Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Rest Days -- Do They Matter?

    Take a look at the World Cup schedule this year, and youíll see something striking. Once you get past the group stage and into the knockouts, every game except the Final (and the third-place game) is scheduled so that the two participants will have an equal number of rest days before the match. When was the last time this happened? Never. Really, never--unless you count 1974 and 1978, when the first group stage was followed by a second group stage, which made scheduling a whole different matter.

    Thatís extraordinary, when you think about it. One would think the 2006 system would be the most natural way, because the fairest way, to schedule the tournament. But letís take a look at the history, and weíll see why itís never happened before. This will take a while, and may get absurdly complex at times, but thereís a payoff at the end, so stick with me. Weíll start with 1962, four years after the modern group stage began. We start there instead of 1958, because in 1958, ties in the group stage were settled by playoffs, which automatically threw the schedule out of balance.

    In 1962, the group stage games were staggered so that no more than two teams per group were active on any given day. All four groups opened with a single game apiece on May 30, and finished their first round on May 31. The second round of games took place on June 2 and 3, again with one game per group per day. The group stage finished up in the same manner on June 6 and 7. Next came the quarterfinals, and all four games were played on the same day--but three of the games matched teams who had played on June 6 against teams that had played on June 7. So three quarterfinal games had teams with unequal rest. After the quarterfinals, though, things equaled out. The two semifinals were scheduled for the same day, so rest days for the semifinals and Final were equal.

    The 1966 tournament used a similar system. The group stage again was scheduled so that groups had only two teams in action each day; the only change was that the opening game, England-Uruguay, had a day all to itself. The quarterfinals were again all played on the same day, and this time two of the four games included teams with an extra dayís rest. Interestingly, the organizers were apparently not at all concerned about the rest factor, because they scheduled the semifinals on successive days, instead of the same day, as in 1962. With the semis staggered, one team had an extra dayís rest for the Final.

    In 1970 the organizers followed a hybrid of 1962 and 1966. The group stage was like 1966, staggered, with a separate day for the opening game. The semifinals were like 1962, held on the same day. As in both prior years, all four quarterfinals were held on the same day. So the staggered group stage again produced a quarterfinal imbalance, although this time in only one of the four games. As in 1962 (although not 1966), both semis and Final were on equal rest.

    For West Germany 1974 the system changed. The first four-team group stage was now followed by a second four-team group stage, and the only knockout game was the Final. For the first time, the schedule put a clear premium on equal rest. Group stage games were no longer staggered; now, each group had all four teams in action on the same day. For example, Group A had two games apiece on June 14, June 18, and June 22, and Group C had their games on June 15, June 19, and June 23. The exception was in Group B, whose first round of games was staggered to provide a solo opening-day game for Brazil and Yugoslavia. These teams thus had an extra dayís rest when it came to their second-round games against Scotland and Zaire, respectively. But those would be the only games of the entire tournament with unequal rest.

    When it came to the second group stage, the schedule was carefully arranged to balance rest dates. All eight teams were always in action on the same day. Both groups played their games on June 26, June 30, and July 3. The transition between the two group stages was handled with special care. The four teams in second stage Group 1 were Brazil, East Germany, Argentina, and the Netherlands. Brazil and East Germany had played their last game of the first stage on June 22, but Argentina and the Netherlands had played their last game of the first stage on June 23. So to ensure equal rest, the opening round games of Group 1 were Brazil-East Germany and Argentina-Netherlands. In Group 2, the same principle began the group with West Germany-Yugoslavia and Sweden-Poland. And since the two groups concluded on the exact same day, the two teams in the Final had equal rest.

    This system was obviously deemed a success, because it was followed to the letter in 1978. Again, the only games that were played without equal rest were those resulting from the solo opening-day game. This time the openers were West Germany and Poland, who got a dayís extra rest vs. Mexico and Tunisia.

    In 1982 the world changed: we went from 16 teams to 24. With such an unwieldy number, the results were bound to be bizarre. After the first group stage we now had 12 teams left instead of 8. So they were put into a second group stage, 4 groups of 3. A glance at this system shows that you canít possibly get equal rest, or even close: in a 3-team group, one of the teams always has to be idle.

