Tag Archives: Football

Which regions deserve more teams at the World Cup?

Now that the group stages are over, the World Cup field will very quickly be hewn down to the truly elite teams. Of course, just making it to the World Cup is an accomplishment, but any team who thinks that way is probably gone by now.

Nevertheless, the process of making it to the World Cup is not the same for every team. For example, every European team starts out with, on paper, a 1 in 4 chance of making it to the World Cup (13 spots guaranteed for Europe; 53 UEFA member countries). The UEFA qualifying matches take place over the course of a about a year.

On the other hand, CAF, the African confederation has almost the exact same number of members (52 countries), but only gets 5 spots, meaning every team starts out with, theoretically, a 1 in 10 chance. As a consequence of having to further hew the field to determine who qualifies, the CAF World Cup qualifying process takes a little over two years.

This leads to the perennial debate over which confederations deserve more or fewer spots at the World Cup. There are all sorts of ways to determine who is over- or under-represented, so I shall propose my own…

A good indicator of whether or not a confederation is fairly represented at the World Cup is the number of teams advancing from the group stages. After all, the teams that would benefit from marginal tinkering with the number of spots wouldn’t be teams with a chance to bring home the trophy. More than likely, they would be teams for whom the most realistic ambition would be to make it through to the knockout stages and maybe the quarter-final.

Thus, my proposal: Given that, for the last two World Cups, FIFA has used the same formula for determining how many spots each continent gets, let’s compare the number of spots each confederation was allotted against the number of teams from that confederation that advanced from the group  stage. Since there are 32 spots at the World Cup, and 16 teams advance from the group stage at each World Cups, looking at the advancing teams from the last two World Cups gives us not only a bigger sample size, but exactly 32 teams, to help make our comparison. Thus, we can see which confederations are not making the best use of the number of spots they receive:


Confederation # of spots allotted # of teams advancing from group in 2010, 2014
UEFA (Europe) 13 12
CAF (Africa) 5 3
AFC (Asia) 4.5* 2
CONMEBOL (South America) 4.5* 10
CONCACAF (rest of Americas) 3.5* 5
Oceania 0.5* 0
Total 31† 32
*In case you’re unfamiliar the 1/2 spots represent places that are contested in a play-off between teams from two different confederations.


Not too surprisingly, Europe and Africa, who receive the most guaranteed spots, appear to be over-represented. Asia would also appear to be over-represented, whilst all the Americas are under-represented, and South America dramatically so. Oceania is the only confederation, according to this formula, which seems to be just about right.

Based on the above, my proposal for re-allocating qualifying spots will appear rather modest:

Confederation Number of spots
UEFA (Europe) 12.25
CAF (Africa) 4.25
AFC (Asia) 4.25
CONMEBOL (South America) 5.5
CONCACAF (rest of Americas) 4.5
Oceania 0.25

According to this formula, both South America and CONCACAF are guaranteed one more place, with the possibility of even one more, to be contested between the 5th best team from CONCACAF and the 6th best from CONMEBOL.

It's really not that confusing, Sepp.

It’s really not that confusing, Sepp.

All the other confederations would have a chance to secure just as many spots in the World Cup as before, but only one could actually succeed.  The final spot would be contested by N̶e̶w̶ ̶Z̶e̶a̶l̶a̶n̶d̶ the top team from Oceania, the 5th placed team from Africa, the 13th from Europe, and the 5th from Asia. This four-way scrum could either be settled through a home-and-away round-robin with the top team after the 6 matches earning the spot or — if that would take too long — two sets of ties, with the winners of each facing each other.

Can you imagine the pre-tournament excitement that a four-way playoff would engender? Here’s how my formula would have played out for this tournament:

All the same South American and CONCACAF teams would have qualified but there would have been an intriguing matchup between Panama and Venezuela for the extra spot.

As for the four way play-off for the final spot, Jordan and New Zealand would have been there for sure. It’s hard to say who the African and European participants would be since their final spots were contested by head-to-head ties.

This proposal could help to correct some of the underrepresentation at the World Cup, and it might not be too difficult a sell to the confederations who stand to lose a spot since each individual confederation will think that they theoretically have a chance at getting the same number.

