Democracy vs football: 1:1

Is democracy good for football? The link between a country’s economic growth and athletic achievement is well known, but what about political systems and the “beautiful game”? There is actually a significant correlation between a country’s level of democracy and the performance of its national football team – along with a bunch of other factors. This is a tale of miscellaneous correlations with national football team ratings. 

National sporting achievements are linked to economic development. This was well-studied regarding the Olympics. But what about the relationship between a country’s economy, its reservoir of football players, its level of democracy and its football performance? All of these factors are packed in the graphic below.

There is a statistically significant correlation between countries’ national football ratings and their levels of democracy, i.e. more democratic nations tend to be better at football. No causality is hereby seriously suggested though. After all, one can prove that the per capita mozzarella cheese consumption is correlated with the number of civil engineering doctorates awarded.

Interestingly, however, a country’s wealth (GDP per capita) or the number of football players in a country are also both significantly correlated with national football performances, but to a lesser extent than its democracy level*.

The democracy index 2015 compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit was used as a measure of country democracy. The index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five categories measuring pluralism, civil liberties and political culture.

ELO ratings were used instead of the official FIFA rating to assess national football team performance. Although the two ratings do not differ largely, it was shown that the ELO rating is a much better measure of past and future football team performance than the FIFA ranking.

Wealthy nations are the most democratic. Nothing new there. This is particularly visible in the graphic above, with all the dark bubbles on the right. Note, however, that experts have not yet established a causality link between democracy and wealth. An alternative view is that prosperity tends to inspire democracy rather than the other way around.

Among the national football teams that over-perform given their authoritarian regime one can mention the Ivory Coast and Iran (both with less than 3.5 on the democratic index and ELO ratings of over 1700). At the other end of the democracy spectrum, Brazil, Spain and Germany are among the most highly rated football nations (over 1900 ELO ratings).

* The code used to analyse and visualise the data is available here.

  • rho correlation ELO ratings vs GDP per capita: 0.31 (p-value: 3.3e-05)
  • rho correlation ELO ratings vs number of football players : 0.2 (p-value: 0.009)

Why should sport be used for social change? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.

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