The 2022 FIFA World Cup has certainly attracted plenty of negative press, with scandal from bidding process through to the tournament itself. Yet out of this negativity, one positive storyline has arisen.
With victories over two recent European champions – Spain and Portugal – Morocco have become the first African nation to reach the last four of the World Cup.
Mapping a path to the final
Could the location of the tournament itself partially explain the Moroccans’ surprise progress? When an Asian side – South Korea in 2002 - similarly broke the duopoly of Europe and the Americas, it was on home soil.
An African squad would have made it to the semifinals 12 years ago in the first World Cup to be hosted on that continent, if not for one of the most infamously unsporting acts in the game’s history, at the hands (literally) of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez.
Now the World Cup is played in the Arab world for the first time and, perhaps not coincidentally, we are seeing a nation from the region reach unprecedented heights.
Geography could matter more than we think
In 21 previous tournaments, only three teams have lifted the trophy without being either hosts or a prior champion. One of those – West Germany in 1954 – did so in a neighbouring country.
Before 2010, no European nation had won the tournament outside Europe and only one non-European nation had won on the continent.
This trend is also seen in continental competitions. The European Championships’ two biggest shocks were Denmark’s 1992 success after initially failing to qualify, and the 2004 championship of rank outsiders Greece. The Danes’ victory came in another Scandinavian nation, and the Greek success was in another Mediterranean country.
Of course, none of this is directly causal. The Moroccans have certainly not reached this lofty stage because the tournament is in a fellow Arab country. As a low-scoring, complex team game, football is one of the hardest sports to predict and every little advantage, even as small as being in a comparable climate, could tip the balance of a game one way or another.
Parallels with other nations
When looking at historical data, the clearest predictor of which sides may be primed to perform better than ever before is their latitude relative to the tournament host. For example, Paraguay’s best run was in South Africa in 2010, at similar latitude, rather than in geographically closer South American nations further south.
Of the 39 nations to reach the tournament at least six times, 23 of those have never bettered their performance at the tournament closest to their home latitude. Almost three-quarters of sides’ best tournaments involved travel less than 10 degrees either north or south.
With Doha less than nine degrees north of the Moroccan capital Rabat, only three other competing nations lie closer to the latitude of Qatar. Two of those have enjoyed historic wins during the earlier group stage of the tournament: Tunisia defeated the reigning champions, and Saudi Arabia took down one of this year’s finalists.
The “world” game?
Even with its huge global appeal, football has been historically slanted towards Europe and the Americas, which may have stifled progress of the game in other regions.
Despite its numerous ongoing flaws, the administration has come a long way since the absurd situation in 1958 when the one place designated for a team from the Asian and African regions was taken by Wales.
Morocco’s fairytale run should certainly be seen as a huge positive for the game in North Africa, in particular. There do remain numerous “blind spots” in where tournaments have been held.
Rio de Janeiro, where the 1950 and 2010 finals were held, lies within one degree of the Tropic of Capricorn. Amazingly, if you travel north from there, you will only find one World Cup final venue (Mexico City) south of Doha.
Around 40% of the world’s population live between the tropics. This proportion is only increasing, but the game remains dominated by nations outside this region.
It could be argued that the countries most impacted by this geographic bias are African. Nations such as Cameroon and Nigeria have frequently qualified for the World Cup in recent decades, but have never played in a tournament within a 20-degree latitude from home. This would never be the case for a European side.
There was set to be a tournament in a more equatorial region in 1986. When Colombia backed out of hosting less than a year prior, few would have believed that four decades later, the game would still not have revisited this part of the globe.
A sporting chance
Criticisms of the process and politics underlying the 2022 World Cup cannot be overlooked, but the decision to broaden the geographic footprint of host nations can at least be seen as a positive step towards a more reasonable distribution of sporting advantage.
No on-field results will (nor should) lessen the valid criticisms surrounding this tournament, but it would be a shame for the historic achievement for African football to be overlooked.
We can’t definitively know how much of a role geographic proximity played in the Moroccan story, but the case for breaking European and American hegemony over the game is surely established beyond doubt.