Football is the world’s game. Its simplicity and flexibility means it was the first sport to spread to every nation on the planet. Its entertainment to both players and spectators led it to the global competition beginning this month: the FIFA World Cup. The scoreboard in football starts at nil-nil and minnows often outperform giants. Countries that don’t lead the world in many other areas can do well here. And it’s hard to escape that it’s one of the most prestigious events for a nation to win. Although there are certain things that affect your ability to do so. So what are they, and how do you win the World Cup? Football knowledge is only born through experience. Any theory needs testing. England were the first world leaders in international football not because of they were naturally the best or in anyway unique, It was because they got there first. Players don’t have to learn football from scratch, they build on decades of development from passing to panenkas. The skills and tactics are only mastered by players today after they’ve been invented and honed. The countries with the longest histories naturally gained the most knowledge first. Next countries who got their hands on the game became the next leaders. The Río de la Plata was the first area in the world outside of Europe to adopt the game, and make national associations to compete as national teams Uruguay is one of the most experienced international teams on the planet. Despite being a midget sandwiched between the nations that birthed Pelé and Maradona, Uruguay is still a tour de force of global football. Don’t adopt the game late or neglect experience. The small supporting army behind every move needs to succeed at their job for the team to succeed to deal with everything unique about this type of football. But South Africa neglected it. South Africa was excluded from FIFA for nigh on half a century due to the apartheid regime. Upon readmission, the tricky, insipid playing style forged in its domestic league was ripped apart. In 1993, they failed to qualify for their first tournaments with 4-0, 4-1, and 3-0 losses to Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. The rest of the continent had advanced decades in their absence. Experience is correlated with success. Twice the experience in a national team means 0.84 goals extra per game on average. Rule #1: Be first, and don’t do an apartheid. Experience is one way to gain information. Here’s another. With inventions from around the world, and the necessary capital and investors swimming around Germany at that point, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press could only have been made and spread at the right place, right time. The printing press spread news of its own invention through human connections. Events like these–chance meetings, strikes of inspiration, connections between ideas– all happen in fertile environments, forests of connectivity. The invention conceived increased connectivity everywhere. Martin Luther, for one, spread his own radical messages using Gutenberg’s press. Aspiring actors head to Hollywood, where the movies already are. Tech companies start where tech companies already are. The benefits of networks shine through any of the problems. The greatest footballing minds also accumulate and develop around other footballing minds. The greater a nation’s connection, the greater its development. Following World War I, Austria-Hungary were split among a dozen nations but the connections in work, travel, and personal and business relationships could not be broken by treaty. These formerly domestic football connections became now international ones. Prague, Vienna, and Budapes(z)t still benefited from introductions and innovations in the other countries. What became known as the Danubian school of football tactics emerged. A series of innovations built upon the English game, and perfected among countries that competed for the Central European International Cup. This area produced the best coaches and strikers of the early 20th century. The twinkletoed Austrian Matthias Sindelar, career cut short by Anschluss. Josef Bican, Austrian-Czech, highest scoring forward in history. And later, the mighty Magyars, and Hungarian Ferenc Puskás, after whom FIFA’s beautiful goal award is named. The Victorian English network of footballing minds spent Saturday afternoons in smoky Lancashire pubs. But on the continent, Viennese cafés caught up and surpassed them, These countries weren’t the earliest in their adoption of the game, but they were meticulous in their perfection of tactics, coaching, psychology, and fitness. The great football intellectual scene that prepared the game for the next century. England isolated themselves and didn’t catch wind of this until too late. A late joiner of FIFA, and then on-again, off-again member, they didn’t deign to enter the first three World Cups, instead playing the same home nations over and over, then came in 1953 the first bomb dropped on Blighty since the blitz: Hungary’s 6-3 battering of England at the home of football. The return fixture, a 7-1 demolition, remains today England’s heaviest ever loss. In the first five world cups in which Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary all entered, one of them reached the final four times out of five, losing only the final to Italy, Brazil, and a West Germany that was probably not doping their players. But like England, Central Europe did not remain ahead of the curve. Just as English knowledge flowed up the Danube once upon a time, Central Europeans took their game to less communist climes. Remember, it doesn’t last forever. But this isn’t the only way to be networked. Television and the internet have done a big job of bringing the game to the world. Arsène Wenger, football stats evangelist of the 1990s, grew up on the Franco-German border, and was able to watch German football at a time when international broadcasts were rare. With an international outlook, his introductions to the English game revolutionized players’ fitness and lifestyle in the 1990s, culminating in an unbeaten season. On the other end of the spectrum, South Africa strangled information flow and even banned television until the 1970s to suppress non-Afrikaner voices and avoid what happens when information runs freely. Suppression of information tends to happen in dictatorships, and it’s no coincidence that dictatorships tend to be bad at football. This compounded the nation’s isolation from FIFA. Many South Africans whose duty was to organize the 2010 World Cup hadn’t even seen a tournament until adulthood. Rule #2: Be connected. Innovate and adopt. And Don’t Be South Africa. The best footballing nations in each region tend to be the most populous. As a factor, population may be stupidly obvious, but it’s an inescapable truth. All else equal, a country with a higher population has more people taller, stronger, faster, and better at association