Never mind who wins, the World Cup is a treasure trove for curious economists
Our boys make progress – and I don’t mean on Brexit.
On a visit to Glasgow last Thursday, a popular Scottish newspaper had a mock-up photo of Harry Kane lifting the cup. In massive type, the headline shrieked “This Would Be the End of the World”. Yes, it would rather put the Highland Clearances into perspective.
There is a general perception this year that the football has been more entertaining than usual. This is reflected in the fact that the average number of goals per game – 3.18 – is the highest since the 1958 finals.
The qualifiers for the last 16 generally followed the form book, with only three of them – Russia, Denmark, and Sweden – edging out teams placed above them in the FIFA rankings before the tournament started.
But the patterns in the results show once again how close many of the teams are in ability. One team has to win, though it is not obvious which one.
Germany’s own qualifying group illustrates the point. A key concept in economic theory is that of transitivity. It essentially means that preferences should be well-structured.
If I prefer product A to product B and product B to product C, the assumption is that I prefer A to C.
If we carry this over into team sports, it seems logical that if A beats B and B beats C, then A should beat C.
None of these “transitive triples”, as the jargon puts it, were observed in Group F. Mexico beat Germany, who beat Sweden. But Sweden beat Mexico. Sweden also beat South Korea, who beat Germany.
The conclusion is that the teams in this group were very evenly matched. It was largely a matter of chance rather than superior ability that Mexico and Sweden qualified.
In the round of 16, three of the eight games ended in draws and the result was by penalty shoot-out. Two of the others were decided by goals deep into injury time. And one of the quarter finals was won on penalties.
Again, the implication is that there is a great deal of randomness in the outcome. Even in England’s famous victory over Colombia, the opposition goalkeeper got his hand to the final penalty shot but could not prevent the ball entering the net. Move his hand by just a few centimetres, and he saves it.
To round off this football economics analysis, finally and frivolously, is winning the World Cup good for the economy? I looked at the eight years from 1974 when European countries won.
As a control group, I examined the US and Australia, two western economies where soccer is a minor sport. Growth in a World Cup year was higher than in the previous year seven times, and lower nine times. Growth was higher in the year after the World Cup nine times and lower seven. So the pattern here looks completely random.
In the countries which won, growth was higher in the World Cup year than the previous on four occasions, and lower on four. But in contrast to the control group, growth in the year after victory fell six times out of the eight.
Winning the World Cup is bad – or so the statistics say!