The formula for World Cup success

Do soccer players from poor backgrounds have an advantage over their middle-class team mates? Dr Ross Tucker, Health24’s FitnessDoc applies some science to soccer in preparation for the opening match tomorrow.

I heard an excellent interview with Simon Kuper, a transplanted South African and sports columnist for the Financial Times and co-author of Soccernomics:  Why England Loses, Why Germany wins, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey - and even Iraq - are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport.  

Simon and his co-author Stefan Szymanski have analysed just about every angle of world football and produced the "Freakonomics" text on the sport.  I have not yet read the book, but from the interview here are some of most interesting points. 
The first important finding. . .wealth = success

One of the ways people have tried to explain the East African dominance in running is that, beyond any physiological differences, those runners are "hungrier."  They come from poor backgrounds, very modest if not outright poor homes, and therefore are much more motivated to succeed. 

When I ran the Bolder Boulder way back in 1998, the newspaper in Denver ran a story about how the Africans dominate the sport, and Frank Shorter chalked it up to incentive and more motivation, concluding that in one good year on the running circuit, the Kenyans can earn enough money to buy enough land and cattle back home to retire. 
Right or wrong, this has been one angle to explain their success, or at least it is put forward as a contributing factor. 

So the "myth" is that countries with more poverty produce the better athletes because they are hungrier break through and work hard.  But perhaps not surprisingly, Kuper and Szymanski found just the opposite, that in fact poor nations are much less successful. 

The higher per capita income, the better that country does in all sport.  Therefore wealth is a good predictor of success, as is the case with the Olympics, with Brazil the only developing country that is a world champion.

But wait, aren't the good players from poor backgrounds?  Indeed, yes, but in relative terms these poor players are still better off, and that means although they are "poor" by European standards, they are still better off than most of the world. 
The explanation put forward is that since these kids grow up in small houses, without many options for leisure time, these future stars spend many hours playing their chosen sport. 
So the best players come from poor backgrounds but from rich countries.

The socio-economic class of players

The authors gathered, for as many English players as they could, the professions of their fathers.  The finding?  The majority worked as manual labourers or in the football industry, so they had lower socio-economic status.  

As Kuper outlines, in English soccer it is thought that if you are to be successful, you must leave school at 16 and pursue the sport full time.  That is probably a good thing if you do want to excel, because it will help ensure you maximise the time spent in the sport and in theory maximise your improvements. 

As a rule, middle and upper class families encourage their children to stay in school and pursue higher education, even if the child demonstrates some aptitude at sport.  So England, at least, recruit their footballers from the working class population. 
This is in contrast to countries like Holland, Argentina, and even Brazil, who are producing more top players from middle class backgrounds - apparently the Brazilian Kaka and the former Argentine star Redondo are from comfortable middle class families.

The problem with this is that in most first world countries, the working class populations are shrinking, and over time this means smaller and smaller talent pool from which to select your players. 

So this "theory" states that eventually, unless England change something else, and given that the other countries continue on their paths, England's relative standing in the football world will decline.  Come back in 30 years for the follow up...
It's not the coach, it's the players, stupid!

Many sports place coaches and managers on high pedestals, and often pay exorbitant salaries for their coaches. 

To be sure the coach will always play an important role, and there are better coaches and worse coaches - even given the best players available, dare I say it but I could not coach that team to a World Cup final.  

But what Kuper and Szymanski found was that a team's payroll is more likely to tell you how successful a team will be than who their coach is.  It is all about the players, because the better players demand higher pay, and the more money a club can spend on players means they can hoard more top players, therefore helping ensure their success.

The analysis was something like this. . . in any one season a club's payroll could explain 70% of how they finished in the league.  That's fine, because in any given season luck counts, and players get injured, etc., and cause even the richest clubs to under-perform. 

However when averaged over a much longer period of say 20 years, the payroll accounts for 90% of the club's league standing.  

On a statistical note, Kuper did not mention if those values were the "R" or the "r-squared" values, but either way payroll is a big determinant of success.  This finding holds true in both England and Italy. 

So who will perform well in SWC 2010?

Apparently three main factors predict success in World Cups:  

1) a country's wealth,

2) population size, and

3) "football experience," i.e. how long they have been playing internationally.   

Given these three items, Western European countries have the edge.  However, historically these same teams perform less well when playing outside of Europe, so although the Western Europeans get the nod to go far into the tournament, they might do less well than in other years.

One problem with the World Cup, however, is that although it is one month in duration, the match ups that determine the latter match ups 0 (2nd round and on) are decided over just three matches. . . and as Kuper mentions, just about anything can happen in three matches. 

So there is a big element of randomness in the tournament that makes it harder to predict who will do well.

Interestingly, Spain gets the nod from Kuper this year because according to him although Spain has not won a World Cup ever, Spain is in fact a "soccer superpower" alongside Brazil. 

This is based on their performances since 1990 at all levels of the sport, and even tough they do not have such a large population, they have (or had until the recession!) a high per capita income and also plenty of international experience. 

Spain is probably a safe bet, and I think many people might also pick Spain to win it all this year as one can argue that they have the most complete team of all.

Applying Game Theory to penalties

Penalties are a big part of the game because so many of the matches do go to extra time and end in penalties.  So an important part of the game is being successful in a penalty shootout. 

Game Theory fits in here because it in a penalty shootout we have two players who actions are dependent on each other.  The shooter will make a decision to kick the ball one way or the other, and based on what the keeper thinks that decision will be, he then makes a decision about which way to dive. 

In fact way back in 2002 Steven Levitt co-authored a paper in The American Economic Review in which they tested the predictions of game theory using penalties. 

In the interview Kuper talks about how Chelsea in 2008 hired an economist to advise them on their penalties strategy for the Champions League final against Manchester United.  Apparently the United keeper, Edwin Van der Sar, dives to his right way too often. . . and so it goes that the best shot against him is to his left.  Accordingly, the first five shots by Chelsea were kicked to Van der Sar's left, all scoring except when John Terry hit the post on - where else? - Van der Sar's left. 

Kuper deferred to the video on Youtube, and you have to watch it, because on the second kick in sudden death, Van der Sar points to his left. . . signalling to the kicker, Nicholas Anelka, "I know you are going to kick it left." 

It was the ultimate second guessing game, because Van der Sar was able to recognise the pattern of Chelsea's strategy, called Anelka on it, made him second guess his decision to kick left, thus "forcing" Anelka to kick right, and in the end saved the kick and won the match for his team.

Needless to say, I can't wait for the book to arrive and am really looking forward to reading it in its entirely.  It is a fascinating analysis of the sport, with some results perhaps not so surprising - wealth produces success - but others most surprising, in this case the socio-economic status of most English players. 

Whether you are watching on the internet at work or over breakfast with friends, or at sunrise on the west coast, polish up you vuvuzela and enjoy the first match.  Go Bafana!

Check out our World Cup Fever Forum and share you views, swop tickets or find a car-pooling buddy.

Dr Ross Tucker, is Health24’s FitnessDoc and has a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Cape Town and a Post-Graduate degree in Sports Management from the UCT's Faculty of Commerce. He is currently employed at the University of Cape Town and Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and works as a consultant to various sporting teams, including South African Sevens, Canoeing, Rowing and Triathlon SA. He also blogs on

June 2010


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