The World Cup: The Dismal Science and the Beautiful Game

By Jack Gao, INET Program Economist and Senior Football Analyst. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

Four years, 872 qualifying games, and seven Federal Reserve interest rate hikes later, the World Cup is back.

The world’s most popular sports tournament, happening in Russia for the next few weeks, brings together 32 national teams and will potentially attract the attention of more than half of the world’s population. Predictions for who will emerge victorious after 64 games are awfully hard, due to the role of sheer chance and the intrinsic limitation of any quantitative models. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting intellectual exercise to look at the broad economic context of the countries that have qualified to play in this year’s tournament amongst all 210 countries who have tried—a World Cup record. In this spirit, I humbly offer this economic analysis of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Not Your Rich-Country Club

Much of the discussion in international economics is centered on income levels – but this is only partly the case in this year’s World Cup.

While a number of richest countries are in the list, including Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden, they’re neither anybody’s favorites to win the title nor fair representatives of the average team in the game. For example, Spain and Germany’s chances of winning the cuptrailsbehind that of Brazil, whose GDP per capita is substantially lower. The overlap of OECD countries and World Cup teams is also limited. Of the 35 countries in the so-called “rich-man’s club,” only 15 are in the game this year, making up 47 percent of total participants.

The average income level of countries participating is about $26,000 per person, somewhere in between the world average ($10,000 per person) and the average for advanced countries ($45,000 per person). Some of the poorest nations in the world—such as Senegal, Morocco, and Tunisia—are also in Russia to showcase their creativity and solidarity, adding to the game’s popularity worldwide.

The Dubious Case for Democracy

The Economistmagazine published an articleearlier this month, claiming that the World Cup “rewards good government.” Unlike track-and-field or gymnastics, soccer requires “more creativity and flair” and “dictatorships are rubbish” at it, the article says.

This is a stretch at best. The simple logic that rich countries in the world today tend to be democracies and that they are likely to afford investment that produce good soccer teams is enough to confound the relationship between democracy and soccer performance per se. Furthermore, the relationship between democracy and economic performance, potentially a shorter chain of causation, is itself still subject to plentiful academic debate. If China indeed managesto elevate itself in soccer significantly via state-led initiative and fails to democratize, say, by 2050, the relationship between democracy and soccer will only be made weaker.

In this year’s tournament, four teams are from countries rated “not free” by the human rights watchdog Freedom House, and another four are rated “partially free.” Although this underrepresents the more than half of the world’s countries deemed not sufficiently “free,” these squads have made it into the tournament, despite the huge income effect playing to their disadvantage. The World Cup is not yet, like it or not, a pageant of democracy.

A Sport like No Other

Part of the reason the World Cup is so popular (though not in the US.., yet) is that it’s really a game sui generis.

The natural comparison to the athletic tournament of a similar size and influence is the (Summer) Olympic Games. Requiring standing professional teams and substantial investment in athletic facilities, the Olympics have come to be much more closely correlated with national power, broadly defined. Income level and country size are dominant factors in predicting the medal ranking, and the game closely resembles a winner-takes-most situation. Without much number crunching, one can comfortably foresee the United States, China, Russia and a few others coming to the top of the medal table in a given year. Historically, a small number of countries have collectedthe vast majority of Olympic medals and, in totality, the game has become devoid of surprise and representation.

The World Cup is different in this regard. Except for Russia (automatically qualified as host) and some European nations who have won more than or close to 1,000 Olympic medals, the average World Cup team is a perfect underdog in the Olympic Games. For a people who have only seen their athletes appearing on the podium once in the entire Olympic history, the Senegalese will certainly be overjoyed to see their national squad playing against Colombia, Japan, and Poland in the group stage, if not advancing to face England in the knockout. In the World Cup, if perhaps in no major economic organization, the world’s countries face each other, quite literally, on an equal playing field.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    As Gary Lineker said:

    Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball around a field for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.

    I leave it to others to think of the applicable metaphors….

    1. Winston Smith

      Gary is a splendid fellow by any standards but perhaps you have not been watching the most recent edition of the World Cup where with a brilliant display of aggression, tactical acumen and counterattacking football, mexico brought the defending champions (Germany) to their knees and defeat.
      Someone has to stick it to the Germans sometimes…

      1. sixpacksongs

        As one hard-partying Mexican supporter told a reporter after that match, “The Germans never win in Moscow!”

    2. Njal Thorgeirsson

      Gary Lineker must be a simple-minded observer. Check WC statistics. Nobody “always wins”. Why do people keep repeating this nonsense?

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Without much number crunching, one can comfortably foresee the United States, China, Russia and a few others coming to the top of the medal table in a given year. Historically, a small number of countries have collectedthe vast majority of Olympic medals and, in totality, the game has become devoid of surprise and representation.

