Football and economics

I remember hearing years and years ago about a study that suggested that talented footballers were likely to come from a background of poverty. It seems to make sense. I have a romantic picture in my head: a group of kids, at the end of a hard day’s slog pushing bikes up hills and climbing up chimneys, kicking a ball around in a street of tightly packed terraced houses; jumpers for goalposts, driver angrily beeping his horn, and so on.

Of course, such things are not allowed these days. The complex of council flats at the bottom of the street contains a huge space in the middle, with nothing filling it but lots of pavement. It is surely the ideal place for youths to kick a ball about, socialise and get fit. There is one stumbling block though: “NO BALL GAMES” pinned to the wall. Some old curmudgeonly busybody comes out of his flat, acts all frail and vulnerable, and threatens to (and sometimes actually does) call the police, acting as though a little kickabout is the beginning of the end of civilisation. So instead, youths these days spend their time standing on corners and knifing people.

Anyway, I can’t find any reference to any hint of a suggestion that being in poverty makes you more likely to grow up to be a footballing genius, so maybe I just dreamt it, or it was a narrow-minded and prejudicial assumption of mine. Greg Mankiw asked on his blog why per capita (rather than total) GDP is highly correlated with success in the World Cup, unlike in the Olympics where total GDP counts for a lot.

This week’s Economist has a little editorial about the World Cup, and notes that the footballing hierarchy is delightfully out of step with political hierarchy. This makes the World Cup refreshingly free of the political issues that sometimes mar the Olympics.

Think of all those robotic East German sprinters, Romanian gymnasts and Chinese swimmers churned out by state-backed programmes. By contrast, a winning football team needs not just athleticism but also a spark of creativity and style that cannot be manufactured by sport’s central planners.

If GDP and success in football are linked, how do you explain poor Brazil’s world dominance and rich USA’s relative mediocrity in football? A comment by Colin on Mankiw’s blog had me convinced for a second:

I believe every one of Brazil’s players competes for a European club. So a big reason Brazil is so successful is that wealthy Europeans are helping to develop their players.

You’ll find that a heavy presence of players in Europe is also found among the more successful African teams.

So really your own GDP can be somewhat irrelevant if other countries are paying to develop your players.

So this kind of turns Brazil’s success on its head a bit. Brazil’s GDP doesn’t matter because talented players will be picked up and developed by European clubs. Maybe the link between GDP and a strong domestic league (rather than a strong international team) is stronger. But while South America has weak domestic leagues, GDP still wouldn’t explain why the MLS in the USA is a load of old pants. Surely, no level of GDP can bridge cultural differences.

I also found this paper on game theory and penalty kicks (via the comments in Mankiw’s post to here to here). At university, the penalty kick was the scenario used to introduce us to the concept of mixed strategies, so I was interested in reading this. I didn’t actually read it all, because I am a lazy bastard. But I want to comment on this quote:

Probably only a trio of economists would have watched videos of 459 penalties taken in the French and Italian football leagues. The authors were testing a complex point of game theory. What they found was that the best place to put a penalty was the middle of the goal, largely because goalkeepers always dive. Yet few penalty-takers actually choose the middle. “I think one reason people don’t is that it’s just incredibly humiliating to a kicker if he kicks in the middle and doesn’t score,” guesses Levitt.

I’m not so sure about this. The paper seems to assume that penalty takers and goalkeepers have only three choices during a penalty kick: left, right, middle. That is far too simplistic in my view. I asked my dad what he thought about penalty takers not aiming for the middle of the goal. We came to the conclusion that, even though the goalkeeper almost always dives, a quick-witted goalkeeper can always use his feet to save a ball heading for the centre of the goal.

So I guess it is actually wise for a penalty taker to avoid aiming for the middle of the goal. Say the goalkeeper is 50% likely to dive left and 50% likely to dive right, and in both instances has a chance to save a ball heading for the middle. If the keeper dives left, he won’t be able to save a ball heading for the right, but he could be able to save a ball heading towards the middle. So surely a striker will always have a better chance of scoring a penalty by striking away from the middle.


  1. A couple more days and Listmaker will be singing “10 German Bombers” outside wurst shops in Brooklyn; Maine Jim considers getting deeper into the beautiful game; Mondale channels Sir Alf Ramsey; Dr. Vee ponders the economic models of football success as well as game theory and penalties; And finally, the ever reliable, ever opinionated Can’t Stop The Bleeding has a plethora of footie stories, constantly updated. Considering he’s a QPR fan he knows a

  2. Which is all irrelevant if Crouch the striker hoofs it over the crossbar anyway!

    Interesting slant on the World Cup blogging though DoctorVee. Good work.

  3. Heh… thanks. 😀

    I was going to mention that actually. I was going to say, as well as left, right, middle there is also top left, bottom left, top middle, etc, etc. Top middle would make it more difficult for the keeper to stop it with his feet. But of course it does increase the chances of hoofing it over the bar and a career in Pizza Hut adverts.

  4. what are the chances of missing the goal if aiming at the middle ?Pretty slim I would have thought compared to one of the corners . As for good footballers coming from poverty maybe that is simply because many poverty stricken youths can play with one cheap football .But their parents may have struggled to buy them all a polo pony . Anyway lets big up kids football