The World Cup’s Known Unknowns

Even in the Information Age, there are unknown quantities in Brazil.

Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images
Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

What do you do when you’re up against a player you’ve never seen before? Almost unbelievably, despite the millions of hours of video and terabytes of data collected on soccer pitches around the globe, several teams will have to answer this question at the World Cup. And two of the teams causing the problem are a very odd couple indeed.

Yes, the United States and Iran finally have something in common. Both nations, in their own way and to varying degrees, have dodged the all-seeing eye of "big data" in constructing their rosters for this tournament. Discussions of big data are, of course, everywhere nowadays, and soccer is no different. As the Information Age has become synonymous with "today and the foreseeable future", the main byproduct has been the relative demise of the unknown.

Never heard of a restaurant? Yelp it. Want to see what Madonna’s house looks like? Google Maps is your friend. Your soccer club is interested in a player you’ve never heard of? There’s a YouTube highlight reel out there somewhere. The science of collecting, counting, analyzing, and making judgments and predictions based on data has revolutionized everything from lifesaving disciplines like science and medicine to the more trivial fields of burrito eating and, uh, let’s euphemistically call it personal bedroom activities, obviously in some cases with more rigor than others. In soccer the rise of companies like Opta and Prozone means that less and less happens on a soccer field that isn’t measured and dissected by someone, somewhere. Usually.

The World Cup, however, is one of the few remaining institutions on Earth whose reach remains broader than the biggest of data, and that’s where Iran and the United States come in. A full 15 players on Iran’s squad play domestically. According to, four countries do have more domestically based players than closed-off Iran. But because the data collectors don’t operate there, two-thirds of Iran’s roster doesn’t come with the usual bevy of statistical information. No pass completion percentages, tackles per game, or shots on target — just a guessing game based on a handful of international matches against competition ranging from the similarly murky Uzbekistan to the more well known South Korea.

But even those data far outstrip what the opposition will have on a particular member of the American squad. Nineteen-year-old Julian Green, a vaunted young talent whose inclusion in the squad may have been at the expense of Team America’s historically most accomplished player, Landon Donovan, is currently part of Bayern Munich’s youth set-up. Green has appeared exactly once for Bayern Munich and twice for the U.S. national team. The bulk of his minutes have come playing for Bayern Munich’s reserve squad, which competes in the German third division. That’s not a criticism of Green, or a commentary on whether he deserves to be in the squad, but it serves to highlight just how far outside the mainstream of global soccer Green has been playing.

In this respect, Green and the Iranians are something of a throwback. There was a time in the not too distant past — yes, once upon a time the  word "data" could be uttered without the word "big" — when international tournaments like the World Cup served as a stage for players from soccer backwaters to launch their careers. A strong performance would garner the attention they needed to transfer to a bigger market. In those days, teams with a wide-reaching scouting network had a clear advantage. It was a coup when Sir Alex Ferguson signed Mexico’s Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez for Manchester United before the 2010 World Cup started and the rest of the world saw him. Arsène Wenger built his iconic Arsenal teams by importing talent to England from Europe and Africa, where other teams weren’t always looking. But even he wasn’t above acquiring a player on the back of a strong international tournament, signing Andrei Arshavin of Russia six months after his breakout performance at Euro 2008.

Those types of advantages are largely gone. Most of the future stars who could be born this summer, from Ricardo Rodríguez of Switzerland to Bernard of Brazil, are well known to the top clubs of the world. Even Joel Campbell’s outstanding match against Uruguay for Costa Rica — not exactly the hub of the sporting universe — had soccer hipsters nodding sagely and doling out heaping piles of "I told you so".

And yet, despite all the data that are available now, for at least (and let’s be realistic, probably only) three games during the World Cup Iran will remind us that the world still exists beyond what we’ve measured. Julian Green, should he manage to take the field, will do likewise, as will the dozens of other players who ply their trade in little known domestic leagues in small countries around the globe from Belize to Burundi. Despite how big the data have become, the global game remains bigger — at least for now.

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