Can political and economic variables predict soccer results? Of course they can, maybe.
Four World Cups ago, something unthinkable happened to the United States. A team from a much poorer country, a downright oppressive country, a country with no business competing with the American juggernaut, beat the United States on soccer's biggest stage. On that day in Lyon in 1998, Iran won 2-1, eliminating the Great Satan with their first-ever victory in the tournament. Japan and China, the world's second and third economic superpowers, can't claim any more success, nor can the Scandinavian paragons of human rights and political virtue -- at least, not since Sweden made the final at home in 1958.
But what if politics and economics really could determine the outcome of matches in the World Cup?
Fortunately, we at Foreign Policy have just the tools needed to see what would happen. Every year, we publish two indexes: the Baseline Profitability Index (BPI), which ranks countries around the world for the attractiveness of foreign investment, and the Failed States Index (FSI), which ranks their abilities to deal with social, political, and economic pressures. And when we combine these rankings, we find out who the world's real winners are. (Clearly, this may have little to do with the ability to kick a ball around on a grass pitch, but bear with us.)
We standardized the index values by subtracting their means and dividing by their standard deviations, then averaged the two to create, wait for it, the Greatest Nation on Earth index (GNOE). Three countries in this year's World Cup -- Algeria, Ivory Coast, and good old Iran -- were not in the BPI, so I just used the standardized FSI for them. The results were, shall we say, interesting.
Just as in the real tournament, Group G is the Group of Death. Every team in the group makes the GNOE top 10, which means Germany and Portugal can't even hope to make the Round of 16. The toughest draw, however, has to be Australia's. It's the eighth team in the GNOE, but top-ranked Chile and the fourth-ranked Netherlands will qualify ahead of it. Sorry, Aussies, but your thriving economy and healthy polity will only get you so far.
There's more bad news for Brazil. It's slightly above average in the FSI, but decidedly poor in the BPI, giving it a GNOE ranking of 21 out of 32. Not only will it fail to win the tournament; it won't even enter the knockout rounds.
By contrast, this time the United States has no need to worry about Iran. There's a smooth road ahead to the final, where it will lose not to Russia or China, but to that rising star of geopolitics and economic policy, Chile. (Korea is ranked second going into the tournament, but the bracket pits it against Chile in the semifinals. Tough luck!)
But don't fret, dear Luxemburgers, Timorese, and other soccer unfortunates: if your national team didn't make it to The Big Samba this year, you can still see how they rank on GNOE. Just select your country below to see how they measure up!
Plenty of people -- myself included -- are trying to use their knowledge of soccer and statistics to predict the outcome of the real tournament. But wouldn't it be something if the GNOE did just as well? Here are the complete predictions, so everyone can see whether a policy-loving monkey with a dartboard can do better than the experts, or, say, an octopus.