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The secret of the World Cup is a brain parasite found in cats

Dirty Tackle

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On Thursday — it seems like an eternity ago — I was criticizing scientists who said they could predict World Cup results using formulas based on historical and economic statistics. The problem with all such formulas, I wrote in my innocence, was that while they could show that a strong economy or a certain political profile coexisted with soccer success, they couldn't prove that those things caused soccer success.

Well, I have seen the light. It turns out you can predict soccer success with a formula; it just has to be the right formula. You have to stop looking at arcane numbers like population size and GDP, and start looking at common-sense factors like which country has a higher rate of infection of a brain parasite found in cats.

As neuroscientist Patrick House writes in Slate:

In the knockout round of this year's tournament, eight out of eight winners so far have been the teams whose countries had higher rates of Toxo infection. If we go back to the 2006 World Cup, seven out of eight knockout-round winners could be predicted by higher Toxo rates. The one exception to the rule was Brazil's defeat of Ghana, a match between two nations that each have very high rates....

It gets better. Rank the top 25 FIFA team countries by Toxo rate and you get, in order from the top: Brazil (67 percent), Argentina (52 percent), France (45 percent), Spain (44 percent), and Germany (43 percent). Collectively, these are the teams responsible for eight of the last 10 World Cup overall winners. Spain, the only one of the group never to have won a cup, is no subpar outlier—the Spaniards have the most World Cup victories of any perpetual runner-up.

Finally, a use of statistics that is neither irresponsible nor contrived.

House admits that it isn't clear why the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, whose goal in life is to make it into the stomach of a cat, would make a country better at soccer. And he doesn't bore you with a lot of highfalutin speculation. In fact, he declares — unpersuasively in my view — that it's probably just a "coincidence." But for the most part, he lets the obvious, unspoken explanation carry the day:

It is a freaking brain parasite. It can do whatever it wants. If it wants to make you better at soccer, it will make you better at soccer. It is the key to the World Cup. Don't bother it with questions. Do you want to make it mad?

Toxo infection rates are also known to correlate with overall personality traits like neuroticism. I make no observation regarding the characters of the world's most famous football stars.

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