The World Cup, the planet’s premier sporting event, promises as ever to be a remarkable celebration not just of football (soccer), but of humanity itself. All regions of the world are represented, and the participating countries themselves vary remarkably in terms of culture, religion, economic well-being and political institutions. There will be black, white, yellow and brown-skinned players competing—sometimes on the same team. And there will be a very large portion of humanity watching, and not just in the 32 qualified nations.
The setting of this year’s World Cup—South Africa—obviously lends this event particular significance. Fifty years ago, Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the state of South Africa. On Friday, the retired president is expected to make an appearance at the tournament-opening match between South Africa and Mexico in what promises to be an extraordinary, spine-tingling moment. Mandela is frail and rarely seen in public, but is still the living embodiment of South African liberation from apartheid, and probably the greatest monument to human freedom alive on the face of the planet. Mandela spent considerable energy in getting his country selected to host this event, in hopes it would be not just a celebration of South Africa’s incredible transition to a multiracial democracy but also an impetus to further human progress in the country and on the continent.
The depth of suffering and oppression still prevalent in Africa—and in many other places around the world—can be glimpsed by taking a statistical look at the 32 participating countries’ political institutions and economic status.
The first table below reports the scores assigned by the organization Freedom House to the status of political rights and civil liberties in each nation, along with the summary designation of “Free,” “Partially Free,” or “Not Free.” The countries are scored on a 2-14 scale with 2 indicating maximum freedom, 14 maximum oppression. (See here for a detailed list of the questions underlying these scores.)
I then go on to discuss several measures of these nations’ socio-economic health. Table 2 shows the United Nation’s Human Development Index, scored on a 0-1 scale, which summarizes a indicators intended to capture not just sheer economic wealth but also health (life expectancy) and education (literacy). Higher scores equate to higher development.
The next figure discussed is the more familiar Gross Domestic Product per capita figure for 2007, measured as purchasing power parities (not according to exchange rates). In effect, this measures how many goods (at locally prevailing prices) a person in each country would be able to consume in a year, if each country’s economy was divided equally.
Of course, actual economies are not divided equally. The third figure I looked at is a simple but revealing measure of internal inequality: the ratio of consumption by the richest 10 percent of a nation’s citizens to consumption by the poorest 10 percent of a nation’s citizens. If the top 10 percent have average income of $50,000, and the bottom 10 percent have average income of $5,000, then the ratio will be 10.0. As can be seen, inequality levels tend to get dramatically higher in the relatively poor nations.
The final measure considered here is life expectancy—number of years a child is expected to live at birth in each of these countries. This measure most dramatically illustrates the gap in human well-being between most of Africa and the rest of the world.
Tables 1 and 2 present the raw data points on the Freedom House measures and for the UN Human Development Index. I then go on to provide brief analysis of each of this data, as well as more specific figures about GDP, inequality, and longevity, and what they say both about the participating nations and the world we live in.
Table 1. Political Freedom in World Cup Nations
Freedom House Ratings/Designation
South Africa 4/”Free”
Nigeria 9/”Partly Free”
South Korea 3/”Free”
England (UK) 2/”Free”
United States 2/”Free”
Algeria 11/”Not Free”
Cameroon 12/”Not Free”
Paraguay 6/”Partly Free”
New Zealand 2/”Free”
Ivory Coast 11/”Not Free”
North Korea 14/”Not Free”
Honduras 8/”Partly Free”
Political and Civil Freedom
Twenty-five of the 32 nations (78 percent) in the World Cup finals are classified as “free,” compared to 89/194 of all measured countries (46 percent), or 64/162 (39.5 percent) of measured countries who did not qualify for the World Cup finals. “Not free” nations include Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and North Korea; “partly free” nations include Honduras, Paraguay and Nigeria.
“Free” countries had a 28 percent chance of qualifying for this World Cup; “partially free” and “not free” countries had just a 6.7 percent chance of qualifying. Partly this an artifact of how World Cup slots are distributed, with Europe entitled to 13 of 32 slots. But even taking this into account, the presence of political liberties and more successful football seem to go hand in hand—with some prominent exceptions.
Table 2. UN Human Development Index in World Cup Nations
South Africa .683
South Korea .937
England (UK) .947
United States .956
New Zealand .950
Ivory Coast .484
North Korea NA
16 of 32 nations (50 percent) are classified as “very high” human development nations, compared to 38/182 (21 percent) of all measured countries, or 22/151 (15 percent) of measured countries that did not qualify. The rate of qualification was 42 percent for “very high” development countries (15/38), compared to just over 10 percent for all other measured countries (15/144), excluding North Korea (not measured).
