Here’s a small excerpt from The Bet is Round:
I was first going to try to replicate what Syzmanski and Kuper did for Soccernomics. I was going to see if I could figure out a regression model using country statistics including GDP/capita, population, and international appearances by country to predict goal differential. They found that those three factors contributed about 25% of the predicted goal differential. While I was on a search to account for more than 25% of the predicted goal differential it was a great place to start. I had some ideas that had been touched upon in their books. The salaries of the players was an interesting variable but the thought of having to go through each game and figure out how much money the team’s total salary, average salary, or median salary seemed daunting. Can you imagine having to go through and find the salaries of all the players for Ethiopia or Singapore that played in each of their games? In retrospect I probably didn’t look hard enough for that information as there’s probably some database somewhere that has all that information. I also had a slightly more qualitative idea at the time wanting to look at percentage of the starters playing in one of the big four leagues, including the English Premier League, the Italian Serie A, the German Bundesliga, and La Liga which is the Spanish league. My thought was the more players you had playing in, what most considered, the best leagues the better your country’s team probably was.
Kuper and Syzmanski were on a mission to figure out which countries utilize their resources most effectively. So which countries had a consistently better goal differential than what was predicted by the regression model looking at those three factors. As I said earlier they found certain countries used their resources quite well (Brazil, Iceland, Croatia…) while others underperformed (China, India, etc…). The thought behind those factors were as follows: 1) As a country gets wealthier they’ll have more surplus to spend and invest in soccer development. Or at least not being in extreme poverty, or a civil war, would be beneficial to your country’s soccer success. 2) The more people you have in a country there’d be more soccer players to choose from and thus the team would be better (so China…). 3) The more exposure a country has to foreign competition, and foreign tactics, on the international stage the better as the country can learn from better teams. Fun fact, once again, the country with the most international games is Sweden!
I think, as many have also observed, soccer ideologies are converging as countries get more exposure to other successful countries. Think of all the players going to fine tune their trade now in Europe and how that affects their country of origin. Take the Dutchmen Johan Cruyff, the three-time Ballon D’Or winner, as an example. He is associated with the ideology known as Total Football. The idea of Total Football is one of fast moving, dynamically flowing players moving in sync without real limitations in where any one player should be and positions being more of a formality. If one person leaves his general area to attack a teammate fills in. Unlike many great players Cruyff was also a great coach and manager. After his playing career he took the Dutch Total Football to Barcelona as a coach. He has been widely credited with turning that club around. He was focused on the importance of maintaining possession of the ball throughout the game. If our team has the ball the whole time it’s very hard for the opposition to score. This sounds simple enough. Some would argue it was this mentality that morphed into tiki taka football which has been used by Messi’s Barcelona for much of the last decade as well as being a large component to the Spanish National Team which found World Cup euphoria in South Africa in 2010 against, who else but, the Dutch. This tika taka football is at times unpleasant to watch as the players pass a ton and move but often don’t take chances and go forward which can become unpleasant to a neutral spectator. The Spaniards also won European Championships in 2008 against Germany and 2012 against Italy. There was about a 5-year window where, for what it’s worth, I say that Barcelona team was the best club team I’ve seen and that Spanish team was the best country team I’ve ever seen.