football than a smaller one. Some nations have millions, some merely a few thousand. A united British team would increase its labor pool by about 20% compared with England alone. Germany’s 80 million blows Luxembourg’s half a million unquestionably out of the water. The nations that materialized from the 1990s have not improved on their previous record despite there being more than seven times as many former communist countries in FIFA and UEFA. The evidence is clear. Population is correlated with success. Twice the population means, on average per game, an extra 0.42 goals. Rule #3: Be big. Britain was the first country in the Victorian Age, with lawn mowers, croquet, lawn tennis, polo, and golf. Sport was a preserve of the rich, landed, or Scottish until the oiks gained access. But football suits the urban working class more. A single golfer needs 18 holes to play a round, whereas 22 footballers need a flat grass rectangle. Cricket takes all bloody week to play; football needs two hours of an afternoon. This makes football possible in places other sports are not. Almost everywhere. Almost. Greenland can’t grow grass. Tuvalu and Kiribati have almost nowhere to even fit a football pitch. A place to play has retarded the development of football in the fringes of the world. If you aren’t blessed in this natural wealth, you have to be the other type of wealthy. Iceland has the shortest domestic football season in the world, because the pitches freeze over from October and for months they live in darkness. While Brazilians can spend their warm winter weekends outside, Icelandics have no ability. Football suffered. Less practice, less players, less football, and losing 14-2 to Denmark. Starting this century, Iceland have been building indoor heated sporting venues and training even children’s coaches to UEFA A and B licence standard. Now football can be played year-round by everyone. Norway dominates the winter Olympics not because of the wealth of individuals, but because access to sport is guaranteed in Scandinavia as a virtual human right. But this is expensive. Not every country can afford to do this. Iceland can. And the evidence has been seen on the pitch, reaching the quarterfinals of the European Championships, their first-ever World Cup, and their highest-ever international ranking. Football is still a staunchly working class, or “poor”, game, almost everywhere in the world, at almost any point in the game’s history. But Europe still dominates: even if football is appealing to both an Icelandic and a person from the Global South, the real difference between the two is huge. The Icelandics have a higher standard of education, health, social services, and so many things that those in the Global South can only dream of. Even Iceland’s poor have privileges beyond anything seen in the vast majority of (choosing at completely random): South Africa, where over 16% of people live on less than 2 USD a day, where 3 and a half million people survive daily without clean water, where almost 20% of the nation live with HIV, and that rate far higher among the poor. The average height of a South African is around 13 cm shorter than an Icelandic. A lot of this can be put down to health care and nutrition. There are a series of serious problems that affect countries like this. While South Africa looks like a country with more than 50 million people, its sport teams draw from a healthy labor pool that is far smaller. A smaller, yet wealthier, demographic consisting of around 9% of the country have a HIV rate lower than Canada. It’s no surprise who the sporting stars of South Africa are. There are dozens of ways that wealth sets a nation up for footballing success. There are dozens more ways poverty can drag you down. Twice the GDP per capita means, on average per game, an extra 0.4 goals. Rule #4: Be rich in nature and money. And Rule #4 and a half: if you’re going to be poor, at least be rich-poor. All of these advantages we’ve been talking about are only on average. If France were to play Albania 100 times, one would expect France to win out. But they won’t win every game. The more games played in a single round, the higher the chances that the best team will win out. Fewer games means individual events play a bigger role, anomalies more likely. This is why the NFL uses a playoff system to determine a champion, why Wimbledon uses a single round knockout format, and the UEFA Champions League final is a single game on neutral ground. Anyone can win “on the day”, which makes knockout play more exciting. Group stages and leagues, by comparison, reward the overall better team. Spain in 2010 lost their opening match to Switzerland; had that been a knockout round, Spain’s World Cup would never have been. As it happened, they compensated. Switzerland ended up eliminated. The World Cup’s single-legged knockout matches benefit underdogs. From 2026, this effect is being compounded with fewer group games and more knockouts. The format of the tournament fundamentally matters and you need to know how to make things easy for yourself. Italy played the qualification for this World Cup terribly. By losing a 2015 friendly game against Portugal, their FIFA ranking dipped the exact moment that European qualification groups were being drawn up for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Their low rank at that moment meant playing in Spain’s group for a single automatic place. A more difficult prospect than their 2014 group. They obviously finished second and had to play Sweden in a high-stakes play of time. You might say they should have won the playoff, but they shouldn’t have been in that high-risk position to start with. They could have had a far easier run-in had they not fallen behind Slovakia, Croatia, and Wales in the FIFA rankings of July 2015. Home advantage accounts for around 2/3 of a goal per game on average internationally. But the World Cup is on neutral ground for every team except one: the hosts, who also qualify automatically for the tournament and receive favorable opponents in the initial group stage. Between 1930 and 2006, six hosts had won the World Cup; three other times a neighboring nation had won. That’s half the tournaments with a home advantage playing a huge role. Until 2010, every host nation had qualified for the knockout rounds. The first host to finish lower than second in their group was… …yeah, you’ve guessed it. South Africa. Rule #5: Play the tournament, not the game. Unlike a club side, an international manager can do very little to change what God has given them. That’s what makes this type of football largely dependent on other factors. So follow these rules: If your nation is big, rich, connected, experienced in football, and smart about the game off the pitch, these will give you the good conditions to further your national game and win the World Cup. But it’s no guarantee. The games still have to be played. So let’s go watch it, shall we?