    I hate the term ‘elephant in the room’, but the obvious elephant in the room when comparing Olympic medal tables to World Cup success is doping. Countries which either run national doping programmes (Russia) or notoriously turn a blind eye to private programmes (fill in your own best guesses) tend to do far better in Olympic medal tables.

    While it would be nice to say that this is proof that soccer doesn’t have a doping problem, its far more likely to say that the internationalisation of soccer leagues means that its far more of a level playing field – i.e. they are all doing it to a similar extent.

    1. Mirdif

      Football is full of doping. Just look at some of the players, the tell-tale signs of steroid use is all there and that’s before we get to the whole improvements in stamina. The story from the Sunday Times a couple of years ago is merely the tip of the iceberg where it comes to doping in football.

      The really big elephant in the room is football agents controlling multiple players on the pitch especially where the players are on opposing sides in a match. Now scale this up to say where 2 or 3 agents control nearly all the players on a team or on both teams and you now have a situation ripe for corruption. Add to this ripe for corruption environment referees who are paid a pittance in comparison to the players and you have the perfect environment for a complete corrupt and rotten game.

      The “poor performances”, “bad decision making” and “mistakes” to my very cynical eye are just a way to influence outcomes that have had money placed on them most likely in the far east. All goalkeepers are suspect in my opinion.

      Just my very cynical view.

      1. blennylips

        I was born with the male pattern sportlessness, so not really qualified to comment, except I think I really would have enjoyed this ancient game:

        you learn how in the 1958 worldcup, the brazilian players rebelled against the coach and insisted on fielding three players – garrincha, zico, and the teenaged pele. then they went on to steamroll the powerhouses of soccer, defeating sweden 5-2 in the finals. you learn how uruguay arrived at the 1924 games, an unheralded team on a shoestring budget. and how the press wrote “here we have real soccer. Compared with this, what we knew before, what we played, was no more than a schoolboy’s hobby.”

        I can only be refering to

        book excerptise: a book unexamined is wasting trees
        Soccer in sun and shadow
        Eduardo H. Galeano and Mark Fried (tr.)
        Galeano, Eduardo H.; Mark Fried (tr.);
        Soccer in sun and shadow [El Futbol a Sol y Sombra]
        Verso, 2003, 244 pages
        ISBN 1859844235, 9781859844236

        1. JohnnyGL

          Apparently, as legend(inho) would have it (Tim Vickery),

          The origins of the World Cup itself lie in Uruguay wiping the floor with the Europeans in football during the Olympics.

          After that, the forces aligned for a quadrennial gathering starting in 1930…

  3. Sound of the Suburbs

    The ratings agencies have been a great help.

    All the teams have got “AAA” ratings and so anyone could win.

  4. Thuto

    As someone who played soccer up to pro-level until knee injury ended it all, I can say without doubt this sport represents one of the last vestiges of true equality vis a vis access to opportunity. A country’s wealth has no bearing on its chances of winning the world cup, in fact of the top 5 countries by GDP, only Germany has a realistic shot of winning the competition. The top two, China and the US, have failed to even qualify for Russia 2018. While investment into infrastructure goes a long way towards nurturing future stars of the game, talent trumps money everytime (that’s why two of the greatest soccer players of all time, Pele and Diego Maradona, came from the slums of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires respectively and honed their craft playing on the streets with balls made out of plastic bags).

    In contrast, many OECD countries have gone on huge investment drives to unearth the next Pele or Lionel Messi, but none have reaped the ultimate reward (I.e. winning the world cup) and in reality are probably no closer to it than before they started their “high performance programs”. As regards doping, while it may enhance performance in power and endurance based sports like track and field, its performance effects in soccer are limited as the game is based on technique, skill and flair, areas where doping has no effect on proficiency.

    1. Quanka

      I like this observation. No doubt there is doping and a much bigger “agent” problem in world football. And FIFA is corrupt as hell. And they are advertising out the wazoo. Oy vey, its the 21st century after all.

      But when you take the world cup and stand it against any other competition – there is none. And thankfully, the Germans don’t always win … although the quote is still accurate in other ways. Each one of these games has been enjoyable between the commercial breaks, there have been many surprises, and I feel confident this year will yield an underdog champion. All of the world’s great football squads seem to be faltering, another apt metaphor for our times. I personally like Croatia and Mexico.

    2. PKMKII

      The top two, China and the US, have failed to even qualify for Russia 2018. While investment into infrastructure goes a long way towards nurturing future stars of the game, talent trumps money everytime (that’s why two of the greatest soccer players of all time, Pele and Diego Maradona, came from the slums of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires respectively and honed their craft playing on the streets with balls made out of plastic bags).