Also, a few more qualifying matches means more advertising revenue.


†The number of guaranteed places only adds up to 31 because 1 spot is guaranteed to the host nation, regardless of their confederation


Why are US Women so much better at soccer than US Men?

Tomorrow, in what has become an Olympic tradition, the US women will play in the Gold Medal final of the Olympic football tournament. The US have made the final every year that women have competed in football at the Olympics (1996 was the first year), and have only had to settle for silver ONCE.

The US men’s national team, by comparison have never made it to ANY medal match at the Olympics (Gold or Bronze) even though men’s national teams have been playing at the Olympics 88 years longer than the women.*

The situation is similar in the World Cup: In the 6 FIFA Women’s World Cups that have been held, the US have made it to the final three times and have won it twice. The men have had far more chances — there have been 19 FIFA World Cups for men — but the US have NEVER made it to the final.

Boys get that excited just over making it out of the group stage? Cute.

It’s hard to resist asking: Why have US Women been so much better, relative to the rest of the world, than US Men at the world’s most popular sport?

There might be any number of factors contributing to the “achievement gap” in American soccer, but I’ve identified two broad themes that might help explain it. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but they do sound a bit contradictory.

Perhaps they can’t both be entirely true, but they certainly go some way toward explaining the US’ gender achievement gap in football.

1. Gender roles in US sports

The most lucrative sport in the US, at both the professional and collegiate level is American football.  So for a young, male athlete who’s talented enough to play in any sport he chooses, there is undoubtedly strong pressure, both internally and externally,  to play American football.

Yeah, soccer’s totally a girlie-girl sport, isn’t it Abby?

But American football is seen as a “man’s game” so for a similarly talented young female athlete, it’s not an option (the rise of lingerie football notwithstanding). Soccer is popularly (and inaccurately, I would add) viewed as more effete, and therefore is the corresponding choice for young women.

Because of this gendered bifurcation of talent, the US women’s national soccer team is comprised of the best and most suitable athletes, while the US men’s national team is comprised just of the most suitable athletes who weren’t interested in American football.

2. Gender parity is sports financing

Thanks to Title IX and several landmark Supreme Court rulings, high schools and universities in the US must make equal provisions for men’s and women’s athletics. Not many other countries have similar provisions, including some of the football powerhouses (on the men’s side) in southern Europe and Latin America.

So while the US are a mediocre regional power on the men’s side, we rise to the top of the global table on the women’s side because several countries that could be fielding top-class national sides fail to invest in girls’ sports.

This would explain why some other countries (say, Norway) with more gender-equal societies can be so lackluster in men’s football, but so successful in women’s.

But maybe there are other explanations…


*1908 was the first year that national teams competed in football at the Olympics, but at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics, three clubs contested. Football was not a medal event at the time.

Cardiff City Jersey Debacle: A Taste of the Future Far Beyond Football

Yesterday, after several weeks of absurd yes-we-will, no-we-won’t drama, Cardiff City FC’s owners announced that they will in fact be changing the team’s shirt next season from blue (the colour the team has worn since 1908) to red (a colour the team has never worn before).

The good old days vs. The brave new world

Moreover, the team’s crest will change too, relegating the Bluebird (Cardiff’s mascot) from its former place of prominence to the very bottom, in favour of the red Welsh dragon.

Now, I think this whole episode portends a lot for the future of human civilisation, but before explaining why, I realise that many of my readers are American, and don’t understand why this re-branding is such a big deal.  I’ll humour you for a moment. For my British readers, skip ahead to the awful picture below.

Why it’s a big deal

The changes to Cardiff City are not analogous to, say, the San Diego Padres changing their colours from brown and yellow to brown and orange to navy blue and orange to just navy blue to camouflage. It’s really not even analogous to the Washington Bullets changing their mascot to become the Washington Wizards. Tradition has a role in baseball and basketball but it’s not nearly as dominant as in European football, and very few teams’ identities and traditions are bound up in their team logo or colours (Exceptions would be very old teams like the Yankees and Reds in baseball or the Celtics and Bulls in basketball).