    How to schedule the second stage, then? A 3-team single round robin needs only three games. How the teams for the first game were selected I havenít been able to nail down (someone let me know please). But the second game was determined by the result of the first: the winner of the first game would get to sit idle for the second. For example, second stage Group 1 contained the USSR, Poland, and Belgium. Poland and Belgium played in the opener, and the Poles won 3:0. That meant they got to sit idle while Belgium played the USSR in the second game, and Poland-USSR finished off the group. The bottom line: 1) The USSR, had a 6-day advantage over Belgium in the second game; 2) Poland had a 4-day advantage over the USSR in the final game.

(Incidentally, the situation was further complicated by a rearrangement of the first group stage. Instead of using the 1974-1978 model, where all teams in a group were in action on the same day, they went back to the 1962-1970 system, with the games staggered. It led to the famous fix between Austria and West Germany--but thatís another story.)

    Anyway, when all this was over, we had four teams remaining, with semifinals and a Final. The semifinals were held on the same day, but because of the complex second group stage schedule, the teams no longer had equal rest. Poland had one more dayís rest for their game against Italy, and West Germany had two more for their game against France. But since the semifinals were held on the same day, at least there was equal rest for the Final.

    For Mexico 1986 they wisely junked the system, although unfortunately they stayed with 24 teams. Now 16 teams would advance from the group stage, and the rest of the tournament would be knockout. Clean and simple, but because four third-place teams advanced, and we had no way to know whoíd make it until the final day of the group stage, you couldnít set up the schedules to provide equal rest. In seven of the eight games in the round of 16, one team had a rest advantage; Argentina actually had 3 daysí advantage over Uruguay. After the Austria-West Germany fix, the group stage had been altered so that the last pair of games took place at the same time, but with the round of 16 inherently unbalanced, the change in the group stage was no help in equalizing rest days.

    The quarterfinals were no better. With television now dictating the schedules, you couldnít hold all four quarterfinals on the same day, as in 1962-70. So two were held one day, two the next. But the round of 16 had also been staggered, needing four days to play all eight games of the round. So again there was no way to coordinate the schedules, and in all four quarterfinals one team had the advantage, Belgium topping the list with 3 days over Spain.

    Thankfully, the rest of the schedule could be equalized. The semifinals were played on the same day, and arranged so that the two teams emerging from the first day of quarterfinals were matched together, and the teams from the second day were matched together as well. So semifinals and Final all had equal rest.

    The 1990 and 1994 tournaments faced the same problem as 1986. Since it was still 24 teams with 16 advancing, schedules couldnít be coordinated, at least until the semifinals. But they didnít even bother with that. In 1990 the semifinals were played on separate days, so there was unequal rest for the Final; in 1994 the semifinals were held on the same day, but they werenít coordinated with the quarterfinals, so although there was equal rest for the Final, it was unequal for the semifinal. No one (at least no one in the organizing committees) seemed bothered by the rapidly proliferating inequalities.

    But in 1998 we at last had a chance to even things out. Now we were up to 32 teams, an easy number to work with. The organizers arranged equal rest for all eight games of the round of 16. This was easily done by tying groups to each other: 1A vs. 2B, 2A vs. 1B, and so on, and making sure the last games of those groups were played on the same day. But for some reason they chose not to coordinate the schedule further. In the quarterfinals and semifinals there was always a team with an extra dayís rest. They even staggered the semifinals, so the Final too was unbalanced.

    In 2002 the dual-hosting system scuppered any chance for a balanced schedule. With the two halves of the draw segregated, inequalities were unavoidable. Even the group tie-ins didnít help. The best they could do was allow one extra dayís rest in each of the round of 16 games, two extra days in the quarterfinals, one extra day in the semifinals, and one in the Final. In fact, this was the first World Cup ever in which not a single post-group-stage game was played on equal rest.

    And so to 2006, where the organizers have obviously made a point of balancing things out. As noted, the schedule is arranged so that all eight games of the round of 16, all four quarterfinals, and both semifinals are played on equal rest. Very nice--but for some reason theyíve faltered at the last step. Theyíve put the semifinals on successive days, meaning the Final will have unequal rest. This was unnecessary; as in 1986, they could have put the semifinals on the same day, pairing the teams from the first day of quarterfinals and pairing the teams from the second day of quarterfinals. That way every knockout match could be played on equal rest. Given the apparent concern with equal rest elsewhere in the knockout stages, itís hard to see why they didnít arrange for the Final that way.

