Brazil are favourites and Australia are going to struggle. Right? Job done.
Before every World Cup, vats of ink are spilled ranking teams by their likelihood of success. Every year, it goes a little wrong. Not at The Athletic.
Earlier this month, Mark Carey ranked all 32 teams using footballing data — average squad age, call-ups by league, and (get this) goals per cap.
Now it is time to rank the countries by other factors, the kind of factors which, on the face of it, have nothing to do with football. But they are significant.
For example, which nations, like Uruguay, punch far above their weight considering their population? Are World Cup nations democratic? Does a nation’s human development index (HDI) correlate with footballing ability?
Football is a prism through which the world can be discovered — its culture, its economies, and even its politics — despite what FIFA may say in their letters. Can’t make it to Qatar? Try this alternative journey.
Population and area
The distance between the two stadiums furthest from each other at this year’s World Cup is 34 miles — that’s about the same distance as Manchester to Liverpool or Baltimore to Washington.
Unsurprisingly, Qatar is the smallest country at the World Cup by area at only 11,571km² (4467 square miles). It is slightly smaller than Connecticut.
Qatar is the second smallest country to compete in a World Cup. The smallest was Trinidad and Tobago at the 2006 tournament in Germany. Behind Qatar, the list of small countries at World Cups is dominated by European nations — Wales, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Denmark.
The smallest nation by area to ever win the World Cup? Somehow the Netherlands have never triumphed, meaning England, the 12th smallest nation in Qatar, take the crown.
Russia could have been the largest country at the tournament had they not been excluded from the World Cup due to invading Ukraine — though they still needed to progress past Poland and Sweden in the play-offs.
That honour instead goes to Canada, at 9,985,000km² (3,855,230 square miles). You could fit Qatar into Canada 862 times. Close behind is the United States, with Brazil and Australia the other geographical giants.
Onto population, where some interesting trends are revealed. More so than area, it would be expected that a country with a large population would have an advantage — a larger talent pool to choose from.
That theory was blown apart at the very first World Cup in 1930, when Uruguay, the third-smallest side in Qatar this year, with a current population of only 3.5 million, won the tournament. They repeated the feat in 1950 — and have an outside shot at glory in 2022.
Population is not necessarily a barrier to success — especially in recent tournaments.
Croatia (nearly 4 million) reached the final in 2018. Wales (3.1 million) made it to the semi-finals of Euro 2016. Costa Rica (5.1 million) were surprise quarter-finalists in 2014. Denmark (5.8 million) could have won Euro 2020, edged out in a tight semi-final by England. Serbia (6.9 million) are many people’s pick to make a sneaky run into the knockouts in Qatar.
The hosts this year have the smallest population in the competition, and their job is made harder as only a small percentage of the population is eligible for the national side — 88 per cent of Qatar’s inhabitants are foreign workers.
Brazil, who can choose from a population of 213 million, have the second-largest in the competition. They have won the World Cup five times — more than any other nation.
Apart from that, the recent record of countries with large populations is sketchy at best.
The United States is the country with the largest population at Qatar with about 330 million inhabitants. They had their best result at a World Cup in 1930, reaching a semi-final, though only 13 teams participated.
Mexico, with 130 million inhabitants, has lost seven consecutive round of 16 games. Japan, with 126 million, has never reached a quarter-final, despite a strong footballing culture.
Remember, for all the talk of football being a global game, 2.7 billion people — the population of China and India — have only seen their nations appear at one World Cup combined (China in 2002).
Economy, development and democracy
The narrative that the greatest footballers come from humble backgrounds is commonplace — a theory debated in detail by Simon Kuper in his book Soccernomics. But what about poor countries?
Measured by GDP per capita, Senegal are the poorest nation at the World Cup.
Following them are Cameroon, Ghana, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia and Ecuador.
However, do not be fooled. Wealthy nations do not have overwhelming success. Switzerland, United States, Denmark, Qatar and Australia are the five countries with the highest GDP per capita, in that order.
However, a country’s development is not purely economic. This is where HDI comes in — a measure which combines GDP per capita, education data and life expectancy. Do social factors play an important role?
The Athletic’s Michael Cox explored a similar issue before the 2022 Women’s Euros — asking whether nations with greater gender equality had better women’s football teams.
Ranking teams by HDI does demonstrate a greater correlation with footballing success. Switzerland still leads the way, but traditional powerhouses Germany, the Netherlands, England and Belgium all feature highly.
Of the 16 teams in the bottom half of the HDI index, only Brazil and Argentina are true contenders to win the tournament.
While discussing politics — in possibly the most politicised World Cup since Argentina in 1978 — it is worth a brief breakdown of democracy. Are democratic nations more likely to qualify for the World Cup?
Five teams in the competition have governmental systems which can be considered undemocratic — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Morocco and Cameroon — which is 15.6 per cent of the sides. Morocco and Cameroon exhibit elements of both democracy and autocracy.
Globally, according to Pew Research, 57 per cent of nations are fully democratic, with 13 per cent fully autocratic, and 30 per cent exhibiting traits of both. At World Cups, democracy is overrepresented.
Religion, language, and LGBT+ laws
This World Cup will be the first tournament held in a Muslim country. Including Qatar, there are six countries competing in which Islam is the predominant religion — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia and Qatar.
Of the remainder, all but three have Christianity as the main religion. The exceptions are Japan (Buddhist/Shinto), South Korea, and the Netherlands (both atheist).
And what about language? There are 18 different official languages among the World Cup’s 32 nations, including Farsi, Flemish, and Akan. The most popular of these is English (seven), with Spanish and French the official languages in a further six countries each. Arabic is fourth, spoken in four competing nations.
Finally, the hosting of the World Cup in Qatar has been controversial due to the country’s criminalisation of homosexuality. Qatar is not alone — it is criminalised in a further seven countries competing at Qatar.
Earlier this month, The Athletic wrote to all 32 nations, asking them whether they would back Australia’s call for homosexuality in Qatar to be decriminalised. Only Belgium and Denmark publicly agreed.
So, what does the average World Cup nation resemble?
As an interesting place to finish, which nation at the tournament is closest, in social profile, to being a typical World Cup nation?
By averaging the data, this nation would have a population of 49.7 million and a size of 1,278,735km². Economically, their GDP per capita will be around $29,701, and their position in the global HDI index around 50th. They will speak English, Spanish, French or Arabic, and be a democracy.
The closest to fulfilling all those criteria? Spain (who are just a tiny bit small).
(Top image: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic, images: Getty Images)
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