A better, though still imperfect analogy would be if the Green Bay Packers were to change their uniform to a colour that wasn’t green and changed their logo to something other than the iconic “G.” Again though, this would still not be quite as dramatic, given that the Packers haven’t been around as long as the Bluebirds, and they didn’t always wear green.

[ADDENDUM: For my Canadian readers, it would be like the Maple Leafs changing their sweater to red]

It used to be like this EVERY GAME

What it means

The two conflicting sides in this debacle were the team’s (Malaysian) owners –who claimed that switching to red and dragons would help woo potential supporters in Asia — and the team’s fans who felt that such an abrupt switch ignored the club’s history and traditions.

(Incidentally, if the only thing Asian fans look for in a team is a red uniform and a dragon on the crest, wouldn’t they all already support Liverpool?)

Reverse Imperialism, suckaz!

Now, I count myself a Cardiff supporter, and I  was opposed to the kit switch, but I couldn’t help but find the irony a bit amusing. Here was an episode involving Asians and Europeans, where culture and traditions were being disrespected, or at least disregarded, BUT!!! this time it was the Europeans whose traditions were being disregarded and it was the Asians who had the power, money and final say in the matter.

This, I believe, is the first portent from the shirt saga.

The most obvious lesson for the future of course is that, in our globalised world, commercial considerations will usually trump cultural traditions, but this truism is, by now, so banal, that it hardly warrants further analysis.

Rather, what I find more interesting is the battleground on which these struggles take place. Note that, with his immense wealth (around $1.25 billion), owner Vincent Tan thought the best investment he could make to raise the profile of Malaysian sports was in a football club in Wales.

Indeed, wealthy tycoons from all over the emerging world have also decided that English football clubs are the best use of their gargantuan finances.

Interestingly, Air Asia doesn’t even fly to the UK

Just in the top two divisons of English football you have: Blackburn Rovers, owned by an Indian; Chelsea, owned by a Russian; Leicester City, owned by Thais; Hull City, owned by an Egyptian; Manchester City, owned by an Emirati oil sheikh;  and Queens Park Rangers, owned by an Indian and a Malysian.

As far as I know (and I am willing to be corrected), none of these owners have invested any money in domestic leagues in their own country. They certainly have the means to pump a lot of money into football in Thailand. Malaysia, etc. and thus greatly improve the quality of entire leagues in their home countries.

But instead, they see English football as the best arena for their personal ambitions and expressions of national pride.

Now, here is what I find interesting: Despite the incredible national diversity of club owners in the English Premier League and Championship, there are NO mainland Chinese* owners. Why? It’s certainly not due to a paucity of Chinese millionaires or a lack of interest in football. Rather, it seems that football-loving Chinese tycoons would rather bring world-class football players to China (the most high-profile example being Nicolas Anelka) than buy up a team in England and re-brand it to look more Chinese.

And so, here for me is the most telling sign of things to come: As China’s wealth and influence has grown, so has its confidence. But for other Asian countries, enjoying similar economic growth, there is still an insecurity which leads them to seek prestige in Europe and the West, rather than on their own terms.

What exactly does that mean for the future? I don’t know, but I’m sure there will be more colossal misunderstandings, and next time maybe outside the realm of football.

And for those of you taking any schadenfreude in Cardiff City’s plight, be careful. If the Bluebird is an endangered species in this brave new world, the Swan could become one too!

*Although Birmingham City are owned by a businessman who is from Hong Kong

“Let the Vikings Leave” – from a Vikings fan

As out-of-state millionaires representing the NFL desperately ramp up the pressure on Minnesota’s elected state government to give the Vikings almost $400 million for a new stadium, the spectre of relocation is being increasingly leveraged as a negotiating position, and may soon cross over into the realm of real-world possibility.

I say let them go.

I know there are probably quite a few in Minnesota who share my sentiment, but largely because they don’t like the Vikings or just don’t care enough to be sorry to see them leave.

I am not in that camp, although in some ways, it would be easier if I was. That attitude certainly would have made many winters less heartbreaking (specifically 1998/99 and 2009/10) or just embarrassing (too many years to list).

