Saturday, July 5, 2014

Has Brazil Stopped Playing the Beautiful Game?

Brazil, the 5-time winner of World Cup, is not only known as a soccer powerhouse, but also as the country that made soccer beautiful.  Players such as Pelé, Eusebio, and Ronaldo exemplified ‘o jogo bonito’, the beautiful game made up of dance-like moves, relentless team-work, and fair play.

However, Brazil’s team in the 2014 World Cup has been accused of playing rough in order to win the cup.  So, today we will interrupt our usual articles about Twitter analytics to see if data can help us understand whether Brazil has stopped playing the beautiful game.

Although playing rough is made up of multiple characteristics, the simple way to measure it is by using the number of fouls a team commits per match.  Using this metric, Brazil not only ranks as one of the roughest teams in the World Cup, but also takes the top spot.  Similarly surprising is that four of the top five teams with most fouls are Latin American, a region known more for style than brawn.

The most vivid example of Brazil’s physical game was the match against Colombia, which the New York Times chronicled so wonderfully.   The match had a total of 54 fouls, the most fouls for a game in this World Cup. Although both teams were to blame, Brazil’s 31 fouls were also the greatest number in a match by any team in this year’s championship.  Colombia’s 23 fouls were still significant though, cracking the top 10% fouls by a team.

The match against Colombia might not have been a big deal if it wasn't another data point in a disturbing trend.  In the match against Chile, Brazil once again seemed to rely more on brawn than beauty.  The team committed 28 fouls, tying Switzerland for the second most fouls committed by a team in the World Cup.  Between these two matches, Brazil was responsible for the top two matches with most fouls in this championship.

Some allege that Brazil has gotten away with a rougher style of play due to the leniency of the referees to the home team.  However, the data seems to tell a different story.  Although it’s hard to measure how many fouls referees miss, we can see how willing referees were to give yellow cards to a team that was committing multiple fouls.  If we rank all the teams in the World Cup by the average number of fouls committed per yellow card, we find that Brazil is safely in the bottom.  Brazil committed 6 fouls for every yellow card, less than half of the 15 fouls per yellow card for Algeria, which had the most leniency from the referees.

Brazil is an outstanding team, the favorites to win it all according to many experts.  Unless they clean up their game, Brazil might win the cup but not the hearts of soccer fans around the world.  For a team known for playing a beautiful game, this would be an ugly shame.

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