevertheless, goal scoring in the last minute does not happen very often. While the German mentality may make scoring late goals more likely, the chances of it influencing this year’s world cup, though significant, are small.