But the truth is, I’ve allowed myself to become emotionally invested in the Vikings to varying degrees over the years. So while I definitely don’t count myself among those eager and willing to show the Vikings the door, I also won’t be too troubled if they do leave.

This wouldn’t be the first time a professional sports team left Minneapolis — heck, it wouldn’t even be the first time that a team left Minneapolis for Los Angeles. That westward trail was first blazed by the then-aptly named Minneapolis Lakers who spoiled their name by moving to Los Angeles in 1960.

More recently, and controversially, Norm (censored) Green moved the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas in 1993Although otherwise a terrible human being, Green at least had the good sense to alter the team’s name.

But here’s the thing: both times that a major sports league left the Twin Cities, they came back.  The State of Hockey was only left vacant by the NHL until 2000 when the Minnesota Wild arrived. And the NBA also returned to Minneapolis with the Timberwolves (true, they’re only technically an NBA team).

It seems that some cities are made for sports, or at least certain sports, and some aren’t. Think of Atlanta and hockey; twice the NHL has tried to put a team in Atlanta, and both of those teams left for the Canadian prairies (The Calgary Flames and the Winnipeg Jets).

Or think of San Diego and basketball. The Rockets left San Diego after only four years there, and the Rockets survived only slightly longer — 6 years — in a city that clearly wasn’t cut out for the NBA.

Minnesota, on the other hand  is well-suited for professional sports, and not just on the basis of the evidence that the major leagues always come back. The elements that make for a good sports city are much more numerous than just a state or municipality’s willingness to build expensive playgrounds.

Minnesotans can get enthused enough to carry on a conversation about the weather for 20 minutes. Do these sound like the kind of people who can get excited about something as seemingly unimportant as a game involving a ball or a puck? Yah, sure!

Minnesotans will passionately defend “Duck, duck, grey duck” as the name of a children’s game that involves sitting in, and then running around a circle. Isn’t this the sort of blind state loyalty you want in a fanbase? You betcha!

It's not getting any better...

So let this iteration of the Minnesota Vikings leave. If ever we were going to lose the team, now is the time to do it. Their on-field performance is at an all-time low, with no real prospects of returning to form in the near future. We can wait out the next few years in smug satisfaction as the Los Angeles Vikings struggle.

But soon enough, when Buffalo finally shrinks to the point that it can no longer support an NFL team, or perhaps when the league’s voracious appetite for new revenue causes it to expand to 36 teams, the NFL, like the NHL and NBA before it, will come back to the land of 10,00o lakes.

In the meanwhile, maybe we could fill the football void with an MLS team…

Don’t Worry America: There will be Football this fall!

Yes, brave citizens, despite all the frightening talk you’ve heard of the possibility of NO football next fall, there will in fact be plenty of football to watch.  And I don’t even mean crappy arena football or lingerie football, but real top-quality football.  True, it won’t be the kind they play with an ovoid ball with helmets on WAIT, WAIT! Don’t navigate away from this page just because you’ve realized it’s about soccer!  At least hear me out as to why watching this kind of football will be just as good as-NAY, better than- watching the NFL next year.  Even Ochocinco is making the switch.

I will first present general reasons as to why any of my fair readers will enjoy the sport, and after reading the general section, you may skip down to the specific reasons that fit your political proclivities.

For Everyone


Although with the NFL’s 16-game schedule, every game is theoretically


important, the truth is that from about week 10 onward, there are a spate of meaningless games.  Match-ups between teams that have no shot at making the playoffs enthuse only the faithful, and in some games between wretched teams, there might actually be incentive for teams to lose in order to get a better draft pick.  However! In European football, this is not the case.  In fact, meetings between the very worst teams have added import because of the specter of RELEGATION!!!  You see, the worst teams in a country’s premier league are relegated each year to the second-tier league (sort of like minor leagues in baseball, but not at all really), and conversely, the best teams from the lower leagues are promoted.  This not only means that the league has fresh faces and a new composition each year, but that teams can’t just coast through the end of the season once their hopes of glory are dashed.    Still don’t see why this is a good thing?  Imagine if a week 16 game between the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns, rather than being a meaningless scrimmage, was a fight for the right to stay in the NFL!  Suddenly, the game would have meaning, the players would have motivation to play like it’s the playoffs, and the fans could be convinced to care.  This will be the situation this May 15 when Wigan Athletic and West Ham United, two teams at the bottom of the English Premier League, play in the league’s penultimate week.