      As I understand it, the problem with the American approach is that the national team only wants players who play for MLS or European primer league teams, those teams only want players that came out of the powerhouse university teams, those universities only want kids who came out of the soccer academies, and that means kids who had parents that could shell out the dough for said academies. It effectively filters out any talented kids in the slums and poor parts of flyover country, so we end up metaphorically playing with one hand tied behind our back.

      1. Quanka

        That’s only part of the equation. The Men’s National Team (MNT) is managed by a bunch of inept crony insiders. Think of the way that administrators have come to dominate academia, or MBAs in the health care industry. They never pay for their own mistakes. They hire the wrong coaches. The wrong coaches select the wrong players. When we do get good players, we fail to cultivate their skills through the prime of their development.

        Just look at the last cycle of coaches tells you all you need to know. We hire the best coach the U.S. has ever produced (Arenas) but who critically lacks experience at the international level, where the best football is played. Arenas always coached in North America (read: no good).

        So Arenas can’t produce. We hire another American (Bradley) who puts his own son in the center midfield position on MNT — this same player would be a bench player just about anywhere else. Bradley eventually flames out. We hire a second rate German coach, he also flames out. The team misses the world cup. And they hire Bruce Arenas as the coach again.

        Wash, rinse, repeat.

  5. Ignacio

    Fuerza Senegal!!!
    Hey they started defeating Poland. Remember their historic victory over France in 2002, being Senegal a former colony of France.

  6. The Rev Kev

    How about that. A game where it does not matter how much GDP your country has, that you can’t buy high tech gear to make your team win, and where it comes down to two teams out on a field busting their hump for a win. And any country that can put together a team of talented players has a chance for the big win. The only difference that I can see between the different soccer countries is that a lot of them think of soccer as a matter of life or death. True soccer fans know that it is more important than that.

  7. /lasse

    If it had been the 32 best national teams the composition of participating nations had been quite different. Europe and south America had dominated.

  8. lamachetera

    I see it differently.

    GDP is supposed to be a measure of the health of an economy. That may have little to do w how much money can be available to support a national football squad. Hence the wealth of Brazil’s national team versus the state. Let them eat futbol.

    In a kleptocracy the oligarchs/monarchs spend whatever they want on programs that they see as enhancing their status. Nothing whatsoever to do w democracy.

    However, if you are attentive to the actual on-pitch contrasts, it does seem that the more authoritarian countries produce teams whose play has a wild rigidity that is a poor match for the more entrepreneurial play of sides from developed economies.

    I’m guessing this is down to a different conceptualization of competition.

    1. Martin Finnucane


      Does that word really mean anything anymore? (The analytic of “Freedom House” notwithstanding.)

    2. Thuto

      “…that may have little to do with how much money is available to support a national football squad”. On the contrary, it has everything to do with how much money is available to support football as a sport in a country (remember it is football as a sport in a country, including grassroots development, youth-level competitions etc, that acts as a feeder system to the national football squad made up of the creme de la creme of players). Richer countries have more money to invest into creating a football development system that acts as a conveyor belt supplying talent to strengthen the national team, but as I said in my comment above about such schemes in OECD countries, this only works in theory. The distribution of top-tier talent trumps money, that’s why richer countries can’t necessarily leverage their superior resources to create superior national teams reflective of their greater wealth, talent is the great equaliser…

      1. JohnnyGL

        “The distribution of top-tier talent trumps money, that’s why richer countries can’t necessarily leverage their superior resources to create superior national teams reflective of their greater wealth”

        I think you’re overstating your case here. Money still matters quite a bit in footie. Big, rich countries are generally better at football.

        But, to a degree, you’re correct. A country like Uruguay has overcome its small size and relative poverty (by European standards) with their strong footballing tradition.

        1. Thuto

          I never said money doesn’t matter, look at my comments again, I do say “while money does go a long way in nurturing future stars of the game” in my original comment. What I did say is you can’t buy your way to success in football, especially international football. The history of the world cup has demonstrated this beyond any reasonable doubt. That’s why the US, China, Aussie, Canada, Japan et al (rich countries) won’t be winning the world cup anytime soon, and you can quote me on that.

          1. animalogic

            “you can’t buy your way to success in football, especially international football”
            Correct – at international level. Not at domestic. No salary caps in sight. No draft. You end up with Real Madrid winning the European Cup…what, 3 times in a row ?

  9. vegeholic

    You have to smile when Iceland beats Argentina. That is the unexpected element which attracts me to the World Cup. But I am increasing disturbed by all of the thuggery and mayhem going on between players when they believe they are out of sight of the refs. Elbowing, tripping, shirt-grabbing, interspersed with academy award performances by phony “victims” seem to dominate the game. The two pathetic referees seem, by design, unable to monitor and adjudicate all of the bad behavior. How about a no-contact or incidental contact rule to allow ball handling skills to prevail over martial arts?

