The road to Rio

Brazil is the world’s fifth largest country by area. How will the distance factor affect team performance and how can this data be analysed for modelling purposes? Rob Esteva discusses.

Categories: Data, Football, Statistical models

Logistical factors are notoriously difficult to quantify when it comes to modelling in football. Distance alone is tough to find conclusions from as the various methods of transport alone can make away matches harder than others. The likelihood is that in most cases other than the extreme ones, a calculated home advantage takes most scenarios into consideration.

That is not quite the case for final tournament however. There is one home team, a handful of neighbours, and then a posse of teams from further afield. I wrote a blog almost two years ago about the travel and distance factor in Euro 2012 and with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on the horizon I wanted to scribble once again on the challenges being faced in Brazil and how that could impact performance and betting on the tournament.

Compared to previous European Championships, there were numerous logistical challenges to the 2012 tournament which I paid close attention to while I was working at the tournament in Gdansk. Even those that had been co-hosted in the past such as Belgium/Netherlands hosting Euro 2000, and Switzerland/Austria in 2008 did not present such issues. In Poland and Ukraine, distances were greater on a match-by-match basis compared to so many other major tournaments so tight schedules combined with flights or lengthy coach trips were a factor in team performance. Much has been discussed already in the build up to Brazil and not without good reason.

Why is it a factor?

There are more host cities and venues (12) in Brazil than any other previous final tournament. Completely understandable from a commercial perspective, far from optimal from an organisational and high performance sense. That means not a single team will play in the same stadium more than once in the group stage which is rare. Four teams (Czech Rep, Holland, Spain & Sweden) at the last Euro played all three group matches in the same stadium. For that reason, selection of the Team Base Camp is a fundamental decision for any national team when planning for a major tournament.

You may be reading this asking many of the following questions. These guys are professional athletes, why should it affect them? The teams will undoubtedly be travelling in luxury, so surely it will not affect them the same as the rest of us in Economy class? Given the nature of world football, surely the players are fully accustomed to travelling? All valid points in some respects, but it is a factor that can affect performance and subsequently betting.

I attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a couple of months back and listened to a fascinating panel discussing sleep and the role travel and logistics played in performance for NBA teams and players. It is worth watching, without being tied down too much by the science. The general principle makes sense and as obvious as it sounds, many teams do not correctly plan for time zone changes, travel plans and sleep/recovery. If this is the case in the NBA, you can be sure there will be a majority of teams not taking the same scientific approach in Brazil. Everton manager Roberto Martinez is one manager who has adopted this scientific approach and revealed that he fines players if he can prove they have not had eight hours’ sleep at night and the club are planning to have overnight accommodation built at their training headquarters such is the importance based upon this. Can players perform after long journeys and lack of sleep? Of course they can. The question however is can they perform to their best when on the highest level.

2014 World Cup Travel Itineraries


Taking a look at the group stages only demonstrates a huge difference between the distances teams will have to travel. Much has been spoken about England’s lengthy trip to Manaus for their first game, but looking at the travel between the three matches, they rank mid-table. Belgium have 1043km to travel only. England’s group rivals Italy and USA top the list having to travel over 9,000km each.

2014 World Cup Projected Distances

Taking it a step further, if we look at the top twelve favourites in Tournament betting markets, we can project the distances each team will have to travel over the course of the tournament depending on how they qualify from their group as winners or runners-up and which side of the draw they go into.



The standout teams here are Belgium and Argentina. Whether they come first or second in their group, their projected distances via either route in the draw are extremely favourable. On the flipside, Italy will have to travel some 12,000km over the month to win the competition – three times more than either Belgium or Argentina.

To put this in some context, London to Kiev is approximately 2500km – one of the longer journeys that English teams in the Champions League may make once a season. Some of the teams in the World Cup will have to make those kinds of journeys every 3-4 days in Brazil. Familiarity to such travel could be a factor. From England’s perspective, given the size of the country, most teams in the Premier League travel by coach each game with the occasional flights between North and South. The non-European players frequently make those long trips with their national teams back to South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania meaning they are far more likely to be accustomed to the travel and so on.

Decision Time

So from a betting perspective, how should you apply this to your decision making in the World Cup? Teams that play a high tempo, rely on a high pressurise closing down style, or struggle to keep possession, may well find it increasingly difficult if they have made long arduous journeys. One such team that stands out is USA. A tough group does not help, but given the distance they will have to travel, their tactical style that relies on hard work and pressure against such teams as Germany and a certain Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, will make it difficult to them. Of all the favourites, Argentina have an extremely favourable schedule and this should not be underestimated neither.

In betting markets such as tournament winner for example, I’m looking at the paths teams may follow, measuring the teams they will face, and giving some consideration to factors such as distance. If I have two evenly rated teams in the quarter-finals, team news is neutral, obviously it is unlikely there will be questions regarding motivation but one team has travelled three times further than the other, I may well make an adjustment based on that.

How much of a weighting is for you to decide, but do not underestimate the effect certain external factors can and will have on performance. Injury news, minutes played this season in domestic competitions, style of play, familiarity among players, tactics; the type of factors we study at Onside Analysis can make a notable difference when it comes to identifying teams which may fly under the radar, or be vastly overrated by the market. Visit our site if you would like more information about the type of research and analysis we are producing ahead of the World Cup, and our Tournament package.

About Rob Esteva

Rob Esteva is a Director at Onside Analysis & Stratagem Technologies Ltd and co-founder of Previously of Smartodds and UEFA, Rob specialises in Sports Data and Analysis.
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