World Cup Puzzles: Why Call It 'Soccer,' and How Does the Octopus Do It?

Spain and the Netherlands are competing in the World Cup final
Spain and the Netherlands are competing in the World Cup final

Sunday's final World Cup match between Spain and the Netherlands got me thinking. Since the global tournament started last month, two things I've read about it have caught my attention: First, the origin of the word "soccer" -- a term used for the game in only a few countries -- and second, the chances that Paul the Octopus could correctly predict the outcome of seven matches.

It's well known that Americans like football, baseball and basketball more than soccer. And those games are set up to be more profitable for broadcasters since they all have built-in pauses that leave time for commercials. But I have often wondered why Americans call the game soccer instead of football.

"Soccer" Came From Britain

The British have a habit of shortening words and adding "er" to the end of them. They called Rugby players Ruggers and had a league of football players called Association Football that was fighting with others British leagues in the 1860s for football predominance, according to the New Yorker. The British shortened the word Association -- picking out the letters "soc" -- and created the term soccer in the same vein. I have no idea how that term ended up in the U.S.

As far as Paul the Octopus is concerned -- the German octopus who has been lowered into a tank of water with two boxes containing mussels -- one with a German flag and one with that of Germany's World Cup opponent -- I was wondering how to calculate the odds of his amazing predictive feat. By landing on the box with the flag of the ultimate winner, so far, Paul has correctly predicted six matches in which Germany played. (His prediction of Germany's loss to Spain brought Paul death threats from German fans.)

Why Paul Has a 1-in-128 Chance of Correctly Predicting Seven Outcomes

Since Paul is only predicting wins or losses -- and assuming he makes his choices at random instead of knowing the outcome ahead of time -- those six matches had 64 possible outcomes, and the chances of correctly predicting what happened in each of them come out to one in 64.

How so? According to BBC News, the chances of Paul predicting the outcome of the first game were 1 in 2, the first and second were 1 in 4, and the chances of correctly predicting first, second, and third came in at 1 in 8. The general formula is 1/[2 to the nth power] where n is the number of matches.

As it turns out, Paul is predicting a win for Spain in Sunday's match against the Netherlands. If Spain wins as Paul predicts, it's worth noting that his chances of doing so are 1 in 128.

Should You Bet on Paul's Spain Prediction?

So should gamblers take their cue from Paul? It seems highly likely that many will. And why not? Paul has been right in six of the last matches where he's made a prediction. Many bettors will wager that his past success boosts his chances of correctly predicting Sunday's outcome.

Moreover, people who set odds for a living in the sportsbook are agreeing with Paul -- "listing Spain as +115 favorites on the moneyline [-- how much money a $100 bet would return --] to beat the Dutch, who have +240 moneyline odds," according to BetUS.

In fact, Paul only has a 1-in-2 chance of being correct today -- that is -200 in moneyline terms (since it's negative it measures how much one would have to bet to make $100).

The interesting thing to consider is that Paul is probably no worse at predicting World Cup outcomes than are money managers at picking stocks that will go up in value. That may be why stock pickers are required to offer legal boilerplate that past performance is no predictor of future results.

Paul's prediction on a Spain win today comes with no such legal disclaimer.