    1. Mirdif

      Stopped reading at Iceland beating Argentina. Suggest you go and examine the result of that match.

    2. thoughtful person

      I guess you missed the NFL season here in the usa. Basically its legalized violence on a scale that makes brain damage commom.

      By comparison soccer-futbol is played by gentlemen.

  10. ewmayer

    My late father, born Austria 1938, used to like to tell a story about the 1954 world cup, hosted by Switzerland and the first televised WC. Everyone was keen to watch the quarterfinal match between Austria and the host Swiss, but for whatever reason – postwar Austria was not rich, was still under Soviet occupation that year, and this was in the ‘backwater’ far western part of the country – the in-country state TV network was not carrying the match. So a bunch of the locals got together and manually lugged an old-style TV set and a portable generator to the top of the one of the mountain passes along the nearby border with Switzerland, where they could receive the broadcast on Swiss TV. The effort proved worth it, as the ensuing match proved historic. The whole history of the 1954 World Cup – linked on that same page – is worth a read, all sorts of weirdness re. the match set-up and multiple lingering controversies about the final, in which West Germany upset the favored Hungarians.

    1. ChrisAtRU

      “… such as Senegal, Morocco, and Tunisia”

      Shout-out to Senegal, the only African nation to win its opener!

      1. ChrisAtRU


        Gawd, #TheEconomist can truly indulge in drivel at times:

        “It also rewards good government. Autocratic regimes such as China and Russia can ruthlessly drill track-and-field athletes—indeed, the Olympic games sometimes resemble an authoritarian pageant. But dictatorships are rubbish at football, which requires more creativity and flair.”


        US: Not even in World Cup

        Russia: W 2 – L 0 – advancing to Group Stage

        Perhaps #TheEconomist is inviting its more informed readers to conclude that the Russki’s are an example of good government.

        1. ChrisAtRU

          Football is the beautiful game that is unique because it’s not played with the hands. British Colonialism spread it to the poorest parts of the empire’s periphery where it became woven into the fabric of daily recreational life for many people. The disparity that exists today in the world of football is a mirror of the global inequality created by imperialism and neoliberalism. Wealthy countries like England (UK) and Germany have prosperous national leagues that attract talented players from around the world (Permier League and BundesLiga respectively) – but lo and behold, so do a couple member of the GIIPS, Italy (Serie A) and Spain (La Liga). The fact that players from the aforementioned “poorer” nations actually play in some of those leagues means that when the World Cup comes around, some of these less-wealthy nations are able to field teams that “on paper”, are not languishing leagues behind those of their wealthier counterparts. What’s often lacking for the poorer teams is coaching, team cohesiveness and yes, money. But football is a great equalizer – one of the things I say when I try to explain it to Americans is that football is played the same way from the playground to the most storied stadia in the world. The only other sport that comes close to me is basketball. What this means is that the intimacy and sense of belonging that football enjoys with its fans is unprecedented. We know football … ;-)

          So root for the underdogs from Senegal, Iran and Iceland!!!

  11. Roland

    Big GDP is most important in matters pertaining to attrition and staying power. A single knockout tournament, based on the principle of one country, one team, is not the sort of competition in which big GDP is likely to be of decisive importance.

    It should be mentioned, too, that a lot depends on how big soccer is in a given country’s mainstream culture. Soccer is the world’s biggest sport overall, but it’s not the biggest sport everywhere.

    AFAICT, neither of the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, seem to have all that much of a soccer culture.

    In USA, soccer is found somewhere down the list of the nationally embraced professional sports, coming after the USA’s own variety of football (a sport which diverged from its common ancestor with soccer), baseball, basketball and even ice hockey.

    If soccer were attracting the USA’s top athletic talent, then I would hypothesize that the USA would probably be a major soccer power, appearing regularly in the World Cup tournament.

    The format of one nation, one team, tends to equalize the smaller countries against the bigger ones. Any given small country might find a couple of dozen world-class players with which to field a team. The big countries could probably each field multiple teams capable of competing at the highest level.

    For example, when it comes to my own country’s most popular professional sport–ice hockey–I know that Canada could easily send two or three world-class teams to an international tournament. Sure, the first team would be better, at least on paper, than the second or third, but in any given match any of the several teams might beat any other team in the world.

    But in an actual top level international ice hockey tournament, on a basis of one country/one team, Finland with its small population and small GDP can often beat Canada, Russia, or USA.

  12. ca152

    Re: the last paragraph under The Dubious Case for Democracy

    Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are attending the World Cup because each football federation is guaranteed a number of entrances. To say these countries – representing a confederation where 9 out of 10 rank “not free” or “partially free” – unravel the idea the World Cup is a pageant of democracy, is as silly as pageant of democracy sounds.

    Russia was guaranteed a spot as the host nation.

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