Are Poor Countries Better at Football?
Like every human within 20 ft of a radio, TV or Twitter feed, the World Cup has elbowed its way into my consciousness and is sitting there like a drunken brother-in-law blowing a vuvuzela at your kid’s birthday party.
This year I am actually in a pool, so my level of interest is slightly higher. For example, I will make it through to the third paragraph of a newspaper story on the negative impact of WAGS on the English team, or I will not turn off the radio until the fourth caller announces he is supporting Ghana now that [insert ancestral homeland here] is not competing.
I still can’t tell you why so many think Spain enjoys the best odds, but I have picked up one recurring piece of conventional wisdom that has me thinking. I first heard it on Canadian radio, when a caller helpfully explained that the reason Canada never made the cut was because our kids are in school. “I’ve been to Haiti” he said. “None of the kids there are in class. They’re in the back alley playing soccer. That’s why they’re so good.” The fact that Haiti didn’t make it to the World Cup either didn’t seem to distract him from his main point that poor people play better soccer because rich people are too busy working and studying.
I’ve seen this idea crop up again and again, occasionally explicitly but mostly implicitly and even in the pages of the New York Times or on BBC World Service. Sometimes it is explained that in the “poor neighborhoods of Soweto, football offers the only hope of a better life”. Or, “growing up in the favelas of Rio, his only possession was a battered football…” (so naturally he would grow up to be a starter for Manchester United).
Sitting at my daughter’s soccer game this weekend, I wondered if this was true. Was she poor enough to have a future in football? I needed answers. Luckily, I live in an age where any rube with moderate Excel skills can data-mine the intertubes for some answers so I logged-in and started looking (my usual intern of choice Kavya is too busy de-bugging our new Timor procurement database, sadly).
First, I assigned the competing countries a score from 1 to 32 according to the current odds for cup winner as set by Ladbrokes. Then I did the same thing according to literacy rate (using UNDP’s report from 2009). Finally, for good measure, I ranked the countries by GDP per capita using the IMF’s World Economic Outlook for 2010. I squeezed all this into a Google Docs Bubble Graph.
If the conventional wisdom is correct that poor uneducated people are better at football, then the nations with the lowest GDP and literacy rates would have the best odds for winning the World Cup. A graph of this with Ladbrokes odds on the Y axis, GDP on the X axis, and size as literacy rate would look like this, with Ghana ensured a win and the United States providing the longest odds.
But, not surprisingly, this isn’t the case. Ghana and the US have about the same odds, and the teams with the best odds are moderately wealthy countries from Europe (green) and South America (orange). African nations (dark blue) are middle of the pack.
Maybe its because the rich nations can spend more money on professional football leagues, or perhaps countries who can afford better education systems can also afford better training systems. Culture clearly is a major factor, but how much literacy rates don’t seem to have much impact. Regardless, the romantic notion that poor people are better at football is utter rubbish.
[NOTE: WordPress won’t host this dynamic graph, but you can play with it here.]