Of the qualifying nations, Australia has the top Human Development Index; Ivory Coast is at the bottom, followed by Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. Five of the overall top ten nations in the Human Development Index ratings qualified for the tournament, two have been there with regularity in the past (Norway, Sweden), and one lost its place controversially this time in qualifying (Ireland). The other two nations, Iceland and Canada, have not been to a World Cup in recent times but have produced good individual players. At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest ranking nation in the tournament, Ivory Coast, ranks of 163th out of 182, meaning that none of the nineteen worst-off nations qualified.
Per Capita GDP
On a per capita basis, the United States is the richest country in the tournament, followed by Switzerland, each with over $40,000 per capita GDP in 2007. Japan and the other central European countries are all clustered around the $30-35,000 mark, with Slovakia and Slovenia in eastern Europe and Portugal in the south exceeding $20,000 as well. New Zealand and South Korea are also well over the $20,000 mark.
Then there is a big drop off to the Latin American nations, with the African countries (except South Africa) at the bottom. By this measure, Ghana ($1,334) is the poorest nation in the tournament (excluding North Korea, for which data is not available).
There are basically three ranges for internal inequality: one for more affluent nations, one for developing nations with moderate per capita income, and one for the very poorest nations. In the affluent countries, the ratio of consumption by the top 10% to the bottom 10% ranges from a low of 4.5 in Japan to a high of 16 in the United States. Leaving aside one outlier (explanation below), the range in countries with per capita GDP below $15,000 but above $2,200 is from a low of 20.1 in Uruguay to a high of 59.4 in Honduras. In the four poorest measured nations (Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana), the range runs from roughly 15 to 20.
Internal inequality thus seems to have a u-shaped curve among the World Cup nations. In the poorest nations, even elites do not have large amounts of resources and inequality is somewhat limited (though still high by developed world standards). Middle-income, developing nations often feature a quite well-off elite side-by-side with massive poverty, leading to huge levels of inequality. As development proceeds, richer countries are able to employ and educate a higher proportion of their citizens, and also to provide more extensive social services. The better-off countries also generally produce a politics capable of curbing elites, at least to some extent, and implementing progressive taxation.
An interesting exception to this generalization is the case of Algeria, which has a moderately low per capita income ($7,740) but has an inequality level (9.6:1) comparable to those seen in European welfare states. Perhaps coincidentally, Algeria is the only predominantly Muslim nation in the World Cup finals this year. In pure demographic terms, the three biggest slices of humanity excluded from this World Cup are China (failed to qualify this time), India (historically very weak at international football), and the Muslim world. Traditional power Saudi Arabia failed to qualify this time and may find it more difficult in the future due to Australia’s transfer to the Asian qualifying region. Bahrain might have been a second Muslim nation to qualify, but lost to New Zealand in its playoff.
How many World Cups can a child born today expect to see in his or her lifetime?
In affluent nations, the answer is about 20, with many countries’ life expectancy clustering around the 78-82 years range. In Latin America, the answer is closer to 18 or 19, depending on the country.
Where we see a huge drop-off is in the African nations, apart from Algeria. In South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, the life expectancy is 51.5, 56.5, 47.8, and 56.8 years, respectively. The gap between Ivory Coast (56.8 years) and the next lowest country in the World Cup, Paraguay, is 15 full years (almost four World Cups).
These figures reflect the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, as well as decades of instability punctuated by violence and periods of authoritarian rule in much of sub-Saharan Africa. They also reflect the devastation of diseases such as malaria and AIDS and the persistence of hunger-related deaths (estimated at 25,000 a day worldwide).
The huge gap in well-being between much of Africa and rest of the world is both a humanitarian and a moral crisis. This World Cup is significant because it offers an opportunity to ring the alarm bell and draw worldwide attention, sympathy, and hopefully assistance to the continent’s problems. Efforts like United Against Malaria, endorsed by U.S. star Landon Donovan and a number of other players, are extremely important in this regard. So too will be the way the international media onsite in South Africa goes about covering the tournament.
But the World Cup is significant for another reason. It is an indication, a marker, that Africa is part of humanity too, a sign that the rest of the world is perhaps not willing to simply cut the continent adrift in the 21st century. While as we have seen, real-world inequalities of income and development impact the likelihood of nations qualifying for the tournament, the World Cup is far more egalitarian and inclusive than other prominent international arenas in which real power is wielded.
And once the whistle blows, the matches themselves will be eleven vs. eleven, with every participating country able to field highly trained, skilled athletes capable of competing at the highest level.
In that regard, football, like sports in general, is a model of fairness in an unfair world. It easy and fashionable to be cynical about professional sports. But nowhere are we as a species closer to the ideal of a community of nations cooperating and competing with one another on a level playing field, in a spirit of friendship, than in the World Cup.
Thad, an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, has followed European soccer extensively for more than a decade. He grew up playing Rainbow Soccer in Chapel Hill and maintains a blog on Manchester City Football Club. Thad is a volunteer/assistant coach with the Richmond Rebels, a team of homeless and formerly homeless men that will be participating in the Street Soccer USA Cup in Washington later this summer.