Tag Archives: football

Why the US and Europe Grow Unequal for Differing Reasons: A look at inequality among football teams

In my blog and in my classes, I frequently use sports as a prism to understand larger social trends. Now I have stumbled upon the Global Salary Report Survey 2016 by www.sportingintelligence.com. It contains information about the highest paid sports teams worldwide. Among the best paid teams most are from the US football, basketball and hockey leagues, as well as from the European football/ soccer leagues.

For this blog I have just picked two pictures which seem to me remarkable: one from the US, one from Europe. The first one is the US football league. It shows the differences between average salaries of each team. The spread between the highest paid team, Green Bay Packers, and the lowest, Cleveland Browns, is not even 2:1. This is incredibly low.


For the US many economists have shown that inter-firm inequality has increased tremendously in the last decades and that it is a significant reason for higher overall levels of inequality and some extreme forms of management pay. Some have called it the winner-takes-it-all markets. So what happens in NFL? It is well-known that the US political economy regulates little with the exception of professional sports. Politicians struggle with pay caps for CEOs, the tax system becomes less and less progressive (especially in effective tax burdens), and overall the population and the political apparatus seem to have developed a leniency for a great deal of inequality.

Not so in football. Apparently the hyper-commercialized breed of football allows itself much lower levels of inequality. In many professional US leagues there is a wage cap for top players, weaker teams sometimes preferential access to new talent, the worst teams are not relegated etc. All these are protectionist ways to guarantee a level playing field. So why do people cheer for ‘communism’ in football, but not in society? I can only think of a very strong and deeply entrenched ideology to be capable of allowing for this level of cognitive dissonance. So Democrats, next time you need an argument for progressive, redistributive forms of policy, look no farther than the capitalist world of high-end sports.

Traditionally speaking the problem has been the reverse in Europe. We don’t tolerate high levels of inequality for anything else but sports. Major sports leagues are much less regulated than in the US. There are no wage ceilings for football players, there is little in terms of guarantee a level playing field, and if you are unsuccessful on the pitch you are out. The neoliberal dream. I just pick one example from La Liga which shows a veritable duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid with all others trailing behind. As sportingintelligence reports the difference between the first and the last is a jaw-dropping 21:1, ten times as much as in the US case. And we know that this has real results such as very little competition for the top prize: the two times won almost 60% of all national championships.


But again, the inequality in football gives reason for concern for the whole of the European society. Unlike the US, in which more progressive forms of policies could be implemented politically if it weren’t for ideology, in politically fragmented Europe it is much harder to implement Europe-wide redistribution. The attempts of the EU at doing so are pitiful, and the workings of economically stronger governments such as Germany make matters worse. Hence, the problem seems to be more of a traditional political economy one: rich countries don’t want to pay poor countries and the institutions don’t make them do so. In this sense football shows which way Europe is heading. Perhaps European Social Democrats should ask their voters in the future if they are really content with having a handful of powerful economic players dominating the European market in the future.

But the real upshot of using the football analogy for excessive economic inequality is following: excessive inequality is not only tremendously unfair and counterproductive, it is also mind-boggling boring.

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The European Football Championship 2016: Give Small Nations a Chance?

These are trying times from Trump to Farage. What better route to escapism than watching football? Yet, even watching the European Cup in France there is a lot of moaning. UEFA dared to increase the number of teams. How could they? Football is ruled by an iron cast rules of rules except when profit making is at stake. Hence enter UEFA’s decision to expand the tournament to 24 teams. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. Graph 1 shows that both the World and European Cups have been gradually expanded over time.


This has drawn a lot of criticisms. Some people argue that the ‘minnows’ only know how to defend and the number of goals per tournament drops. I am not sure whether this is the real reason, goals per tournament indeed drop over time, but so be it.

The bigger nations, in particular, moan that they have to play against these tiny nations. (And some of them even dare to win or draw with them.) Moreover, the draw has produced a quirky pairing in the knock-out stage of the tournament. In the upper half there is only countries with no World or European Cup titles, in the bottom half there are all the favourites. Arguably, this was in a large part accidental (why did Spain loose against Croatia?), and most of the problems of large countries’ teams are home-born. But, hey, why would facts ever should keep us from complaining.

More importantly, in the periphery from Iceland to Hungary the new system has seen waves of euphoria. And once Albania’s mood has settled they see that they have far more achieved, despite having been kicked out at the last breath of the group stage.

So it all seems fair and square: UEFA is helping the little nations. But is this true?

Yes and no. I think expanding the number of teams, and hence the number of matches a team needs to win to become champion works rather in favour of larger countries. Just think of it: the European Cups have produced 9 winners in 14 tournaments, the World Cups 8 in 20. World Cups have been dominated by a lucky few, relatively big countries (Brazil, Italy, Germany,…). Just like in national leagues it seems to be increasingly difficult to break these ranks.

The European Cups are (were?) different. You had the Czechoslovak penalty kings in 1976, Danish dynamite in 1992 and Rehakles’ Greek style of catenaccio in 2004. Small nations can win this tournament. To be fair, in some World Cups smaller nations were just unlucky or unfairly treated (the Netherlands in 1978?). But it is still intriguing to ask what makes the differences between European and World Cups.

Well you might say it’s just Argentina and Brazil, but I think a key difference is the number of teams participating which has expanded in the World Cup much earlier.

Why should this matter? The more teams the less likely become upsets. If big (and wealthy?) countries on average are more likely to win, more matches mean the odds turn against small countries. I hasten to add that it is for sure not enough to be a large country to win a cup, just ask the US. But it might be hard for smaller countries to break through.



