Could This Data-Driven Insight Explain Real Madrid’s Knockout Win?

Itai Blitzer, Ph.D.
Head of Data
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This month, Real Madrid beat Juventus in a knockout win at the UEFA Champions League in Cardiff. While Real Madrid was a favorite to win as early as the semifinals, the extent to which they won 4 – 1 was a surprise to many, especially when the game was tied 1 – 1 at half-time, and no team in history (until now) has successfully retained their champions league title.

It may be a little out-of-the-box to say, but it’s possible this result came to be because Real Madrid had more supportive fans – with more ‘team spirit’, pushing them forward and cheering them on, especially in the second half of the game. How did we come to this theory? Let’s take a look at the data.

Here are some facts. We already saw that this is a first for a team to defend and retain its championship. At halftime, Juventus was even leading in several categories: 4-to-1 in shots on target, 8-to-5 in total shots, and they even received only one yellow card while Real had two. Considering these factors, what happened to Juventus in the second half? Not only did Real Madrid score 3 goals, Juventus was suddenly down in all categories: 3-to-13 in total shots, 0-to-4 in shots on target, with 4 yellow cards and 1 red card.

Understanding user behavior

Part of my work at Mobfox involves analyzing data to understand user trends and behavior in an effort to create better user experiences. When there’s a big event, concert, or football game…certain types of people group together based on common interests. This enables the identification of specific patterns of behavior within the groups, and later the analysis between those groups.

Cardiff, an unlikely catalyst

Cardiff, the capital of Wales, was confirmed to hold the 2017 UEFA finals in June 2015. Attributed to good luck or simply coincidence, the chosen location, decided two years prior proved quite fair to both sides: the two prevailing teams from the semifinals are similar in distance to Principality Stadium. Out of the 66,500 seats available in Cardiff, 17,500 were given to each team, 5,500 were sold online, and the rest were reserved by UEFA. Givens this, fans of both teams could not complain of unfair bias related to location.

The data behind the fans’ journey

After analyzing the fans’ journey, we have detected that the clear majority of both teams’ fans chose to fly to Cardiff – not surprising, considering that the flight time from both Italy and Spain to Cardiff is slightly above two hours, compared to the 15 to 20-hour journey it would take by car.

However, a closer look at the data shows a surprising anomaly between the Italians and Spanish fans. Both Alitalia and Iberia offered a few dozen designated flights for the finals, but – Juventus fans arrived from Milan, Rome, and of course Turin primarily by direct flights to Cardiff airport. On the other hand, Real Madrid fans arrived to Bristol airport. When reviewing mobility data, we can see fans of both teams.

Spanish fans (in red) and Italian fans (in green) in Cardiff one day before the UEFA Champions League.

Focusing specifically on Spanish and Italian fans, and assuming that people will be in favor of their own local team, the following image is revealed: the average arrival time of Real fans to Cardiff was significantly different than that of Juventus fans. Deducting seasonal elements and other noise sources, and isolating fans (arriving specifically to the game) data, it seems that Juventus fans simply spent less time as a group than Real Madrid’s. In other words, they spent less time as fans. In a book published this year named “Football Fans, Rivalry and Cooperation,” the author points the spotlight to rival groups of fans working together and cooperating despite their opposing identities. The book indicates that the time factor is crucial in forming strong and meaningful relationships both internally, within each group (and between different sub-groups of fans of the same team), and externally (thus, between fans of two different groups).

Could arrival times have impacted the game’s outcome?

Here are some additional numbers to consider: up to two days before the game, Spanish fans were arriving at a faster pace (9.3%) than their Italian counterparts. This completely turns afterwards, when a day before the game more Italians (24.2%) were arriving to Cardiff. From another perspective: two-thirds of Italians reached Cardiff on or after Thursday (June 1st), and two-thirds of Spanish fans reached Cardiff on or before Thursday.

The role of fans is significant in any football game, let alone an important, high-profile event, such as the UEFA final. Did the mere reason that Real’s fans were directed through Bristol, allowing them more time to mingle, bond, and group together serve as an additional catalyst for their group’s triumph? Is it possible that the second half which was so bad for Juventus was partially related to fans, who were more tired and had less time to bond and group? It’s just a theory, but it could be the very reason why Real Madrid came out as victorious as they did.

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