Forget Soccer; The World Cup's An Economic Contest

A study of the economics surrounding the World Cup finds that a country's FIFA rankings rise in relationship to how well that nation is developing. And, the study finds, the U.S. plays a surprisingly large role in the World Cup.

Andrew Swift of Foreign Policy magazine has a theory about why Goldman Sachs recently conducted an analysis of the World Cup economy.

"Maybe it's to get some good press," Swift says. "They've had some troubles recently, so maybe putting out a football report on the World Cup is a way for people to get another look at them."

Swift, who blogs for Foreign Policy's Passport blog, tells NPR's Guy Raz that the study found a correlation between a nation's development and their global rankings by FIFA, the international soccer governing body. The study's results make a statement about the global economics of the competition -- and the surprisingly large role the U.S. plays in the Cup.

For the analysis, Goldman Sachs looked at growth environment scores (GES), which took into account political, economic and social factors like the rule of law, corruption, the number of computers and mobile phones in a country, and debt. They found a correlation between improvements in GES scores over the past four years and a rise in FIFA rankings. Algeria holds the record for GES improvement over the past four years, and their FIFA rankings have increased considerably.

But the GES effect doesn't hold for all countries. "Brazil and Argentina are outliers -- they've been good for so long," Swift says. "Their GES scores are not necessarily a proper indicator of their skill level."

And contrary to popular belief, Swift adds, the study also reveals that soccer is actually a big sport in America. The U.S. makes a lot of money for FIFA, paying one of the largest television rights fees to FIFA of any country. Almost 25 million Americans play some kind of soccer, second only to China. And the average attendance at Major League Soccer games in the U.S. is higher than game attendance for the NBA and the NHL.

The study predicts the finalists: England, Brazil, Argentina and Spain. "England, Brazil and Spain are sort of conventional wisdom," Swift says. "Personally, I'm rooting for the U.S."

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