    All of this may seem very technical and abstruse, and I suspect only stat freaks have read this far. In fact, the more you look at the schedules the more you wonder what people had in mind. Even when the number of teams stayed the same, the scheduling system changed, if only a tiny bit, and often for no apparent reason. In fact, of the 11 World Cups weíve looked at, only two, 1974 and 1978, used the exact same scheduling system.

    I suppose some heavy-duty research could turn up quotes from the various organizing committees explaining their schedules. But the real question, and in fact the whole justification for this exercise, is to find out whether all this made a difference in the results. In other words: once you get past the first group stage, how big an advantage is extra rest?

    The very surprising answer: none. Or almost none. Before looking at the data, a few notes.

1) Iíve left out other variables, like the distance teams had to travel, which might affect results. Thatís for another study.

2) The 1982 second group stage doesnít really fit here, since for every other tournament the matches in question are knockouts. But the 1982 tournament is a breed apart anyway, and you might as well use the data somewhere. In or out, it doesnít change the basic conclusion.

3) Iíve left out the third-place game, since teams are often unmotivated and playing their subs.

4) Games decided on PKís are counted as wins and losses, not draws; thatís because days of rest are related to fatigue, and could theoretically affect PKís as well.

5) The source for all data is the website of the Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation,

    OK. Hereís a table summarizing the results of all post-first-group-stage games since 1962 in which the teams had unequal rest. In the first column is the extra number of rest days of the advantaged team; in the second column is the number of games that team won; in the third the number they lost; in the fourth the number drawn, which applies only to games in 1982:

Days W L D 1 20 20 - 2 10 8 - 3 3 4 2 4 1 1 1 5 - - - 6 2 - -
    Doesnít look like much, does it? In fact, there seems to be little if any advantage until you get up to 6 days extra, and then the sample is too small.

    But perhaps itís not so much the amount of days you get, but when you get them. So letís crunch the numbers for all those games which were the first matches for teams after the group stage. This includes the quarterfinals for 1962-1970, the initial second group stage game in 1982, and the round of 16 for 1986-2002. There were no draws.

Days W L 1 12 12 2 6 4 3 1 1 4 1 -
    Again, not much there. So letís try again: how about the teamsí second game after the group stage? Before 1982, that game was always played on equal rest, but at least we have the last game of the 1982 second group stage and the quarterfinals of 1986-2002:

Days W L D 1 2 4 - 2 3 4 - 3 3 3 1 4 - - 1
    Doesnít help much either. In fact, the more you look into the numbers--and I think Iíve tried every single way to divide them up--the less you find of significance. The logical conclusion: extra days of rest donít appreciably affect the results.

    This is extraordinarily counterintuitive, and makes you search desperately for anything you can find to suggest the contrary. As it happens, there are two nuggets buried in the data. Unfortunately, one of these is counterintuitive as well.

    And itís this: if we look only at the Final, we find that all four times a team had an extra day of rest, that team lost. Here's the table:

Year Team Opponent 1966 West Germany England 1990 Argentina West Germany 1998 Brazil France 2002 Germany Brazil
    This is a small sample, of course. Also, note that in three of these cases, the loser was a clear underdog. The exception is Brazil 1998, but even they were facing a home team.

    On the other hand, there's a related statistic that seems to suggest an advantage in having less rest before the Final. (Thanks to reader Bill Kastanes for this data.) In 1986 and 1994, the semifinals were held on the same day, so the teams had equal rest. But to accommodate television, the games were held at different times. And in both cases the team that played at the later hour--Argentina in 1986 and Brazil in 1994--won the Final. That means that in the last five World Cups, the team with less rest, even if it was only by a few hours, won the Final. On the other hand, Argentina in 1986 and Brazil in 1994 were favorites too. And in 1982, the team that played in the earlier semifinal, Italy, beat the team from the later semifinal, West Germany. So who knows what to make of it.

