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Explaining World Cup performance economically and demographically?

The 2018 World Cup is about to kick off. Which countries are likely to do well? Past performance may offer some clues. Brazil, followed by Germany, has had the greatest number of World Cup wins since 1930. Argentina and Uruguay have also been strong performers (see Table 1, at end of release, and also Diagrams 1 and 2 below). Those countries which have not been World Cup winners, or runners-up, are positioned by their FIFA rankings.

What of possible economic explanations? Could richer countries “buy” better performance? Diagram 1 and Table 1 considers the relationship between football ranking and level of GDP per head. The evidence of a relationship is not strong - on the one hand, there is a group of relatively strongly performing and rich European countries, on the other hand, the strongly performing Latin American countries are only middle income. Saudi Arabia provides an example of a relatively low football ranking alongside very high income per head.

Diagram 1: Football ranking for World Cup participants* (highest on left hand side, lowest on right) compared to income per head by country

Note*: Those countries which have been World Cup winners or runners-up since 1930 were assigned the highest rankings: a win was given two points, runner-up one point. So, Brazil was ranked first, then Germany, then Argentina, then Uruguay, then France, then (jointly sixth) England and Spain and then Sweden. After that, the FIFA rankings for June 2018 were used (Belgium was the first country to be ranked in this way). We have not included countries such as Italy and the Netherlands which were not World Cup finalists in 2018.

Maybe it is not being rich which matters but having a big population: bigger nations have a larger talent pool (moreover, population times GDP per head equals size of national GDP)?  Here, again, the evidence is mixed (see Diagram 2 and Table 2). Brazil is number one both in terms of population size and number of previous World Cup wins. However, Mexico, Nigeria and Russia are all giants in terms of population but have relatively low performance rankings. And Uruguay is striking as a population minnow (3.4m or less than twice the size of Northern Ireland) which has won the World Cup twice.

Diagram 2: Football ranking for World Cup participants* (highest on left hand side, lowest on right) compared to population size by country

Note*: As in Diagram 1.

Past experience suggest that football performance is not strongly related to countries which are rich or have large populations or size of economy [Note 1]. Perhaps that is part of the attraction of this contest- it is unpredictable.

Table 1: World Cup participants ranked from (previously) top performing in football terms to lowest and their level of income per head

World Cup CountriesGDP per head 2014 $PPP
Brazil£16,273
Germany£45,322
Argentina£22,749
Uruguay£20,887
France£40,111
England£40,857
Spain£32,893
Sweden£46,044
Belgium£43,478
Portugal£27,320
Switzerland£57,059
Poland£25,145
Peru£12,115
Denmark£44,663
Mexico£17,369
Colombia£13,110
Croatia£20,926
Tunisia£11,235
Iceland£43,813
Costa Rica£20,926
Senegal£2,352
Serbia£10,826
Australia£46,591
Iran£17,287
Morocco£7,739
Egypt£11,939
Nigeria£5,899
Panama£20,772
South Korea£36,039
Japan£37,477
Saudi Arabia£54,840
Russia£17,098
Source: The Economist Pocket World in Figures 2017 Edition.

Note : As in Diagram 1.

Table 2: World Cup participants ranked from (previously) top performing in football terms to lowest and their level of population

World Cup CountriesPopulation 2014 (m)
Brazil202.0
Germany82.7
Argentina41.8
Uruguay3.4
France64.6
England54.3
Spain47.1
Sweden9.6
Belgium11.1
Portugal10.6
Switzerland8.2
Poland38.2
Peru30.8
Denmark5.6
Mexico123.8
Colombia48.9
Croatia4.3
Tunisia11.1
Iceland0.3
Costa Rica4.9
Senegal14.5
Serbia9.5
Australia23.6
Iran78.5
Morocco33.5
Egypt83.4
Nigeria178.5
Panama3.9
South Korea49.5
Japan127.0
Saudi Arabia29.4
Russia142.5
Source: The Economist Pocket World in Figures 2017 Edition.

Note: As in Table 1.

Note:

  1. Our conclusion is similar to that of D. Kaufmann at the time of the previous World Cup in 2014 (7 July 2014, “Explaining success at the World Cup: Money or Governance”, Brookings). He found little evidence that success was associated with having a high market capitalisation of the players, the salary level of the team manager, national population or size of GDP. However, there were indications of a relationship with “governance” (how democratic a country was) and a home team advantage.