It is hard to imagine a World Cup in which Germany, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, the Netherlands, England, France and Spain did not appear, or in which one of them did not win.
What is it that makes some countries so maddeningly good at football?
Armed with a host of national statistics, a small band of economists and psychologists have explored the features that predict high FIFA rankings and success at the World Cup – and there seem to the eight factors toward World Cup (and general football) success.
More populous countries might be expected to have strong football teams because their talent pool is deeper.
Sure enough, studies find that larger nations have better-performing teams – but this advantage shows decreasing returns: large countries do better than small ones, but not much worse than very large ones.
Wealthy nations can fund sports grounds, arenas, elite training facilities and expensive national coaches. Several researchers have shown that countries with high per capita GDP tend to outperform poorer countries.
As with population, though, there are diminishing returns. Indeed, one study of the FIFA rankings of 76 countries in 2001 found that very wealthy countries had less successful national teams than merely wealthy ones.
Beyond a certain point, sporting prowess gave way to affluenza.
There is some evidence that football flourishes in temperate Mediterranean climates. Hot climes may be enervating and cold ones are not conducive to outdoor sport.
One study found that the closer a nation’s mean temperature was to 14C, the higher its FIFA ranking. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, their national climate was not too hot and not too cold, but just right.
For a country to do well in international football it helps to be located in temperate latitudes. It also helps to be located in Europe or South America, the only continents to be represented in World Cup winners.
Choosing the right neighbours matters too. One study found an advantage for national football teams that were in the vicinity of other strong teams, implying that they could lift their games by learning from and competing with local rivals.
Some countries are more passionate about football than others, a factor sometimes used to explain the remarkable success of the Latin (including Portuguese-speaking) countries.
Not surprisingly, the teams of football-mad nations tend to perform especially well. One study showed that nations that had previously hosted the World Cup – an indicator of being strongly invested in the sport – tended to have high FIFA ranks many years later.
Culture may also explain the finding that some national teams are especially likely to score at the death.
Germany in particular has a knack of finding the back of the net in the final minute of international matches, but also of finding it in the back of their own. Driven by a desire to win – rather than the desire not to lose that has often characterised the Italian game – they take risks as the final whistle approaches.
Having an extended football tradition plays into contemporary success. Some research has found that countries with long football histories – measured by the number of years since the first international match was played on its soil – tend to perform relatively well.
Deeper and darker histories may also be involved, with one paper showing that the colonial powers – England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain – are all strikingly successful football nations. Having been colonised bestowed no advantage or disadvantage.
National football teams from communist nations tend to underperform, but teams from formerly communist nations perform particularly well.
Collectivism might sound like a boon for football – “no I in team” and all that – but the evidence says otherwise.
While communism may not be good for international football success, we shouldn’t give up on equality just yet.
In a forthcoming article in the journal Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, organisational psychologists Roderick Swaab and Adam Galinsky argue that more equal nations should have greater football talent for two reasons:
- egalitarian institutions promote the development of talent by offering opportunities to a large and diverse assortment of people and by not tolerating discrimination and social exclusion
- egalitarian people provide a supportive climate in which disadvantaged individuals can benefit from these opportunities.
Swaab and Galinsky assessed the institutional and psychological egalitarianism of 199 countries and examined how they related to their national teams’ FIFA rankings from 2006 to 2011:
- institutional equality was assessed by the extent to which countries offer equal opportunity, equal participation in selecting their government, the rule of law and personal autonomy
- psychological equality was measured as the degree to which a country’s citizens endorsed values such as equality, social justice and working for the welfare of others.
Both forms of egalitarianism were associated with countries having better-performing football teams. Nations with more egalitarian institutions and citizens tended to have more successful teams even after controlling for other factors such as population, wealth, football history and climate.
Interestingly, the link between equality and FIFA rankings was explained by national talent levels, as Swaab and Galinsky predicted. More egalitarian nations had a higher proportion of players contracted to elite clubs around the world.
In short, greater equality was associated with greater talent, which generated greater national success.
The researchers also asked whether egalitarian nations are more likely than others to improve their football performance over time. Sure enough, countries whose citizens endorsed egalitarian values in 1994-1997 were more likely to have improved FIFA rankings in 2009 than those that were un-egalitarian. Equality does seem to nurture national football success.
Recipe for success
Combining these factors, the ideal footballing nation must be:
- big (but not too big)
- wealthy (but not too wealthy)
- have a mean climate of 14C
- be surrounded by other strong footballing nations
- have hosted the World Cup before (and have a long footballing history)
- have strong egalitarist values (without venturing into communism).
The World Cup is known for tossing up some surprising results. But we shouldn’t be surprised to see some of the world’s more egalitarian nations among the finalists.