The United States Men’s National Team is supposed to become a soccer power, eventually, because of the resources at its disposal. Approximately 330 million humans amass 16 million annual soccer players who have above average health and financial resources to aid their development. How can this country not eventually generate the 30 or so players it would take to compete with the best in the world?
But just how much do a country’s resources matter when it comes to having a good soccer team? This is a topic that has been occasionally broached by academics, but given we’re sitting in a World Cup postmortem, I thought it might be fun to revisit the data to determine just how fortunate some of these countries are to be in the final, and also evaluate how high a country like the U.S. can go with their resources as they are.
First let’s look at what data is available globally that might be predictive of soccer goodliness. There are some obvious ones like gross domestic product per person which estimates the wealth of the average citizen. Metrics like population size, the average height of the population, and climate should also be impactful. Those measures are easy to locate as well.
The World Happiness Report discussed in the first part of this series tracks a number of intriguing variables. They have developed measures for a country’s social support, freedom, generosity, corruption, and also have a survey from each country reflecting how satisfied those people are with their lives.
I was also able to locate an estimate of the number of soccer clubs a nation boasts from 2006. Lastly, and this one is controversial, a National Geographic study highlighted the most popular sport in every country. Some modeling purists might think including that data is bad form. After all, a country whose favorite sport is soccer is probably influenced by the fact that their team is good. In the U.S. this is not the case, and the reason I chose to include that data is to see how much of an issue that is in this country.
To determine the quality of each soccer team I turned to, not FIFA, but ELO ratings which is a superior method of evaluating teams used to rank chess player globally. The best international ELO ratings can be found at eloratings.net. To give some context around those numbers, France is currently ranked first with 2,127 points. The U.S. is ranked 25th with 1,763 points.
And with that the dataset is complete. So what drives soccer success? Money? Population? Happiness? Height? A rabid fanbase?
Using a simple multivariate linear regression the following metrics proved to be significant in predicting how good a soccer team could be. The model describes 69 percent of the variability of the ELO ratings itself, which means that these metrics get you most of the way to predicting who will be the best, but there is plenty left unknown.
The most significant metric that jumps out is being a member of the Asian Football Confederation west of Korea, Japan and Australia. Those teams on average perform 293 ELO points worse than their resources would otherwise predict. That is unfortunate and worth further study.
The next most important variable is population which was adjusted by taking it’s log. Therefore it is difficult to give a linear estimate of the impact. The impact shown assesses the impact of a five percent lift in the U.S. population. Suffice it to say, size does matter.
If soccer is the country’s most popular sport it’s worth a whopping 235 points after adjusting for the other factors. If that were the case in the United States the Elo rating would theoretically jump to 1998, good for 5th in the world. That would indicate that the U.S. does indeed have the core resources to be top soccer nation, but the focus on the sport is a stumbling block.
Extreme temperatures are a negative factor, and that is not a surprise at all. While GDP per capita, or financial well-being, is important it’s actually not as statistically important as the overall happiness of its citizens. Imagine, social structures are more significant than money. See Part I of this series for more on that topic. Sounds like something soccer was founded on. We knew that money didn’t buy happiness but did we know that happiness buys good soccer?
While height is a measure that differentiates the quality of teams, the metric didn’t qualify in the final model. The correlation between height and ELO rating is an interesting 0.2 but when combined with other metrics the effect gets lost. Interestingly, this is not the case in the women’s model.
Below is a chart of how the model and the actual rating play out.
Not surprisingly the United States currently underperforms their resources and happiness level. If the United States met those expectations they’d be ranked 15th in the world, pushing past Switzerland and Chile.
One thing that stands out is that the model does not handle the extreme overperformers and underperformers well. Brazil is well ahead of expectations as are the rest of the top ten teams in the world. That is likely due to the fact that they are even more extreme soccer nations than the data suggests in the model. Having soccer rank as the number one sport isn’t a strong enough indicator of how seriously soccer is taken. It could also just be a group of nations that happen to be overperforming their resources at this point in time. Either way, there are more variables out there that will make this model even better.
Iceland obviously overperforms their resources. Without their extreme focus on soccer Iceland would fall from 43rd in the world to 71st - it wasn’t too long ago that they were significantly behind even that position.
If you are curious where the U.S. would be without it’s life satisfaction, GDP and population - meaning if they were simply average for those metrics, they’d rank 66th, right behind Egypt. Of course that’s if they were performing at an expected level. Perhaps that’s something to be grateful for.
Given the prospect of the United States selecting soccer as their favorite sport is as likely everyone on Twitter being happy for a day, the resources at the disposal of the team doesn’t project them to rank with the elite. Fifteenth is great, but not what this nation is striving for. Even if we all got a little happier the U.S. wouldn’t become a soccer power. Whether it’s a special class of players or a world class development system, the United States will need that in order to consistently make the top 10.
The third article in this series examine the factors that influence Women’s National Teams