    Let's go to the second bit of data. In 1994, 1998, and 2002--three straight World Cups--the semifinals were on unequal rest. And wonder of wonders, in all six of those games, the more rested team won. Finally! Except once again, with one exception, the winners were all clear favorites:

Year Winner Loser 1994 Italy Bulgaria 1994 Brazil Sweden 1998 France Croatia 1998 Brazil Netherlands 2002 Germany South Korea 2002 Brazil Turkey
    The one exception is Brazil-Netherlands, in which the teams were equally rated. Itís also the only one of the six games that went to penalty kicks. Still, 6-0 is a fairly good stat, and Iíd hate to let go of it.

    But ultimately, Iím not sure these patterns help. Itís just barely possible that in the World Cup Final, something happens which puts the team with extra rest at a disadvantage. (We can test the theory on this yearís Final.) Itís also just barely possible that at the semifinal stage of a seven-round tournament, something happens which gives the rested team an advantage. But what that might be, who knows. And what other variables might be found to yield telling data, I canít tell you yet.

    If youíre still awake, youíre probably saying: ďOK, this is a study of games after the group stage. Is there an advantage to extra rest during the group stage?Ē Iím glad you asked. Since 1962, teams with at least an extra day of rest during the group stage have a clear advantage: 63 wins, 49 losses, 38 draws. So now weíre getting somewhere. It certainly appears as if extra rest confers an advantage in the group stage.

    But not so fast. In the vast majority of these games, the team with extra rest had only one day extra. But in 12 of these games, the team had two or even three days extra rest. The record of those super-rested teams? 10 wins, 2 draws, 0 losses. So the total for group stage games in which a team had only one dayís extra rest is 53 wins, 49 losses, 36 draws. Almost even. So much for our advantage.

    Those 12 super-rested teams deserve some attention, since their record is so striking. It certainly appears as if two or more extra days during the group stage is a decisive advantage. However, the evidence isnít quite as clear as it looks. In 8 of the 12 cases, the extra dayís rest arose because the teams had played in the tournament opener, which had been scheduled two (1966, 1982, 1986) or three (1970) days before the next games in the group. Opening games were played either by the host (1966, 1970) or defending champions (1982, 1986), which were teams that would be expected to do well in their subsequent matches anyway. The other 4 cases (1986, 1994) gave the extra days to teams that just happened to be the two dominant teams in their groups, and thus big favorites to win their subsequent matches. Hereís the complete list of super-rested teams and their opponents, with the 8 games resulting from tournament openers first, followed by the other 4:

Year Team Opponent Result 1966 England Mexico W 1966 Uruguay France W 1970 Mexico El Salvador W 1970 USSR Belgium W 1982 Argentina Hungary W 1982 Belgium El Salvador W 1986 Italy Argentina D 1986 Bulgaria South Korea D 1986 Brazil Algeria W 1986 Spain N. Ireland W 1994 Germany South Korea W 1994 Spain Bolivia W
    Breaking this down, we can see 3 games won by either hosts or defending champions, and 5 games won by teams that would have been prohibitive favorites in the games anyway. The only games won by the rested team when they were not the clear choice: Uruguay-France and USSR-Belgium.

    So while we can say that two or more daysí rest in the group stage probably helps, we canít say itís decisive. And unfortunately, weíll get no more data in this category for a while: under current scheduling practices, there are no super-rested teams.

    At the same time, weíre left with the figures for teams with only one extra dayís rest: 53 wins, 49 losses, 36 draws. Hardly significant. And when you consider that several of those rested teams also resulted from tournament openers, which included home teams and defending champions, the advantage seems to disappear altogether.

    On the other hand, the stats show a trend. In each of 1962, 1966, and 1970, the teams with one extra dayís rest in the group stage had clear minus scores. But in the six tournaments since 1982, four times the rested teams have had plus scores, one time minus scores, and one time even scores. Itís just possible that something is now giving a larger advantage to the rested teams. We can check out the 10 unbalanced group stage games this year to see if the trend continues.

    All this may seem a very long way to go to prove nothing. But itís hard to avoid the conclusion that, in the vast majority of situations, extra days of rest donít matter. Two or more daysí rest in the group stage seems to be a help; less rest before the Final may help; more rest before the semifinals may help--and thatís it. Again, there may be other ways of looking at the data that show a clear advantage for rested teams under certain circumstances. If anyone out there can find them, please let me know. But for the moment we have to say that the schedule is largely irrelevant to the results. So teams now have one less thing they can complain about--not that itíll stop them, of course.



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