Sunday, 30 August 2015

World Cup Sunshine

It was something Rich Johnson said while we were recording the fifth Football Attic podcast. We were discussing the World Cups of the past and my Attic co-blogger innocently observed that the best tournaments were often the ones with the most sunshine. Think Mexico '70 or Mexico '86... great World Cups that evoke memories of players scoring fabulous goals in stadia bathed in beautiful bright sunlight. Then think of Italia '90... a tournament looked upon by many as being an exhibition of negative football, mostly played at night.

A water-tight theory, I was inclined to think at the time... but could it actually be proved? It got me thinking: was there any direct correlation between the amount of sun that shone during a World Cup and the quality of the football it produced?

Obviously it was never going to be easy calculating the exact amount of sunshine for a single match, let alone several tournaments. No-one to my knowledge has deliberately stuck a light meter in the pitch of every World Cup game and published the readings for all to see, so how could the theory stand up to assessment?

I soon realised this was no place for exact science and academic brilliance. Some wide-ranging assumptions and flabby rules were needed if this exercise was going to bear fruit, so that's exactly how I went about my work.

Goals = quality

To begin, there's no quantifiable way of determining how good a World Cup tournament is or was. Every one of them has had its fair share of memorable moments, but they've all had their dull matches too. For the purposes of this elaborate plan, therefore, I decided to focus on the number of goals scored during a tournament as a general gauge for its overall quality.

The shadows

Then there was the sunshine issue. What was it about, say, Mexico '70 that proves it was so rich in sunlight? In short, shadows. Seemingly every image we saw of Pele or Gerd Muller or Jeff Astle (for instance) featured said players with short, dark shadows attached to their feet, and it's these shadows that confirm the presence of strong sunlight.

Video evidence

But could a match be considered 'sunny' if, for instance, the sun only shone for five minutes of a match? In my view, no: the term could only be applied if shadows were being cast on the pitch for more than half a match.

And how could I prove that this was the case? By watching YouTube videos that, in some cases, lasted no more than a couple of minutes.

(I did warn you that this was unscientific.)

In my defence, however, many World Cup matches can be found on YouTube in their entirety, and where this was the case, I assessed the whole game to reach some sort of outcome.

Oh, and I also decided to start my research from 1970. My reasons were two-fold; firstly, because the number of World Cup matches on YouTube falls away sharply before the first Mexico tournament, and secondly, because all pre-1970 TV footage is in black and white. The latter point is apposite when trying to work out whether a match is played in hazy sunshine or no sunshine at all.

Making the grade

Finally, I had to list all the important details for each of the games. Initially, I planned to record each World Cup match as being 'sunny', 'cloudy' or 'rainy', but I soon realised this was too complicated. All that was needed in essence was to say whether a match was 'sunny' or 'non-sunny', so that was the system I chose.

Not that these were the only classifications, of course. Many World Cup matches are played at night, so for the purposes of this exercise, the label 'Night' was applied to all games that kicked off from 7pm onwards in the local time zone.

And for even more complication, some games have been played in a stadia with a closed roof. For those matches, the label 'Indoor' was applied.

Data collecting

Having determined all of the above, it was time to start collecting the data... from 636 matches. A spreadsheet was created, and one by one, each game was listed along with its duration and goals scored (including extra time but not penalty shoot-outs).

Once all the data was collected (and I say that as if it only took me ten minutes), it was simply a case of totalling up all the goals and minutes for each match in each category of Sunny, Non-Sunny, Night and Indoor.

It was at this point that I felt an infographic coming on. Here it is:

Click for larger version
Thanks to the loose application of some tenuous (at best) rules based on many all-too-brief video clips, a number of conclusions were drawn from the data.


Firstly, the answer to the big question: does a World Cup football match played mostly in sunshine bring forth more goals? The answer, it seems, is a definite 'no.' Of all the four match types, 'Sunny' came out worst with one goal scored every 37.5 minutes. 'Non-Sunny' matches (i.e. those played in cloudy or rainy conditions) featured goals scored (roughly speaking) once every 35.3 minutes - about the same for 'Night' matches.

Best of all, however, were the 'Indoor' matches. So far, there have been 12 games played in stadia with a closed roof, and in those, a goal has been scored once every 29.2 minutes.

