World Cup Winners

Predicting the victor nation of the 2014 World Cup is an art-form. During  the 2010 event, Paul the Octopus,  a marine creature living in a tank  at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany,  won worldwide fame for his divination skills.


Science of Sport: Paul the Octopus ruled the 2010 tournament

The creature correctly predicted a win for Spain against the Netherlands in the World Cup final on 11 July by eating the mussel in the box with the Spanish flag on it.

This time around, the cephalopod is no longer with us, while human predictive skills suggest the odds decisively favour Latin America. For instance, six of the London Guardian’s top 10 expert football writers say Argentina will finally lift the trophy, against three voting for Brazil (just one favours Spain).

When the talk is all about the art of the ball, the focus inevitably falls upon Messi, Neymar and Suarez as South America’s “Big Players.”

But when the focus is on science, there’s quite a different league of Big Players from the same region.

Not just those science disciplines brought into play on the pitch: probability, nutrition, physical training, psychology and all those tiny advantages that make a winning squad. But also far from the pitch, in labs and field research sites.

That’s why leading science publications are taking advantage of global attention around the FIFA 2014 tournament to profile achievements in science in the host nation Brazil, and across Latin America. The science prospects of Chile, Argentina, Colombia and above all Brazil are coming under review.

Those who like to take their science with a  pinch of humour may regret that no football-fancying marine creatures are involved and not a single cepalopod or other invertebrate with predictive skills makes it into the narrative. It’s all serious scientific stuff.


Nature’s assessment of South American strikers in science.

In a special article entitled “South American Science: Big players” that was published  on the tournament’s kickoff day, Nature reminds readers that the US$11.5 billion controversially spent by Brazil on the World Cup is less than half the nation’s overall spending on science.

“Science in Brazil beats the World Cup — at least in a financial match-up. Government and businesses there invest some US$27 billion annually in science, technology and innovation,” the publication reports.

Nature’s World Cup package identifies the “heavy hitters” in science funding across the South American continent, and its review of Brazil is topped by a profile of São Paulo state’s publicly funded research council, FAPESP.

Nature quotes scientists as noting that, at a time when federal science budgets are virtually flat, Brazil’s regional science funding agencies – and above all FAPESP – are taking up the slack. “They can make research happen even if the federal funding gets scarce,” Wanderley de Souza, a biomedical scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Science, is quoted as saying.

Nature observes that while FAPESP in 2013 spent $512 million on science funding, its federal counterpart CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development) has a budget of about $650 million. One high profile project under study is Brazil’s equity stake in the Giant Magellan Telescope, which would give São Paulo astronomers access to the facility, planned for construction in Chile. FAPESP is mulling a $40-million investment.

Nature 2

FAPESP also garners plaudits from Martyn Poliakoff, foreign secretary and vice-president of the Royal Society in London. He told the publication: “FAPESP is a very interesting model for us because São Paulo is one of the few states in the world where support of research is linked directly to GDP.”

Brazil and its regional neighbours may sense looming social and economic instability but, concludes Nature, “there are many bright spots in the world of science,” highlighting what it describes as outstanding researchers and institutions in the region.

In a leader article New Scientist insists science, rather than soccer marks the way forward for Brazil. New Scientist notes that the centre of gravity of the footballing world is “moving towards the emerging economies. Perhaps it is time to celebrate their science, too.”

Not to be outdone by Nature, New Scientist also offers its own World Cup themed package entitled “Brazilian Science Bids for World Cup Glory.”

The review covers Brazil’s recent successes in reducing carbon emissions as the pace of deforestation in Amazonia appears to slow; research into dark matter with neighbours Chile, Argentina and Mexico; developments in space technology at Brazil’s Alcantara launch site, and biotech breakthroughs.

These include the use of genetically modified mosquitoes designed to control dengue fever in Brazil; and the race to control schistosomiasis, one of the most devastating parasitic infections in the world, which affects around 249 million people.

You can read Science for Brazil’s own pre-tournament assessment of  the scientific  assets coming into play during the FIFA 2014 tournament – and how pundits, scientists, coaches, equipment manufacturers players and science policymakers are all using “Big Science” as a profile-raising tool. Science, it seems, is truly a World Cup Winner.

Brazil of course, has already  won the Jules Rimet trophy  more than any other nation and is, in a sense, its ultimate keeper. The original was stolen  from the custody of its Football Federation in 1983 and was never recovered. Perhaps that vanished gold has seeped into the nation’s  soul.

Trophies old and new: Brazil's soccer god Pele  holds  the vanished gold.

Trophies old and new: Brazil’s soccer god Pele holds the vanished gold.


Just in case you thought Paul the Octopus had no heirs and successors in the World Cup Winners’ prediction game, Science for Brazil has  learned  of a couple of  2014 “animal magic” prophets:

A loggerhead turtle named Big Head  from Praia do Forte near Salvador in Brazil,  selected the host nation to beat Croatia in the opening game of the World Cup. The 25-year-old male sea turtle was given the choice between eating a fish hung from a Brazilian flag or a Croatian flag. After some prevarication, Big Head chose Brazil.

And in the UK, a team of gentoo penguins at Birmingham’s Sea Life Centre  are hopping onto rocks to predict  game outcomes.  Just like the Brazilian  turtle, they correctly called the home side as winners of the kickoff match.

And the winner is: Gentoo penguins doing Octopus work

And the winner is: Gentoo penguins doing Octopus work

Whatever the outcome of the tournament and the millions of words written during the month of play, Brazil’s scientists can feel pleased with the halo of attention that the World Cup has brought them.

Researching in Brazil

Brazil’s best-known scientist, the veteran nuclear physicist  José Goldemberg,  in September 2015 took office as the president of  the São…

Read more