11 June 2010

The formula for World Cup success

Do soccer players from poor backgrounds have an advantage over their middle-class team mates? Dr Ross Tucker, Health24’s FitnessDoc comments.

Do soccer players from poor backgrounds have an advantage over their middle-class team mates? Dr Ross Tucker, Health24’s FitnessDoc applies some science to soccer in preparation for the opening match tomorrow.

I heard an excellent interview with Simon Kuper, a transplanted South African and sports columnist for the Financial Times and co-author of Soccernomics:  Why England Loses, Why Germany wins, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey - and even Iraq - are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport.  

When I ran the Bolder Boulder way back in 1998, the newspaper in Denver ran a story about how the Africans dominate the sport, and Frank Shorter chalked it up to incentive and more motivation, concluding that in one good year on the running circuit, the Kenyans can earn enough money to buy enough land and cattle back home to retire. 
Right or wrong, this has been one angle to explain their success, or at least it is put forward as a contributing factor. 

So the "myth" is that countries with more poverty produce the better athletes because they are hungrier break through and work hard.  But perhaps not surprisingly, Kuper and Szymanski found just the opposite, that in fact poor nations are much less successful. 

The higher per capita income, the better that country does in all sport.  Therefore wealth is a good predictor of success, as is the case with the Olympics, with Brazil the only developing country that is a world champion.

But wait, aren't the good players from poor backgrounds?  Indeed, yes, but in relative terms these poor players are still better off, and that means although they are "poor" by European standards, they are still better off than most of the world. 
The explanation put forward is that since these kids grow up in small houses, without many options for leisure time, these future stars spend many hours playing their chosen sport. 
So the best players come from poor backgrounds but from rich countries.


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