FOR the next month football fans all over the world will huddle around televisions, listen craftily while at work and watch endless replays on their phones. Barely a fifth of them actually live in a country whose national team has made it to the World Cup. The rest will tune in enviously—both from countries that usually qualify, including Italy, America and Cameroon, and from those that rarely come close, such as China, India and much of the Middle East. Supporting a team in the tournament could well be a precursor to more heartache, as any Englishman will tell you. Just 6% of the world’s population have lived to see their national team lift the coveted trophy. How might the other 94% hope to join them?

To answer that question, The Economist built a statistical model to identify the underlying sporting and economic factors that determine a country’s long-term footballing performance. We downloaded the scores of every international match since 1990, and found a few indicators that were correlated with the art of consistently scoring more goals than the opposition. Having more players and teams at grassroots level was associated with a stronger national team, as was a high share of Google search traffic for football compared with other team sports. Countries that win more Olympic medals per capita also tend to be more potent on the football pitch, probably because they are sportier and more likely to spend more money on elite athletes. Likewise, those with a greater GDP per head performed better, since they can build better facilities and train more coaches. Finally, we assessed the share of people in each country who play football (the bigger the better).

The bad news for ambitious football officials in struggling countries is that many of these factors are beyond their immediate control. The good news is that our model can only explain 40% of the variance between the average goal differences of national teams, which leaves lots of outliers. South America, Iberia, west Africa and the Balkans were all overachieving hotspots. Other countries, like Germany, showed a marked improvement over the 28-year period we considered.

We were able to distil four lessons from the success of these teams that any ambitious national football federation might consider. First, lots of children need to play the game in a way that encourages them to develop creatively—either for fun with friends, or in training exercises that teach them to act instinctively in random situations. Second, comprehensive youth coaching and scouting systems should be able to spot the talented teenagers and prevent them from falling through the cracks. Third, professional players need exposure to football’s vast global network of expertise, either by playing in Europe’s strong domestic leagues or by playing for coaches with experience of such teams. And fourth, preparations for the tournament must be serious. In 2014 Ghana and Nigeria had to settle pay disputes to avert player strikes, and Russia’s coach went without his salary for six months. With the hopes of so many fans invested in national teams, the least officials can do is get the accounting right.

Dig deeper
What makes a country good at football? (June 2018)



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