Who Should Be in the World Cup?
Which regions are overrepresented — and which are underrepresented — in the 2010 World Cup?
July 6, 2010
Before the 2010 World Cup began, years of regional playoffs determined the 32 final contestants. The football world is divided into six regions, each with an allocation of slots among those 32.
Europe has 13 slots, Africa has six, South America four or five (depending on the outcome of a playoff between South and North America for the final place), North America (which includes Central America and the Caribbean) has three or four slots, Asia has four and Oceana has one.
How fair are these allocations? One way to answer this question is to consult the fans. This turns out to be much easier than one might think. A significant proportion of fans places bets on the outcome of the World Cup, and since they put their money where their mouths would be, we can tell a lot about where they put their money.
I analyzed the betting odds on June 16, 2010, after every team had played one game, to see what fans expected. This tells us where in the world it is most difficult for a good football team to make the World Cup finals — and where it is easiest for a less-than-outstanding team to make the cut.
For example, on June 16, the betting odds for Brazil winning the cup were 1:6, ranking it at the top, while Algeria faced odds of 1:3501, ranking it 32nd, or last. Not surprisingly, the first nine teams in the rankings are European or South American.
In fact, one can calculate the betting odds of a representative from any given region winning (that probability is simply the sum of the individual odds, corrected for the bookmakers’ take, which I calculate to be about 5.5% of betting revenues). Here are the results:
Betting Odds That a Team From This Region Will Win:
- UEFA (13) European Zone: 59.6%
- CONMEBOL (5) South American Zone: 34.2%
- CAF (6) Confederation of African Football: 3.3%
- CONCACAF (3) Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football: 1.9%
- AFC (4) Asian Football Confederation: 1.0%
- OFC (1) Oceania Football Confederation: 0.0%
These results conform to what the organizers of the World Cup expected. Fans think football in the European region produces the best teams. Europe is followed by South America, with the rest of the world far behind.But what about the allocations? Is 13 for Europe versus five for South America and six for Africa fair? One way to use evidence to answer this question is to look at the weakest teams from each region.Simply put, if one region has a lot of teams at the bottom, it might have too many representatives. On the other hand, if one region has no teams near the bottom, it might be underrepresented.This exercise produces more-surprising results. The five teams ranked worst by the betting fans on June 16 all came from different world regions. That is, five of the six zones each had one team among the bottom five: Greece (Europe) was 28th, Honduras (North America) was 29th, North Korea (Asia) was 30th, New Zealand (Oceania) was 31st and Algeria (Africa) was 32nd.But the team ranked 27th (South Africa) was also from Africa, not from South America. In fact, the lowest ranked team from South America was Paraguay, in the top half of the pack at 13th. The average ranking of the five South American teams was 8.0, tops for any region.
Average Rank of Teams from Various Regions, as Ranked by Betting Odds:
- CONMEBOL (5) South American Zone: 8.0
- UEFA (13) European Zone: 13.5
- CONCACAF (3) Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football: 19.7
- CAF (6) Confederation of African Football: 21.3
- AFC (4) Asian Football Confederation: 23.5
- OFC (1) Oceania Football Confederation: 31.0
The fans thought a European team would win, but they gave a good chance to South America as well. And as they voted with their bets — placing none of the five South American teams in the bottom half of the odds ratings, compared to 46% of the European finalists (six of 13), a third of the North American (one of three), two-thirds of the Africans (four of six) and all of the Asian/Oceana finalists (five of five) — they sent a message to FIFA to increase South American representation in the next World Cup.
In fact, the fans’ predictions turned out to be very good. Of the teams the betting odds put into the top half, 13 of the 16 advanced. Two of the failures surprised everyone: Italy and France (the third was Ivory Coast).
Of the three teams that beat the odds and made the cut, one was right at the border, ranked 17th (South Korea), and two were outliers (Japan and Slovakia).
As in many collective predictions, World Cup betting odds proved pretty accurate. And the fans’ betting told one clear story: South America is better than their allocation of slots allows.
Therefore, in 2014, South America should have one more slot, and Europe should have one fewer. It might also be a good idea to combine Asia and Oceania, which are weak today, but can be expected to become more and more powerful as the two-thirds of the world’s population that lives in the region gets rich.