When comparing players in baseball, it's difficult to cross even modern 'eras' because conditioning and strategies have changed.   6'2" shortstops are relatively common now but unheard of even 30 years ago.   Likewise, American football has undergone strategic shifts that are easily recognizable, with the West Coast Offense less in vogue but a 3-4 defense coming back into popularity as compared to 20 years ago.

Soccer, what Europeans insist on calling football because it is actually played with feet and a ball(*), hasn't changed as dramatically, says research team from the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU).    Someone who does not know the players would be incapable today of differentiating between a France ’98 World Cup game and another from Germany ’06.    This in contrast to the 1970s, for example, when Germans practiced the kind of stifling defense that made them famous but were wildly different from Brazilians and their liberal attacking approach.

Their research was  published in the magazine Psycothema. “Our study provides a look forward at how football will be played in the South Africa 2010 World Cup,” Julen Castellano, one of the report’s authors, told Servicio de Información y Noticias Científicas (SINC)  news service in Spain.

Timeless strategy or football is stuck in a rut?  Fans from the 1990s could guess coaching strategy in this classifying match between Chile and Colombia for the South Africa 2010 World Cup. Photo: J.C. Labarca (Creative Commons, Recognition / Non-Commercial / Non-derived).

Their study analyzes how football has evolved over the World Cups and looks at up to 48 settings from five parts of the pitch, as well as seven potential scores throughout a match. The sports scientists have confirmed that football is based on a linear model, which can be extrapolated to society at large and, above all, that it has remained essentially unchanged over the past three World Cups – France 1998, Japan-Korea 2002 and Germany 2006. 

Castellano says this is the result of ten years of research focused on just one area – “to describe, explain and, over time, predict how a game of football will develop”. The researcher, whose thesis dealt with the ’98 World Cup, worked with Abigail Perea and Antonio Hernández to create a retrospective view based on observing, codifying and recording the action in a game. “By using an observational lens we aimed to reflect all the relevant information about the interactions between the two teams competing against each other.”

The study encompasses so-called “contexts of interaction”, in other words the position of the ball in relation to the players in the two teams. This makes it possible to evaluate levels of balance and imbalance between the players in the teams, which make up ‘dynamic systems of interaction’. 

Castellano told SINC: “We carried out different analyses, both in the most descriptive area – game patterns – and in the area of inferences – analysis of variation and generalised factors – although only the latter was explicitly recorded.”

In this study, each game of football was broken down and organized according to seven momentary results categories: (1) when the team is leading, the other team scores a goal and equalises, (2) it is leading and actually wins, (3) it is losing, scores and equalises, (4) it is losing and ends up losing the game, (5) the teams are drawing, and the team scores a goal and wins, (6) they are drawing, a goal is scored against the team and it loses, and (7) they are level pegging and the game ends in a draw. 

The main conclusion is that the way in which the teams play has not varied over the three World Cups studied. “Today we would not be able to distinguish between a game played by teams in the France ’98 World Cup and one played in Germany ’06,” the researchers point out.

Moreover it does not seem as though there will be any significant changes in the way of playing the game in future international fixtures. According to Castellano, “if we carried out the same studies on future World Cups these would be the same, unless there are any significant changes to the regulations that change how the players and teams act throughout the match”.


(*) In contrast to American Football, where the only guys who actually touch the ball with their feet can't get into the Hall of Fame.