(Once again, it behoves me to remind you that these are very imprecise figures, but unashamedly so. And can you find any that are more accurate on the internet? Of course not, for no-one has such dedication to a redundant cause as I.)

Taking each tournament in sequence, you can see from the infographic that the 1970 World Cup was indeed dominated by 'sunny' matches (as shown by the yellow blocks in each case). As we suspected all along, Mexico came up trumps again in 1986, and proportionately these two tournaments had the highest percentage of 'sunny' games out of all the twelve World Cups covered (see separate graphic below).

Click for larger version
Sunshine was in the shortest supply during the 2010 World Cup with the 1974 competition not far behind. In general, however, there have been far fewer 'Sunny' games since the start of the 21st Century - not necessarily because of adverse weather conditions, but because more World Cup matches are being played later in the day in stadia that don't allow direct sunshine to reach the pitch quite so easily. Both factors mean less sunshine is seen in quite the same way as we saw back in 1970.

Taking all 636 games in their entirety, we can generally see that there's almost an equal three-way split between those that were 'Sunny', those that were 'Non-Sunny' and those that were played at night. To be a little more specific, however, the 'Sunny' games just about have the lion's share - 38% compared to 32% for 'Night' games and 28% for 'Non-Sunny' games.

Finally, to confirm the earlier point, you're likely to see more goals in 'Indoor' matches - 3.17 on average, compared to 2.45 in 'Sunny' matches. And that, as much as anything, sums up the overall result of all this research and analysis: as much as we choose to disbelieve it, 'Sunny' World Cup matches are somewhat inferior where the quantity of goals is concerned.

A depressing thought, but the one thing this exercise can't quantify is the quality of the goals scored during sunny World Cup matches. Without spending several more weeks on research, I'd like to offer the following names to make a case for the sunshine/great goals ratio: Josimar, Pele, Maradona, Krol, Negrete...

Need I go on?

-- Chris Oakley


  1. I am a big fan of world cup in sunlight. If you need more data, i have 99% of the world cup matches since on video. that means full matches.

    I don`t think, the total nr of goals might define the quality. If so, you clearly should first substract all penalties scored.

    I am with you regarding the sunshine at world cup matches. I love it much more, than night matches or non-sunlight matches as i would call it.

    I think it is a psychological reason, why we prefer them. Sunshine matches look more "monumental" to me. Floodlight is still artifical to us and when we think about history, not only in football terms, it has always happend at daytime. epic ancient battles. Just think of ben hur. It is unimaginable under floodlight. Therefore, we align daylight and sunshine with monumentality.

    Another point is, that with sunshine comes shadows. Shadows help us orientating and assigning. Colors look stronger, brighter, players faces and moves are easier to remember. A long range goal looks great at floodlight but marvelous when the sunlight with the ball shimmering wide. Also, did you notice, it is easier to define if a shot goals close on goal at daylight, than at night matches? that is, because you can follow its balistic due to the shadow of the ball. at night games, it is sometimes difficult in the first miliseconds if a highball or a low ball. the shadow is different.

    Having watched every world cup match in history of color tv, I think i can easily tell you a match by the sunlight, the shadow of the roof, the pitch colors, even without players, while night matches mainly look the same to me.

    Sunshine left sunburns in my memory. :-)

    1. Hi Marko,

      Very pleased to hear from you. I spent a lot of time and effort putting the article together and was a little disappointed when no-one reacted to it, so I'm pleased it meant something to you!

      You raise some very good points in your message, many of which seem so obvious when someone explains it to you. Shadows = navigation on the pitch... why didn't I think of it in that way before!

      Anyway, thanks very much for your feedback, Marko - great to know someone was actually reading my article after all!

      Regards, Chris.

    2. Hi Chris,

      thanks a lot. I appreciate your work here. i just found recently about your site and i love, that it deals with the little details in times, where football news are mainly about copying from other ressources in the internet.

      Nostalgia is about topics like this or kit colors or tv graphics style.

      feel free to contact me at marko (at) laenderspiel (dot) tv for some chatting maybe.


  2. Hi Chris,

    can you enhance your infographics and add WC 2018?

    Best Regards

    1. Sorry Marko - I haven't got any plans to do that. :)