Fewer commercials

With the exception of the Super Bowl, I think we could all agree that the ratio of commercial time to actual playing time in American football (and most professional sports in North America) is mightily out of proportion.  But in professional soccer, the clock never stops during the two 45-minute halves.  This means that if you’re watching a match, the only commercials to which you will be subjected are during half-time, and the occasional small, unobtrusive banner at the bottom of the screen.  This not only makes for a more pleasant viewing experience; it also lessens the risk of an international incident or the marginalization of an oppressed culture.

Now, on to the reasons particular political groupings will love association football:

Economic Liberals (in the classical sense)

The Free Market decides!

Unlike the centrally-planned professional sports leagues in North America (including, it must be said, the MLS), the placement of teams in the European premier leagues is decided by competition, through the system of relegation.  Rather than bureaucrats in league offices deciding, for example that  Atlanta and Miami will get a hockey team (great idea, guys) or that Vancouver would get an NBA team (how did that work out?), or having to approve a team’s decision to move to a new city, market forces decide which cities get teams in the top flight, and how many.

This leads to some interesting results.  This season, in both the English and Russian Premier Leagues (countries with rather different geographies, one might note), fully one quarter of the league’s teams are based in the capital city (5 in London, 4 in Moscow).  Meanwhile in France’s Ligue 1, there is only one club based in Paris, and indeed no city has more than one team (in England this year, 4 cities have multiple teams).  But hey, that’s what the invisible hand wants.


Yes that’s a real thing (Google it)

Believe you me, if you want to be a “global citizen,” nothing will fast-track your citizenship request more than being a fan of the beautiful game.  If you go to Uganda (note: I have), you may not be able to distinguish between tribes and ethnicities, but there will be a clear distinction between Arsenal and Man United supporters (rest assured, it’s mostly peaceful).  An ability to discuss the flaws in the UN Security Council might start some conversations.  But not nearly as many as an ability to talk about Chelsea’s struggles in the League this season.

One more personal anecdote: I traveled to Laos in 2007.  Laos is in many regards a country beyond the frontiers of globalization — there is no McDonald’s in the country and railways that connect the rest of Southeast Asia stop at Laos’ border. But nevertheless, whenever I introduced myself as “David,” I was usually greeted with a chuckle and “Ah, like David Beckham?”

Moreover, top-flight clubs in many premier leagues have gone so global in their search for talent that simple teamwork becomes an exercise in international cooperation.  Let’s just take, for example, Sunderland, a mid-table side based in northern England.  After making a save, their Scottish goalkeeper might throw the ball out to one of their English defenders, who will then pass the ball forward to an Egyptian midfielder, who might pass the ball over to his Beninese teammate, who will in turn kick the ball upfield to a Ghanaian forward.  And this global flavour is not limited to just the English Premier League.  Even in the Ukrainian Premier League, mid-table sides like Metalurh Donetsk have players from Portugal, Brazil, Nigeria and a host of Eastern European countries.  If you truly want to believe that people from different nationalities can come together and work toward a common goal, football is one of your best causes for hope.


It’s right there in the name!

International Football really is one of the best examples of federal governance.  We can start with FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), soccer’s global governing body.  It’s a massively important organization, but really, it doesn’t do much.  It organizes the World Cup and some other major tournaments and serves as a sort of appeals court on certain matters.  Next there are 6 continental federations, each of which is made up of its member countries’ federations.  Each country’s federation runs its leagues as it sees fit (the game itself is not open to alteration), and the larger bodies (continental and FIFA) usually only get involved if there is political interference from actual governments.

Of course, this federal system works at an international level, and there is not a whole lot of overlap between Federalists and proponents of international governance, but if you can get past that, international football provides a good example of a successful federal system.

So there you go!  Now you don’t have to be sad that you don’t get to see Terrell Owens ruin another team next year.  Your welcome, America.