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The biennial question is back: is football coming home?

The bookies have England as slight favourites for Euro 2024. But scorecasting economics suggests that at 10%, the team’s probability of lifting the trophy is behind Spain (15%) and France (20%). Scotland have a 45% chance of getting beyond the group stages of a big tournament for the first time.

England’s men’s football team is headed to another major international tournament. This is the 11th since they actually won one – the World Cup – way back in 1966.

The refrain of ‘30 years of hurt’ could soon be doubled to 60, highlighting just how far from the mark England have almost always been in the era of organised international competition. This is perhaps why, in the 28 years since Euro 1996, ‘it’s coming home’ has taken on a wistful air – something to laugh about, because it’s never really going to happen, is it?

For each major tournament for a number of years now, the Economics Observatory has tried to quantify how likely it is that ‘football comes home’. The probability is never zero, and even if it were a mere 5% in each one, then by probabilistic logic, England should win one in every 20 tournaments. Since these events come along every other year, this tells us they ought to win once every 40 years.

So for a start, we can dispense with the idea that England will never do it – even if it feels that way to anybody who can remember 1996 and before.

And there are several things that are different this time around. First, not since the late 1980s have so many of England’s top stars played abroad on a regular basis. Surely that additional knowledge and experience of playing beyond our shores matters?

More broadly, England have 16 players that played at Europe’s top 20 clubs last season. But France have 20 such players and Germany 18: England aren’t the only good team at this tournament.

Given that – and given the need to try and balance hopes and expectations against (likely or unlikely) realities – once again, we have created probabilities of the outcomes of the UEFA European Football Championship, Euro 2024.

How do we calculate the probabilities in Euro 2024?

First, we calculate Elo ratings for each international team. This is a really common method of rating and then ranking contestants in competitions. Originally devised for chess tournaments by Arpad Elo, it is based on a logistic curve to keep probabilities between zero and one. It’s now put out by a number of websites (for example, World Football Elo Rating), and plenty of research studies make use of it too (Hvattum and Arntzen, 2010; Constantinou and Fenton, 2013; Gásquez and Royuela, 2016; Reade et al, 2020).

We use these team strengths to analyse what we expect teams with those particular Elo ratings to do in matches against teams with their own Elo ratings. We use what are known as Poisson regressions, which allow us to consider what the number of goals scored by each team would be given Elo ratings, and given the existence (or otherwise) of home advantage – enjoyed only by Germany in this tournament.

Given the expected number of goals (Germany are expected to score 2.1 in their opening match, their opponents Scotland just 0.6), we then generate a match outcome by drawing random numbers from Poisson distributions with those particular parameters. We then do this for all the matches in the group stages before compiling the final tables and determining which teams (including the four best third-placed teams) progress to the last 16.

Once into the knock-out stages, we use the same method, and assume that if a match ends in a draw, the expected outcome of the penalty shoot-out is proportional to the Elo prediction for that match. Hence, if England had a 70% chance of progressing in a last 16 match against, say, Turkey, then in a shoot-out, they would win the shoot-out 70% of the time. Research by Alex Krumer on penalty shoot-outs supports this assumption that the better team wins more often in shoot-outs.

What is the upshot of all of these calculations?

First, there are a lot of good teams in the competition, based on past records. While England would like to point to Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka as huge attacking strengths, a less than resolute defence and an often cautious match strategy has meant that their recent record on the field leaves them as the fifth-best team in the competition, with an Elo rating of 1358.

France (1411) and Spain (1389) are ranked quite a bit better, with the Netherlands (1366) and Belgium (1361) just ahead of England. Portugal are slightly behind at 1354, Italy at 1346 and hosts Germany at 1329.

Again, this does not mean that England cannot win the tournament. It means, though, that the probability is a little lower than that implied by bookmakers at the moment (which are at around 20%). Our model finds that England have about a 10% chance of winning the competition, very similar to that of Belgium and the Netherlands. Spain have a 15% chance of winning, and France a 20% chance.

Figure 1: Team strengths and chances at the Euros

Source: Ilo rating

How might the tournament play out for England?

