Almost a year ago I wrote an entry in which I argued that, as most of the large nations in the world are lousy at soccer and have scarcely improved in the almost 90 years that the World Cup has been staged, soccer cannot truly be called the global game. I also argued that one of the few correlations I could find was that the larger countries in Europe and the Southern Cone in South America (including Brazil, which technically is not entirely in the Southern Cone but close enough for this piece) almost exclusively won the World Cup, and that small nations in these same regions tended to far exceed expected results based on population. Uruguay (two time winners, population 3.5 million), nestled between Brazil and Argentina, definitely confirms the second rule and is the sole exception to the rule about only larger teams from these areas winning. In addition, I argued that soccer viewership, admittedly high as international sports go, had less to do with interest in soccer specifically, and more to do with gambling. Finally, I suggested that the real story was that a type of post-modern cultural imperialism emanates from FIFA headquarters in Switzerland, coupled with a hard sell from multinational corporations trying to wedge their way into the slowly growing pocketbooks of the developing world.
So, another World Cup is in the books, and how do my various hypotheses hold up one year on with data from 65 more games to be analyzed?
1. Large countries not in Europe or the Southern Cone of South America have historically been, and still are, terrible at the World Cup.
Well, since a bunch of the World’s largest countries did not even qualify for the World Cup, that part of the hypothesis was almost guaranteed to be confirmed. Six of the ten largest countries in the world (China, India, The United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) did not even make the World Cup. Brazil, Nigeria, Russia (the host), and Japan were the four which did. Brazil and Russia both made the quarterfinals, losing to Belgium and Croatia respectively. Japan came second in their group and then lost in the second round (another big country knocked out by Belgium), and Nigeria came third in their group, beating only Iceland, the smallest country ever to compete at the World Cup. So, all in all, an awful performance for the ten largest countries in the world, comprising 4,369,500,000 people, 57% of the population on the planet.
Countries #11-20 (total population 929,860,000) did not do any better. Six countries (Philippines, Ethiopia, Vietnam, DR Congo, Turkey, and Thailand) did not make it. Of the four countries which did qualify for the tournament, only Mexico made it out of the group stage, losing to Brazil in the round of 16. Egypt came last in their group (no wins three losses), Iran came third in Group B, beating Morocco and losing two games, and mighty Germany came dead last in their group, losing to both South Korea and Mexico!
In summary, two quarter-finalists, and one team in the round of 16 for the twenty largest countries in the world by population, 5.3 billion people, nearly 70% of the planet. Bad. And that includes the two teams (Brazil and Germany) who have won the most World Cups, so even worse than usual. Conclusion: size does not matter on a global scale.
2. Only countries from Europe and the Southern Cone/ Brazil in South America do well at the World Cup, making it essentially a competition between the larger nations in Europe plus Brazil and Argentina (okay, and Uruguay). France (population 67 million, #21 in the world), the second largest country in the European Union (EU28), won their second World Cup, defeating European minnow Croatia. So, check! The semifinals were an all-EU affair (for now…Brexit!), with England (the third largest EU28 country) and Belgium also making it. Another check. Quarterfinals had Brazil, Russia, Sweden, and Uruguay, all on the approved list of teams who are allowed to be good at the World Cup. Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and Denmark made up four of the round of sixteen losers, while Argentina made up a fifth. The three odd ones out were: Mexico which, as I discussed in my previous entry on the subject, was basically the next runner up in the America rankings after the big three Cono Sur teams; Colombia, another team from a large country in South America (50 million people, #29 in the world, third largest country in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico); and Japan, the sole representative from Africa or Asia, which together represent more than 75% of the population of the planet.
3. Small nations in Europe tend to far out-perform in the World Cup relative to their population. Croatia (population 4.1 million, #129 in the world) made the final, knocking off teams like Argentina, England, Russia, and Nigeria in the process. Belgium (population 11.4 million, #79 in the world) made the semifinals, defeating Brazil, Japan, and England (twice) in the process, to finish third. Sweden (10.2 million, #90) made the quarterfinals, while Portugal (10.3 million, #87), Switzerland (8.5 million, #100), and Denmark (5.8 million, #113) all made the round of 16. Spain, a large EU nation (46.7 million, #30 in the world), also made the round of 16, but surprisingly lost to the host, Russia, on penalties. Not a bad showing for the European minnows. Croatia has a far better World Cup record than every team from Africa, Asia, and every American country bar Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. I think I can safely say that this hypothesis checks out as well.
Conclusions. I stand by the argument made last year: The World Cup is an attempt by UEFA at cultural imperialism. Tell people it is the ‘Global Game’ enough times and they will believe it. In truth, much of the world watches the games, in all likelihood to gamble on it, or because it is free, plus they let in a few countries from Asia and Africa to make up the numbers. Croatia now ranks #27 on the all-time FIFA World Cup ranking; the only country smaller than Croatia which ranks higher is Uruguay, winners in 1930 and 1950, currently ranked #9 all-time. Only one country outside Europe or America is ranked above Croatia: South Korea is ranked one spot ahead at #26, but they have only one more point (24 versus 23) despite playing twice as many games in the World Cup (31 versus 16), so the simplistic methodology of the rankings is the problem here.
Apparently, after more than 80 years of becoming increasingly popular, neither China nor India can find 11 players of a decent quality to form a half-decent team, capable of at least getting to the World Cup. Alternatively, and the more likely scenario, soccer is not as important to the globe as the FIFA sales pitch makes it out to be, as I argued in the previous entry. Those ads where the kid with no shoes in (insert poor country here) runs around looking like Messi seem to belie the reality. While it is definitely true that some players do rise up from very humble backgrounds, particularly players from West Africa or Brazil, the notion that FIFA and Coca Cola and Adidas etc. is trying to sell, that they are sending money and know how to every poor village on the planet to spread the game and to make the world a better place, does not really seem to have resulted in much of a return on investment, if there was ever much investment at all. Call me a cynic, but trickle-down soccernomics does not seem to be working well, except for FIFA-connected elites and multinational corporations hawking shoes.
Next stop Qatar (2.6 million inhabitants, #140 in the world, but #1 in GDP per person), which is likely to be the most ridiculous World Cup ever held, if it is held at all. FIFA is shifting the dates for the first time to avoid playing in 100°F plus average daily high temperatures. This entails breaking up all the major European leagues with a six week tournament jammed in the middle of the season. Talk about killing the goose that laid the gold egg! Twelve stadiums were originally planned but now there will only be eight (because, of course that was always going to happen!). Qatar is currently subject to an economic embargo by its neighbors Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and UAE. Qatar is alleged to be funding terrorism. Qatar is a place where niceties like human rights are not observed. Ninety percent of the population of Qatar is made up of foreign workers, often working in very trying conditions. It should be an interesting next couple of years.
Perhaps some plucky minnow from Asia or Africa, like Ethiopia (108 million people) or Nigeria (193 million) or Vietnam (95 million) or Indonesia (265 million) can make a go of it in the desert against the mighty powerhouses of Denmark (5.8 million), Slovakia (5.4 million), or giant Switzerland (8.5 million). I doubt it. 2022 prediction: Italy 1- Belgium 0. You heard it here first.