When the Nigerian Super Eagles coach, Stephen Keshi, was asked how close he felt Africa was to winning the Cup for the first time, he immediately replied “Very close”. “Because they (the African sides) are good. As good as any other teams that are here. I think this tournament is an open tournament. We just have to do what we have to do,” he continued. He said this right before we played Iran. Judging by Nigeria’s performance against Iran – arguably the weakest team in our group – I wonder what Keshi thinks our chances are now.
I might be labeled unpatriotic and pessimistic, but I believe analyzing the sober data takes us a step closer to figuring out the solution to Africa’s World Cup dearth. No African country has truly come close to winning the world cup. In fact, the furthest any African team has gotten to winning the world cup were the Quarter Finals for Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002, and Ghana in 2010. ‘Giant of Africa’ and Africa’s current football champion, Nigeria hasn’t gotten into any quarter finals. We’ve also not won a single World Cup game in 16 years. So, what factors raise the chance of winning the world cup and what can Nigeria learn from these?
In their book, ‘Soccernomics’, Kuper and Syzmanski ran a regression using data from international games and found that three things increase a nation’s chance of winning the world cup—the size of the nation’s population, the size of the national income, and the country’s experience in international soccer. Apart from those, home-field advantage alone is worth a lead of about two-thirds of a goal. Hence, playing at home is like having a goal’s head start in two out of every three games. No hosting country has ever lost their first World Cup game. South Africa drew their first game, but didn’t go far in the competition. When next is an African country hosting another World Cup? I have no idea. Now let’s get to what we know and to some extent, can control.
First, population only accounts for about one-tenth of a goal and with the largest population in Africa, Nigeria has that factor down. Second, GDP per capita also accounts for only about one-tenth of a goal. However, despite our recent GDP rebase, Nigeria’s GDP per capita -$3,000- remains paltry when compared to South Africa’s $12,000 GDP per capita.
Both population and GDP count for little compared to experience. Having twice as much international experience as your rival is worth just over half a goal. In fact, experience turns out to matter much more than the size of your population, which is why the Swedes, Dutch, and Czechs do better at World Cups than the very large but inexperienced US (Although they’re getting better as they play more World Cups). In other words, although being large and rich helps a country win soccer matches, being experienced helps a lot more.
Well, then Nigeria’s inability to go far in World Cup games despite being large and rich (rebased GDP-wise) should surprise no one. Experience is a pivotal factor that affects the outcome of every match. It creates a level of understanding that can be more potent than an individual player’s skills. Watching a great team play, one can see the synergy between players. You can tell when a team has collective experience and an insightful understanding of every player’s skill. On the other hand, watching a team with little experience exposes the lack of incisiveness needed to win matches. Sadly, Nigeria displayed this in the match against Iran. Also, indiscipline is highly correlated with a lack of experience. Keita’s red card in 2010 cost Nigeria their game against Greece, while Alex Song’s red card against Croatia yesterday cost Cameroon theirs. If we fix this factor, we can increase our chance of winning a world cup someday.
Much still remains unexplained. Experience, population, and income per capita combined explain only just over a quarter of the variation in goal difference. Several other factors that are largely unpredictable still matter in the outcome of a match, and that’s what makes football the most exciting sport in the World.
Despite all the unpredictability, knowing that some factors highly correlate should give us hope. Experience increases as time goes on. And if we don’t play our silly politics with our team, we can raise a set of players that accrue experience over time. And hopefully, Africa’s economic growth will translate to socioeconomic development, which raises our chances of fielding well-trained players.
Well, the World Cup’s far from over and Nigeria or some other African country might still get far…and possibly win it. So keep those chins up, watch the ‘indomitable’ Super Eagles play and beware of hypertension- it’s a common side effect of watching Nigeria play.