England, naturally, are favourites to win Group C, at 58%, with Denmark second favourites at 24%. England are about 93% likely to progress from the group stages, as they are 26% likely to finish second, and 12% to finish third (from which they more often than not will be one of the best third-placed sides).

As group winners, England would face the best third-placed team from the other half of the draw – Groups D, E and F. That could be one of 12 different teams – it is most likely to be Turkey (8%) or Austria, the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia or Ukraine (all about 7%). Lurking in that list of potential last 16 opponents is Portugal – again with 7% – a team that does have a record of qualifying from third place in the Euros.

In fact, though, England’s most likely last 16 opponent is Germany – which happens with a probability of about 18% – if England finish second in Group C (with 26% chance), and Germany win Group A (with probability 68%). Finishing second naturally gives England a somewhat more hazardous route to the later stages. If England win Group C, their chances of winning the tournament increase to 13%, but if they finish second or third, the chances fall to 5-7%.

Germany are thus England’s most likely last 16 foes, but it’s also possible that England will face the hosts in the quarterfinals. This happens if Germany are runners-up in Group A and England win Group C, and both teams successfully navigate the last 16. With an 8% chance, we square up to Germany in the quarterfinals.

But Group B is the most likely source of England’s quarterfinal opposition – Spain with 24% chance, and Italy with a 21% probability. Should Croatia dislodge one of Southern Europe’s footballing giants (sorry, Albania) in their group of death, they may also be England’s opposition (17% chance). Of course, anything is possible – but there’s only a tiny probability (0.2%) that England will play Albania in the quarterfinals.

The semifinals, which England have a 35% chance of making, would see the most likely opponents emerging from the other side of the draw: Portugal (20%), France (19%), the Netherlands (18%) and Belgium (10%) being most likely. Because the best third-placed qualifiers switch sides of the draw, again England could play almost anyone in the semifinals, including Germany (2%) and Spain (5%) – but these are quite unlikely to occur.

England have a 19% chance of making the final on 14 July – the fourth most likely finalists after France (32%), Spain (26%) and the Netherlands (22%). Should they make it there, it’s no surprise that their most likely opponents are France (20%) and Spain (15%).

What about Scotland?

It would be remiss to ignore Scotland, who have the honour of opening the tournament this Friday evening, facing hosts Germany in Berlin. Infamously, Scotland have never progressed beyond the group stages of a major tournament, and their form, plus the draw, means that they will find it tough once again to get out of the group stages in Germany.

Tough – but not impossible. We give them a 45% chance of breaking new ground and qualifying for the last 16. They are the weakest team in their group (Elo of 1162 to Hungary’s 1201, Switzerland’s 1240 and Germany’s 1329). Their group also has the one team that benefits from home advantage (equivalent to 0.08 more goals for the hosts and 0.26 fewer goals for their opponents in match-ups historically).

That doesn’t mean though that Scotland cannot emerge from the group – an Elo rating difference of 39 between them and Hungary means that they would expect to beat Hungary about 44% of the time (excluding the possibility of a draw).

To add to Scotland’s woes (in addition to their terrible form going into the competition), they are in the earliest finishing group – Group A. At that point, should Scotland finish third, they will have almost no idea what is necessary to be a best third-placed team.

Because 24 teams reduce down to 16 for the first knock-out stage, the four third-placed teams (out of six) with the best record also qualify. The teams in later finishing groups – Groups E and F finish on 26 June, three days after Group A finishes – will know what they have to do to get through. Mario Guajardo and Alex Krumer discuss this feature of such tournaments in their proposals for the expanded FIFA World Cup in 2026.

But whatever happens, there is little doubt that Euro 2024 will be yet another tournament that creates memories for years to come. Anything is possible (Greece have won a European Championship), but some things are more probable than others (Europe’s heavyweights have consistently delivered over many decades).

We’ve used statistics and a bit of economics to put some numbers on the relative likelihood of all of those different possible outcomes. Is football coming home? Probably.

Where can I find out more?

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Author: James Reade
Image: Dziurek for iStock
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