Football world cup vs. Tour de France

Many people I know seem wonder why I don’t feel like cheering for “my” national team (actually, I don’t really own it nor do I bear any responsibility for it) during the football World Cup, but do like to watch the Tour the France. Conversely, I think that I should be the judge of what I watch and whether I should express irrational shauvinism by cheering for a team just because the players hold passports of the same nation as I (either because of birth or because of naturalisation) and wanting them to win even in the (obviously rare) case where they are not the best team, or not. In addition, I think riding the Tour the France is just as pointless as, but more of an achievement than playing in the World Cup, and hence following the Tour is more interesting to me than watching football.

Here are some numbers as to why there may well be some objective truth in that. Let’s see how much sport is actually done during the World Cup and during the Tour the France.

Game time

World Cup minutes played per player per day

Thirty-two teams contest for the World Cup, each consisting of 23 players. The first round has eight poules of four teams, so that each team has to play three matches, totalling six matches per poule, resulting in 6×8=48 matches in all poules in the first round. Each match obviously has two teams competing, so that the number of times a team has to play is 48×2 = 96 times. Since there are no extensions, all matches last 90 minutes (extra time at the end of a half is only compensating for breaks during the normal play time), so that a total of 96×90 = 8640 minutes is played in the first round.

After that there are eight eighth finals, four quarter finals, two semifinals, a match for third place and the final itself, in total 8 + 4 + 2 + 1 + 1 = 16 matches after the first round, and given two teams per match, 16×2 = 32 times a team must play. In this stage of the tournament, a draw results in a 30-minute extension, and if we assume that half of all matches in the final four rounds are a draw, the average extension time is 15 minutes, and the average match lasts 90+15 is 105 minutes, so that 32×105 = 3360 minutes are played in the last four rounds of the tournament.

Hence the total time played during the World Cup is 8640 + 1680 = 12,000 minutes by all 32 teams together. This amounts to 12,000/32 = 375 minutes per team. Each team consists of 23 players while only 11 of them play at any time, so that the average play time per player during the tournament is about 375/23×11 = 179.3 minutes, almost three hours. The World Cup tournament stretches out over no fewer than 32 days (12 June until and including 13 July), so that each football player plays an average of 5.6 minutes per day.

Tour de France cycling hours per day

For the Tour de France, the duration of a stage is not as easily estimated as the length of a football match, so let’s take the results of the 2013 Tour de France as input. The winner needed 83h56m40s or 83.944 hours, the last rider in the peloton who made it to Paris 88h24m35s or 88.410 hours. Let’s say that the average finishing rider needed the mean of those two values, i.e. (83.944+88.410)/2 = 86.177 hours. Of course, the ‘last’ rider was really number 169, where 198 had started, so 29 dropped out (for a variety of reasons: crashes, illness, etc.). If we assume that on average they dropped out halfway, they ‘only’ rode for 43.089 hours. Hence, we have 169 riders who rode for 86.177 hours and 29 riders who rode for 43.089 hours (on average), the total number of hours spent on the road by all riders was 169×86.177 + 29×43.089 = 15813.495 hours. Divided over the total number of 198 riders, this amounts to 15813.495/198 = 79.866 hours on average for each rider that started the Tour.

The Tour of 2013 had 21 stage days and 2 rest days, totalling at 23 days altogether. Dividing 79.866 hours by 23 days amounts to 3.472 hours or 208.3 minutes per day. Hence, the average time on the road per rider is 3 hours and 28.3 minutes per day.

Sports time per athlete per day

We found that the players that start in the football World Cup play for about 5.6 minutes a day. Riders that started the Tour de France in 2013 rode for an average of 208.3 minutes a day. This means that the average sports time each day in the Tour de France is a whopping 37 times longer than in the football World Cup.

If you find this hard to believe, remember that even if a football team makes it to the (semi-)final, they play seven matches, and hence have 25 rest days out of the 32 days that the tournament lasts. Teams that drop out after the first round play 3 matches and have 29 rest days. The Tour de France of 2013 lasted 23 days, out of which only 2 were rest days.

To put it another way around, if football players would play as much as Tour de France riders cycle, i.e. 3 hours and 28 minutes per day, this would mean they would play two matches a day (actually 2.2). Hence, the first round could be dealt with in 1.5 days, the eighth finals could be played in the second half of the second day, the quarter and semifinals could be scheduled for the third day and the last two matches could be played in the evening of the fourth day (throwing in half a rest day for good measure — half a rest day in four days; not quite matching the two rest days in a 23-day Tour).

Note that this comparison to cycling is not quite fair, as we haven’t compensated for the fact that 30 out of 32 (94%) teams don’t make it to the final, as compared to 29 of 198 riders (15%) who do not reach Paris, and the fact that for each football player there is more than one substitute who can play in his stead. Only taking into account the last fact would mean four matches per day, not two, and get the whole thing over with in two days. Of course, taking into account the full factor of 37, the World Cup duration of 32 days should be brought back to 32/37 days, less than one day. That would run into some logistics problems, though.


Hey, but you haven’t even mentioned the d-word yet! Nope, not the topic of this post. Even though part of the issue may be the bias in penalty for cheating (even though trying to break someone’s ankle in a football match seems to me a much more serious offence that harming your own body with doping, football players are hardly ever penalised by a few-month’s ban) and the lack of proper testing in football (fewer positive cases when testing less is not really surprising), I am quite convinced that the average cyclist lives closer to a world of performance-enhancing drugs (i.e., actually using, refusing the offer, resisting the temptation, etc.) than the average football player. The question is, of course, whether that would still be true when football players had four matches per day on their schedule rather than one every four days. This would be a topic for a different post though.

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