Till I write a book with an equally catchy title, this timely article should aid football psephology: when and who will be the emerging or established economies to qualify for future world cups?
More seriously, is there a correlation between economic status and performance at the FIFA world cup? And how can a win impact a country’s fortunes?
There is hardly a more inclusive and global game than football- little or no sports infrastructure required, simple rules, no fancy (read expensive) equipment needed, and can be played by pretty much everybody. Unlike say, Golf or Formula 1 racing.
FIFA has more member associations than the International Olympic Committee, representing more countries (202) that the UN membership includes.
Therefore, intuitively, the above elements should make football the ultimate leveler- for rich and poorer nations, democracies and dictatorships alike. Sure, Africa and South America have their share of representation at FIFA world cups, but the FIFA geography is still rather skewed.
Of the 32 teams playing this world cup, almost half come from Europe alone; Asia manages a modest 3, while Africa and South America do 6 and 5 teams respectively.
So there are no teams that come from the land mass between Korea and Greece. Ditto for East Africa and South East Asia.
Economists cry foul (pardon the pun) as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, India) nations sink (Brazil alone qualifies); while the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Spain) fly (all qualifying for the World Cup).
Will there ever be any semblance of equity in this topsy-turvy world of FIFA?
There well might. The sports that tend to do well in emerging economies are the ones that offer a ticket to a better life for the unprivileged- hence Cuban exports to American Baseball, and the “elitist” game of Cricket drawing future stars from small town India.
It’s a virtuous circle, really. The more people watch a sport, the more money (sponsors, broadcasters, etc) it will pull, this money will inspire millions of youngsters to train for a spot in their favourite teams, these teams will afford better coaches and training equipment and get better, and attract more eyeballs hence raising the financial stakes further.
Starting off this cycle is an impossibly difficult task though, especially for those countries who’ve missed the FIFA bus and have reserved star status for other sports.
Economics, above other considerations, determined who would get a FIFA head start. The first FIFA world cup in 1930 (Uruguay) was the only cup without qualification and all teams were invited to participate. European teams refused to participate for reasons including the long and expensive journey to South America, till they were persuaded by the FIFA president, and four European teams obliged.
Similarly, when the FIFA World Cup was reinstated post world war 2 in 1950, the Indian team (among others) withdrew despite qualifying, citing the expense of traveling such a long way (Brazil), though it is believed by some that it was also because FIFA wouldn’t allow them to play barefoot.
The FIFA world, however, cup remains a universal economic spectacle. Even countries that don’t qualify witness FIFA-nomics on a grand scale – shopping for football merchandise, congregating at bars to watch the game, unannounced holidays, travel, betting, television viewership, and so on. In essence, the perfect opportunity for marketers to get a share of your wallet.
If only they saw this one-off opportunity as symptom of latent demand. If they put more money into sponsoring football, local teams would get better (see virtuous cycle above), and give these altruistic benefactors bigger and more frequent opportunities to get consumers to behave irrationally.
As close to a win-win as we’ll get, I reckon.
Till then, I’ll pretend I was rooting for the winning teams all along.