The World Cup Formula

This article picks up where Football Paradoxes I finishes; that China expects to win the FIFA World Cup before 2050. The FIFA World Cup. The biggest event in football. The place where the best national teams play one another to be crowned World Champions. Starting in 1930, the FIFA World Cup has seen 21 editions but why have only 8 nations won this prestigious competition? Perhaps there’s a World Cup Formula…. I think four  factors are key for a successful World Cup run:

  1. Experience
  2. Ability to adapt
  3. Population / Infrastructure /Climate
  4. Hosting the competition

Factor 1: Experience

At first instance this factor does not seem important, the UK is the birthplace of football but they have only won one FIFA World Cup. On the other hand it seems obvious that countries that have embraced the sport for a longer period of time will have more participation and the sport will be more developed than in countries that adopted the game later on. This factor can help answer one of the biggest conundrums with the World Cup: Why Uruguay was the first country to win? For those who don’t know, the first place where football became organised outside of Europe was the Rio de la Plata (an area that involves Argentina, Uruguay and the most southern part of Brazil.) Furthermore, these countries didn’t have to recover from World War One so football was extremely stable in the region perhaps explaining why Uruguay won the trophy and Argentina was the runner up.

So the more games a country plays internationally the better it will be right? Not always.

Winners of the first World Cup 1930 = Uruguay

Factor 2: Innovation not isolation

In essence, developing and adopting new foreign ideas can help a nation win the World Cup or at least perform well. Football was brought to Central Europe by the British and after World War One, although some states were dissolved (i.e. Austrian-Hungarian Empire), the football connections between these states flourished and innovation was shared amongst them leading to a better developed game (for example the so-called Danube school which created football legends like Bican and Puskas). By contrast, England isolated itself and the English FA refused to participate in the first 3 World Cups resulting in poor performances until 1966. England failed to keep up with the innovations in Central Europe and this was made clear by a 7-1 defeat to Hungary in 1953, which is England’s biggest defeat in an international fixture to date.

Between 1934 and 1962, in the five tournaments that they participated in, either Czechoslovakia or Hungary reached the final 4 times only being beaten by Italy (which faced strong allegations of corruption), Brazil (with a star studded team of Pelé and Garrincha) and Germany (who have since admitted that the players were doped). One could argue that without these external factors both Czechoslovakia and Hungary could have won the title. Unfortunately, the Danube school ceased to exist due to the political factors (mentioned in Part 1 of this blog) with the rise of communism in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. During this time the innovations in football came to a halt with most of their great athletes and coaches leaving for other countries (Spain and Portugal for example) contributing to the development of the game there (Spain became European Champion in 1964, Portugal came 3rd place in 1966 World Cup). Innovation varies depending on geography and has happened in other countries like Germany and the Netherlands who created the Total Football ideology in the 1970’s and 1980’s potentially explaining their international success in those decades.

So if your country has experience and innovation that’s it? Not enough!

Factor 3: Population, Infrastructure and Climate

Probably the simplest factor. It’s obvious that the greater the population a country, the larger the talent pool and the greater the probability of better players. Besides Uruguay, no country with a population under 40 million has won the World Cup!

Infrastructure also a role, the more land a country dedicates to football the higher the chances it has of winning the World Cup. The German investment in football academies in the beginning of the 21st Century contributed immensely to its win in the 2014 World Cup. Some countries like Gibraltar or Kiribati barely have space for a football pitch so it is safe to say they’ll never win a World Cup.

Climate is also important. In Canada or Iceland, football cannot be played for large parts of the year because of the weather but in Mexico or Brazil it can be played all year round. This means that Mexican and Brazilian players can play/practice more than the Canadian and Icelandic giving them an advantage. Iceland has tried to tackle this issue by building indoor football fields since the beginning of this century and their results have slowly improved with solid performances in the last Euro Championship and World Cup, showing that investing in football infrastructure is an extremely important factor in success at a World Cup.

By now you should be thinking “Anything else?”  One more major factor! 


Factor 4: Hosting or neighbouring the World Cup 

In the first 18 editions of the World Cup, 6 of them were won by the host country and 3 by a neighbouring country. In fact only 4/18 finals did not include the host or a neighbouring country. Clearly being the host or living close by increases your chances of winning the World Cup.

Of course these factors are not totally infallible and there are always exceptions. Luck is extremely important and in football the underdog can beat the favourite. Luck has become more and more important with the rise of knockout matches which give rise to greater uncertainly and fewer favourites but these four factors discusses can be an indicator of success. Perhaps as football becomes more embedded in Chinese culture, and they continue to innovate and invest, China will win the World Cup when they next host it… watch out for a 2030 World Cup bid!

Miguel Rodrigues


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