Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Do Democracies Win More?

The fact that teams that qualify for the World Cup typically are more democratic than the average country around the globe suggests that democracies might be better at soccer. And, wouldn’t you know it, the two most democratic of the six African teams in this year’s World Cup (Ghana and South Africa) won or drew their first round matches, while the undemocratic ones lost three (Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria) and tied in one (Ivory Coast). Is this is just a fluke or is there something more systematic going on in the data?
Let’s take a look. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, political scientists have developed systematic and reliable ways of measuring how democratic a country is. We can use this information to see whether countries that are scored as more democratic also win more or lose less.
For the analyses below, I use the Polity scale, which ranges from -10 (least democratic) to +10 (most democratic) because it is available for a longer period of time. To give you a sense of what kinds of countries we’re talking about, since 1998, the World Cup has included countries like Saudi Arabia that score -10 or China (-7) as well as a large group of countries that score +10 (like Switzerland, Sweden, or Uruguay, for example).
Splitting all countries that have ever participated in the World Cup into different categories of “democraticness” (above and below the median – which is the observation exactly in the middle of the distribution), we can calculate the win ratios for more and less democratic countries at the time of the World Cup.
Polity Score Win Ratio
Below Median .376
Above Median .408
Looking at the win ratios, it seems that more democratic countries win slightly more matches than the least democratic ones, calculated over the entire course of World Cup history.
If you think that including the tournaments played before and immediately after World War II might skew things, let’s look at the last 50 years of World Cup play only (1958-2006). Turns out, the pattern holds. In fact, it becomes more pronounced. The least democratic countries have a one in three win ratio (.349), while the win ratio for more democratic countries is almost ten points better at 43% (.428).

This translates into making it further into the tournament, as the next table for the modern era of 24- and 32-team tournaments shows. Since 1982, 63.6 % of countries above the median level of World Cup democracy made it into the second round, and 38% of teams from these countries made it to the quarterfinals. In contrast, 44.8% of the less democratic countries achieved first round success, and only 19.4% of them lasted into the quarterfinals.
24 and 32 Team Tournaments (1982-2006)
Polity Score % Second Round % Quarterfinals
Below Median 44.8 19.4
Above Median 63.6 38.0
None of this means, however, that World Cup champions necessarily hail from particularly democratic countries. Over the course of World Cup history, the mean Polity score for the winner is a measly 3.94 at the time of triumph. That’s about the level of democraticness for Nigeria in 2002.
But what explains these differences in success between more and less democratic countries? Is there something about “democratic football” that’s better? Or could it be that, perhaps, they win more because democracies also tend to be richer than other countries? [Geek alert: this would suggest a so-called “spurious” correlation between level of democracy and success on the field]. Stay tuned for more analyses on this. But in the meantime, keep counting those democratic victories. Go Bafana Bafana ...