Tuesday, July 10, 2018


I suffered withdrawal symptoms last week when, on Wednesday and Thursday there were no World Cup matches to watch.

It surprised me because I thought I was not emotionally invested in this year’s edition in Russia. Clearly I was wrong.

I have also been rereading my copy of Soccernomics, the enlightening book by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, whose promise to explain, “Why England lose, Why Germany, Spain and France win and why one day the rest of the world will finally catch up” caught my eye, when I bought if before the last world cup in Brazil....

There is a new updated version that came out earlier this year.

Using data the authors unravel the mysteries of why Africa teams struggle on the international stage, that football clubs are best when they make losses, how the health of populations determine whether a country will be successful or not and that World Cups do not make money for hosting nations among other subjects.

It’s a veritable page turner.

What interested me was the author’s assertion that to be successful on the soccer world stage a county needs to have a GDP per capita of at least $15,000.

They worked out by going over hundreds of data points this was the magic number as it suggested that such countries have taken care of their basic needs and have enough money left over to build the infrastructure to identify and nurture world beating soccer players.

In World Cup history of the eight countries that have won the World Cup only two countries have economies that do not meet this criteria. Interestingly they are all from South America. Argentina winners in 1978 and 1986, Brazil in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002. Uruguay who lifted the cup in 1930 and 1950 have a per capita GDP of $18,000. Brazil and Argentina’s numbers come in at $10,224 and $14,000 respectively.

But interestingly even those countries all European, which meet the criteria, the catchment area for their stars was the poorer sections of their society.

The explanation was that the middle class kids have school and other extracurricular activities while the poor are not only playing all the time but are more likely to give up their education to pursue a professional sports career.

With differing degrees of sophistication all these winners have an extensive soccer networks with teams at every level from toddler to the professionals. The Europeans have more sophisticated infrastructure compared to the South Americans, famed for learning their skills on the street using everything from oranges to stuffed socks.

They also showed that these countries are exposed to a lot of competition. Not only are their respective leagues very competitive, they have very competitive continental tournaments and play a disproportionately large number of friendlies annually.

And finally the corporate backing of the sport in all these countries is significant but it is underpinned by functioning governing bodies. Football associations who facilitate the recruitment, nurturing and placing of talent....

The long and short of It, the book, shows is that making it to the World Cup leave alone winning it is not the sole responsibility of the respective football federation. To paraphrase, it takes the whole country to win the World Cup.

There are no miracles. And whenever there is overnight success in soccer know it has been years in coming.

So we want to go to the world cup and even win it.

To get a seat at the table – you will not get a chance to win the World Cup if you are not participating in it, we need to grow our economy significantly.

At $15,000 per capita at the current population we need to grow our economy to $600b – about the size of Taiwan’s economy, from the current $25b.

Assuming the current economic growth rate of about 6 percent it would take us 55 years to hit the target.

A daunting prospect.

In order to increase the economic output this level investments infrastructure would have to remain consistent for the said period. We have a long way to go. For instance just to get to a middle income economy we have to quadruple the stock of paved roads to at least 88 km per square km of land from the current 20 km per unit area. And we would have to then quadruple it again to even come close to a $600b economy.

We need to get our power consumption to at least where Brazil’s. A 2014 estimate put Brazil’s power consumption per person at 287 kwh per year. At the same time Uganda’s was about 70 kwh per person.

And we haven’t even started talking about the quality of our human resource, which is key because you can have all the infrastructure in the world but if the quality of your human resource isn’t at a certain level this would count for nothing.

"There are no shortcuts. We will not fluke our way into the World Cup if our context is wrong...

If winning could be forced a former communist country would have been one of the eight winners of the World Cup. Only Czechoslovakia and Hungary have ever made the finals.

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