The graphs 2 and 3 illustrate this. They show how the number of teams ‘correlates’ with either the size of the cup winner’s GDP or its population (both in natural logarithms to compress the enormous differences between countries.) We see that for all cups the more teams there are, the larger, on average the winner will be. This is clearly no proof. There is a time trend in both data, and there is a lot of variation. But it is also not implausible to assume that more matches means less surprises.

Maybe this year will be different, given the draw of the knock-out stage. Maybe it won’t. But it might well mean that in the future, we see more underdogs participating while the top prize still goes to the usual suspects. But the romantic in me hopes I am wrong.

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More of the same part 2 (body height & football)

Here is a column in The Atlantic about my thing:

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Height Does Matter: Why Some Countries Underperform in Football

Some time ago, Chris Anderson and I had some discussion about the importance of being tall in modern football. He blogged about some statistical Fingerübungen of mine. In some of the charts I produced I linked average national body height in a society with the performance of the respective national teams. Chris himself seemed to be ambivalent about this idea, since he rightly pointed out case that run counter to this idea. On the Club level, most prominently, Barcelona is a well-known example of small, agile midfield players instilling terror in La Liga and the Champions League alike. Since football statistics is a larger than life affair, it is time to resume the issue and summarize what we know about this important matter, once and for all.

Football is a democratic sport. This is perhaps one of its secrets as a global success story. Famous players range from short players like Lionel Messi (169cm), to giants like Zlatan Ibrahimovic (195cm). They may be thin like Peter Crouch (75kg/203cm) or big like Hans-Peter Briegel (79kg/187cm), a German player of the 1980s whom the fans affectionately called ‘steam roller’. Short people, as well as short teams can surely compensate missing physique. They can be faster, more agile, more nimble, or simply better organized. The German women’s national team learned this painful lesson in its home world cup 2011. They lost their quarter finals against the Japanese team, the future champions, despite the fact that, on average, the German players were 10cm taller than their Japanese opponents.

Nonetheless, size, or tallness, more precisely, does matter. Kristof Van Hout is reportedly the tallest professional football player in the world with a body height of 6’10” (208cm). The goalkeeper currently plies his trade for K.V. Kortrijk in the Belgian Pro League after moving from better-known Standard Liege. Tallness is not always important, but in some positions it is crucial. Goalkeepers and central backs are perhaps those positions where it matters most (yes, I do know that Iker Casillas is ‘only’ 185cm). Yet, the ‘arms race’ in body height might also make it necessary for certain strikers to be tall, especially for those teams that like ‘hoofing’ the ball.

Indeed, studies have found tallness to matter, even if not always in ways expected. Some studies have found that taller players are more likely to get booked. Yet, even if it is no general rule, very often, the physically stronger teams win (in the data I collected it seems to increase the odds of winning quite considerably). For example, the Brazilian male team who won the world cup in 1994 was incidentally also the tallest team. Brazil is also a good example to show why other countries persistently ‘underperform’. There are many reasons why certain nations are less successful in football. Soccernomics mentions factors such as size of the population or GDP per capita. Past successes might also play a role, although this just shifts the puzzle to the past. But for similar levels of GDP or population, these explanations don’t bite. In these cases, physique might make the difference.

Figure 1 shows this. The figure plots national averages in body heights (Wikipedia, several entries per country possible) and success in football. Success in football is difficult to measure, but for purposes of convenience I just took the FIFA coefficient which continuously counts looses and wins of national teams weighted by ‘importance’ of the match and the opponent. We see that there is a big difference between Mexico and Brazil when it comes to body height. Mexican history saw a completely different inflow of migrants than Brazil. This historical legacy is still visible in a national average that is some 8cm lower than the Brazilian average. Moreover, the variation in body height among Brazilian men is arguably much higher. This is crucial: it does not do harm to have some short people in the midfield or as full backs, as long as you find enough tall central defenders.


The figure also may explain the shortcoming (no pun intended?) of many South Asian teams. And these teams are aware of the problem. Some years ago the Cambodian national team introduced a minimal body height of, if I remember well, 160cm. It is not the only example. As the size of the goals has remained constant since the introduction of the game, but many peoples, especially in rich countries, have increased in size for the last 100 years, the gap has increased.
The gap is not equally decisive everywhere. For instance, if we look at the same relationship for female national teams, the relationship is still visible, but markedly weaker (figure 2). This is probably related to the fact that female professional football is still a nascent phenomenon and not known to the same degree across the world. In male football, where scouts penetrate every last corner of this globe to look for the latest Didier Drogba or Shinji Kagawa this is much less of a problem. Here professionalism tends towards the physical limits of the game. Indeed the relationship of figure 1 is stable, statistically speaking, if one tries to ‘controls’ for the other determinants of success mentioned above.

Similar things apply to the club level. Take the most successful German club, Bayern Munich. Over the last 50 years the average height of the players increased by some 5cm (data from fussballdaten.de). By the way this is less than the increase in the overall population. Professional football players were always above the national average. But the rising trend is visible, and even more so among goalkeepers and central defenders. Another fact is visible in figure 3. The variability of body height has more than doubled from some ca. 8cm to 18cm. Balon D’Or winner Frank Ribery (170cm) can still be the pivot of the Bayern machine, as long as its goalie, Manuel Neuer, is 192cm.
All in all, size does matter in football. Next time inhabitants of short nations see their teams loose they should give their boys some credit or growth hormones. Even better: make your people healthy.



October 6, 2013 · 8:42 pm

Book Review “The Numbers Game”

I wrote a review on “The Numbers Game” a book on football and statistics for Planet CEU: http://planet.ceu.hu/node/484

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