If you can build a football team, you can advance the fortunes of poor nations

In Qatar, there has been a storm over its treatment of women, the LGBT community, and other minorities. But it has also, in another way, been the most egalitarian World Cup. What used to be called “upsets”, with notionally weaker teams beating their alleged superiors have almost become the norm.

So, Cameroon beat Brazil, Tunisia won against France and Japan triumphed over both Spain and Germany, to give a few examples.

Only eight teams have ever won the world cup since it started in 1930, three from South America and five from Europe. But even if it is not this year, it will surely not be long before the trophy is lifted by a nation outside these two traditional bastions of the game.

At the international level, football has shown a marked reduction in inequality over time. In the 1930s and 1950s, the average number of goals scored per game in the finals of the World Cup was around four. In 1962, for the first time it fell below three. Think of 2-1 as being the typical results. Now, it is closer to just two. Results are in general very tight.

With such a low average, and with penalty shoot outs becoming more frequent in the knock-out stages, it is clear that the differences in skill between the teams in the final stages are pretty low.

Without morphing into a football pundit, the reasons seem obvious. Fundamentally, the knowledge – the technology as we can think of it – about how to develop a squad which can hold its own internationally is available to everyone. A top coach may have one or two secret tactics, but these soon come out into the public domain. 

Add to this the ability to pay a relatively small number of young men enough money to incentivise them to play the game, and you have the recipe for a decent international team.

In the same way, a formula for making a poor country rich has been known for decades. At the frontiers of technology, there are of course secrets and patents. But most of the scientific knowledge needed in an advanced economy is in the public domain. The extras to add on here are more abstract than in football. But the enforceability of contracts, the protection of private property and a level of corruption which is low by world historical standards seem essential.

Countries like Singapore and South Korea have used these principles to become rich within the course of a couple of generations. In sporting terminology, they now easily hold their own with the likes of Germany and the UK.

In 1960, for example, income per head in South Korea was the same as in the Ivory Coast. Both were very poor. The latter has grown reasonably well, so that income per head is around $2,500. In South Korea it is now $33,000.

In terms of difference between countries, world income is now less unequal than it has been for over 200 years. Branco Milanovic pointed this out in a World Bank paper in 2012, and since then the trend to more equality has continued.

Until the Industrial Revolution, the world was characterised by an income per head close to starvation levels. A few areas had lifted themselves up a bit. But there was a rough and ready equality of poverty across all countries.

Britain then started to grow strongly, followed quickly by its offshoots in America and Australia and in other countries in Western Europe. Inequality between countries soared.

But, just as in football, in recent decades more and more parts of the world have begun to apply the formula for success. Inequality across countries is falling sharply.

As published in City AM Wednesday 7th December 2022
Paul Ormerod
Image: Wikimedia

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