World Cup Math

How many teams are playing in the 2014 World Cup? How many countries have ever won it? What are the odds that Brazil, this year's host country and 5-time winner, will win again? Keep on reading to find out and learn all about the math behind the World Cup.

Jason Marshall, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #202

What Are the Odds of Brazil Winning (Again)? 

Of course, it's impossible to perfectly predict what's going to happen in any sporting event (or most anything else for that matter), but that doesn't stop people from trying. If you ask most knowledgeable people about the likely winner of this year's World Cup, more often than not they'll tell you that Brazil has the best shot. And when you look at the numbers, that conclusion is pretty hard to disagree with.

As Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com (famous for his incredibly accurate models predicting things like the outcomes of presidential elections) points out, the simple fact is that "It's really hard to beat Brazil in Brazil." Silver points out that Brazil hasn't lost a meaningful game on Brazilian soil since 1975. So yeah, that's a pretty good home field advantage. And thus, it does seem a pretty smart bet to bet on Brazil.

Silver's Soccer Power Index (SPI) algorithm pegs Brazil's chances of winning another World Cup trophy at around 45%. The next likeliest countries are Argentina at 13%, Germany at 11%, and Spain at 8%. According to the SPI, my USA team has about a 0.4% chance of winning it all. As such, I'm not holding my breath, although I am forever hopeful. And the truth is that the USA is a pretty decent team. So, hey, you never know.

How Many People Will Be Watching? 

Approximately how many people will be watching this year's World Cup in person? Well, the total attendance at the 64 games of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was just under 3.2 million. The 6.15 million ticket requests made during the first phase of sales for this year's World Cup in Brazil suggest that the number of people attending games this year will be at least that large.

How many people will be watching on TV? As you might expect, those numbers are staggeringly large. According to FIFA (the organization that runs the World Cup), 909.6 million people watched at least 1 minute of the 2010 World Cup final. And that number probably tops 1 billion if you include people watching online and at public gathering spots. FIFA also reports that 3.2 billion people watched some portion of the 2010 World Cup from the comfort of their favorite chair at home or perhaps at their favorite public house—that's almost 50% of the entire population of the planet!

The Best World Cup/Math Connection

While all of these numbers and figures are great, my favorite connection between the world of math and the World Cup comes from the story of Mark Geiger, an American referee selected to work this year's tournament. Besides working his way up the ranks and becoming one of the most respected referees in North America, Geiger is also a highly decorated high school AP math teacher.

In fact, he received the rather prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching in 2009, and generally just seems like an all-around nice guy. Plus, he's a math dude…refereeing at the World Cup…which you gotta love. 

Wrap Up

OK, that's all the math we have time for today. I hope you enjoy all the World Cup games—and the numbers behind them—over the next month!

Please be sure to check out my book The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Algebra. And remember to become a fan of the Math Dude on Facebook where you’ll find lots of great math posted throughout the week. If you’re on Twitter, please follow me there, too.

Until next time, this is Jason Marshall with The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Make Math Easier. Thanks for reading, math fans!

World Cup and soccer fans images courtesy of Shutterstock. Soccer referee image courtesy of Lario Tus / Shutterstock.com.


About the Author

Jason Marshall, PhD

Jason Marshall is the author of The Math Dude's Quick and Dirty Guide to Algebra. He provides clear explanations of math terms and principles, and his simple tricks for solving basic algebra problems will have even the most math-phobic person looking forward to working out whatever math problem comes their way.

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