Analytics scours World Cups for greatest footballer of all time

Sports data company Opta’s analytics of every World Cup finals match ever played since 1966 adds to the debate on who is football’s greatest of all time

Which footballer is the greatest of all time? The greatest of all time (GOAT) debate has challenged armchair pundits and former pros alike for decades. More often than not their personal GOAT vote conforms to the ‘reminiscence bump’ – people recall most personal events from when they were between 10 and 30 years old. Ask someone to pick their favourite film, book or musician, and they will typically pick something from that period.

It’s the same with football. Ask someone born in the mid-1950s to name their favourite player and there’s a strong chance they will say Pele. Ask someone born in the early 1970s and they will probably reply Maradona. In the late 1990s, Messi or Ronaldo. It’s incredibly unscientific and as a result it fails to provide a conclusive answer to the GOAT question.

This was one of the reasons that spurred sports data company Opta to trawl through footage of every single World Cup finals match from 1966 to the present day to see what trends they could derive. Opta has been doing the same forensic research on Premier League football matches, as well as matches from other major global football divisions and international games, since 1996.

When it decided to analyse World Cup finals games, the first major challenge was trying to find a full set of televised games, according to Rob Bateman, content and customer services director at Opta. It eventually managed to track down somebody in Spain with a complete set of television footage of games from the only World Cup finals ever held on English soil on DVD, which enabled Opta to start deploying its modern-day data collection techniques on these historical matches.     

Although you might think it would be harder to analyse TV footage from an era when broadcasting was rudimentary compared to the high-tech wizardry used to cover matches today, Bateman says that the opposite turned out to be true.  

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“Football from that far back has very similar camera angles to today, but it also had fewer replays, so in some respects that’s better for us because sometimes when you’re watching a game today and they show a replay, actions might still be going on on the pitch – for instance, someone might take a quick free kick or a throw-in – so you’ve got to go back to try and work out who took it because you didn’t see it as the replay came up.”

Analysing old matches was also made a lot easier because the games were much slower back then than today, although that’s not to say they weren’t as exciting. Bateman cites the 1966 and 2006 World Cup finals as an example. 

“Both games went to extra time, but there were more than three times as many shots in the 1966 final as there was in the final 40 years later. It was a much more open game, with more scoring opportunities and players dribbling more often. Passing also tended to be longer and less accurate, unlike today where there is more of an emphasis on possession.”

2014: more goals scored by subs than ever

The 2014 World Cup, which Opta is currently analysing, has already pointed up some interesting historical trends, particularly in goal scoring. There have already been more goals scored by substitutes in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil than any tournament in history, reflecting the primacy of the squad in the modern game. The average number of goals per game in the knock-out stages (three) is also as high as it has ever been since 1958 – from 1966 to 1990, Opta data shows a significant decline in the number of goals scored in World Cup finals; the introduction of the back-pass laws in 1994 temporarily halted this decline but the goals tally started to shrink again from 1998 on.

Lineker clinical   

In addition to general tournament trends that reflect the different ways that the game has evolved over the last five or so decades, Opta picked up on some interesting individual statistics. For instance, BBC TV’s football anchor Gary Lineker is the most clinical striker from open play of any player in World Cup history stretching back to 1966. He converted about 40% of his chances, which is pretty impressive when you consider that the average for a striker in the World Cup finals is around 16%. Portugal great Eusebio, on the other hand, had 66 shots on goal in the 1966 finals – twice as many as any other player – but netted just nine of those in six matches (including four in one game). 

One of the most ironic stats unearthed was that Maradona has been penalised for more handballs than any other player in World Cup history since 1966, although much to the annoyance of England fans he didn’t get punished for his most blatant and highest-profile offence.

Maradona – the most marked man

But spare a thought for the Argentine because he is also the most fouled player in World Cup history – a fact borne out by one of Bateman’s favourite personal stats about Italian defender Claudio Gentile, who was part of the 1982 World Cup winning team.

He committed six fouls in a match against Argentina, all on Diego Maradona, and then he played against Brazil and did exactly the same on Zico

Rob Bateman

“Gentile, who was from the old Italian school of defending, was probably the most non-aptly named man in history,” says Bateman. “He committed six fouls in a match against Argentina in 1982, all on Diego Maradona, and then he played against Brazil in the same tournament and did exactly the same on Zico.”

The 1998 World Cup was a low point for fouls – or a high point, depending on which way you look at it – with Argentina’s Ariel Ortega fouled 12 times in one game and England striker Alan Shearer 11 times in a single match. 

That’s not to say that football is dirtier today than it was back in the 1960s, though, says Bateman. “From a style perspective, players used to commit more fouls in the 1960s and 1970s, but they didn’t get penalised because more was allowed to go by refs.” 

Likewise, although Brazil and Argentina might top the league table of most red cards received in a World Cup, that is purely down to the sheer number of tournaments they’ve participated in – in recent years two of the dirtiest teams in the World Cup finals have been Cameroon and Australia, but they don’t appear at the top of the red card league as they have played in significantly fewer tournaments than the South American giants.

And the greatest of all time is …

A definitive answer to the GOAT debate is, unfortunately, not possible, according to Bateman. Even with the incredible advances made in technology and sports analytics over the last decade or so, he concedes that it’s still pretty much impossible to single out one player as the greatest of all time.

“Pele was a fantastic player and he was the best in his era; Diego Maradona was the best in his era; and Messi and Ronaldo are the best in the current era,” says Bateman. “But Pele had more time on the ball and Maradona played in an age where you could be fouled much more, whereas today players are protected. The data can’t give you a definitive answer to who is the best because there are so many differences between the styles of play and what players were able to do in the various World Cups that they participated in.”

It looks like the great GOAT debate will rumble on...

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