It’s been 20 years since Real Madrid played a final without being the favorite, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. Its winning streak in the Champions League is an extraordinary accomplishment and this seemingly impossible winning sequence leaves those of us who—like me—believe in the power of numbers to explain success, speechless. Since 1998, Real have played and won eight finals, a sequence that simply defies the laws of probability.
Madrid has made the abnormal a norm: they always win. And I say this after crunching the numbers. In the chart, you can see the likelihood of each final win, and to achieve the entire sequence from the beginning. The conclusion: Winning all eight consecutive finals had a 1 in 200 chance.
To estimate the probabilities, I’ve used Elo ranking, from clubelo.com, which offers an approximate but objective calculation. One of the main advantages of this chess point system is that it can be translated into probabilities. When two teams with the same Elo are up against each other, each will have a 50% chance of winning. If two teams, separated by 78 points do so, for example, as when Liverpool (2044 points) and (1966 points), the former should win 6 times out of 10.
The fact that Madrid won was hardly surprising, the Elo ranking illustrating that it wasn’t much different to a coin toss. So, what’s weird? That the Spanish team has been tossing coins since 1998 and getting heads every single time… it’s almost like the madridistas have hacked the Champions League finals.
With this triumphant sequence, Madrid has also astounded the bookies, who are usually the best at soccer match predictions. Looking at the odds of the last 5 finals, if someone had bet on Madrid for them all, their money would have been multiplied by 20.
How on earth can we explain Madrid’s winning streak? We skeptics make feeble arguments. It’s natural to think, for example, that the favorites will win more finals than expected—because they’ll do their best in those matches—, and that is indeed the case, but that’s hardly enough to explain Madrid’s victory in eight finals. Their wins must come down to luck, but this is an increasingly less convincing argument, or can it be explained by a multitude of subtle but relevant attributes that make the white team special? Perhaps the myth that says the Champions League belongs to Madrid is true which is why the trophy must always return to its showcase as a magnetized metal.