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World Cup Penalties: Which Teams Play Dirtiest

July 8th, 2014

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We all know that part of the allure of watching the World Cup on the televisions we’ve been glued to these past few weeks is in the passion and the penalties. In this post we take a look at which teams draw the most yellow or red cards, and even which teams seem to have more of a flair for the dramatics. Is your favorite team squeaky clean when it comes to on-the-field sportsmanship? If you read on, I think you’ll find that there are few teams who are.

First, let’s take a look at average yellow cards by team match by year:

Yellow cards are increasing in almost every consecutive World Cup. Are all teams simply playing a little dirtier each year?

The chart below that shows the number of red cards per World Cup seems to support this dirty trend:

Overall red card penalties seem to be increasing fairly steadily since the first World Cup and saw more dramatic spikes in 1990 and 1998. The top-contributing countries in these years include: Argentina, Cameroon, France, Uruguay and Brazil. Despite some countries incurring multiple red cards, the penalties seem to be pretty evenly distributed across many different teams. This again supports our idea that overall teams are playing a little more aggressively.

If we take a look at a map of red cards by national team, we can see that the passion and penalties (at least red cards) do tend to be more focused in a few areas:

Brazil and Argentina both come in with the highest number of red cards overall at 10 per country, while the US has a modest 2 red cards total. However, once we normalize this for the number of games played, it appears that Canada and Australia are the teams with the highest number of red cards per game played.

Depending on who you’re rooting for, you may find that the passion for the game includes  extra dramatics. Some teams consider dives a part of the culture of the World Cup, while others consider it poor form. The Wall Street Journal recently released a dataset of the number of injuries against each time, versus “writhing minutes” for the first 32 games of the 2014 World Cup.

Brazil contracted the highest number of injuries but did not spend the most time writhing on the field, they’re actually below where we’d expect to see them according to the regression line. France and Honduras run a little high in dramatics, with between 7 and 8 minutes of writhing but 10 and 15 injuries respectively. Countries like Switzerland, Costa Rica and Mexico writhed for a shorter amount of time than we would expect based on the number of injuries incurred.

What have we learned in this post? Overall it seems like soccer players are earning ever more yellow and red cards, though some countries are accounting for more of these penalties than others. We also see some distinct patterns in the post-penalty dramatics. Excited to see how your favorite team stacks up in penalties, wins, or even stats like offsides? Import this spreadsheet and analyze the data for yourself.

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By Kelli Simpson

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