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Permutations is a word used exclusively by football pundits at moments of high tension: for example, on the last day of the season, or when qualification from the group stages of a tournament is at stake. It is used to grossly exaggerate the mathematical complexity of fairly simple situations: for example, when two teams are level on points, and goal difference comes into play.

The term ‘permutations’ is normally taken by the co-commentator as a cue to talk self-effacingly about how he is ‘not a mathematician’ and ‘will have to get the abacus out’ to unscramble the problem, e.g.

Peter Drury: …so if the score stays like this, and Milan can’t find a winner at the San Siro, then we get into all sorts of permutations…

Andy Townsend: Tell you what, you have to be Einstein to work out who’s going to qualify here!

Peter Drury: I’ll just get my calculator out!

Andy Townsend: Maths was never my strongpoint, Peter! – etc.

In 1998, fearing that the climax of a very competitive Group D would prove an overwhelming intellectual challenge to its team, ITV hired leading mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot for its live Champions League coverage, saying in a press release that the veteran’s pioneering work on fractal patterns in Nature made him ‘the ideal man to keep track of who’s going to finish in the top two positions’.

Mandelbrot arrived with a logarithm which supplied over 25,600 possible outcomes to the group, and was said to be ‘disappointed’ when Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Porto put both teams through without any permutations at all. Mandelbrot occupied himself for the evening calculating exactly what percentage of Peter Drury’s utterances were tedious insights into the players’ personal lives.

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