FIFA Women’s World Cup: A Guide to HDI and Women’s Soccer

Following the 2014 Men’s FIFA World Cup last year, many Americans caught football (or soccer) fever. The excitement of the US Men’s National Team’s run in the knockout stages helped bring even more exposure to the World’s Game to the America. However, whether Americans knew or not, the United States was already a world soccer powerhouse. In women’s soccer, that is. The US Women’s National Team has won the most World Cups along with Germany at two, has won an astounding four Olympics Gold Medals, and has been ranked #1 in the world longer than any other nation. Meanwhile, the US Men’s side best finish was 3rd place in the 1930 FIFA World Cup and is currently ranked a mediocre 27th in the world.

One can find more discrepancies between the “top tier” sides in both sides. While generally average in men’s soccer, teams like Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Norway, Australia, Canada and New Zealand tend to dominate in women’s soccer. Even more, teams from less developed nations like Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ecuador, tend to perform well in the men’s World Cup, yet produce average or below-average women’s teams. Though very developed nations like Germany, France, and Spain achieve great results in both of the sexes’ tournaments, there seemed to be a much larger connection in the development of a nation and its success in international soccer in the women’s competition.

Not being satisfied with this generalization, I decided to take matters into my own hands and break out the good old Excel spreadsheet.

FIFA provides rankings of each of the national teams present, giving a point value to each determine their rankings. How they come up with the point value is extremely complex and deals with various variables, from strength of recent opponent to size of victory and many others, but all that you really need to know is, the higher the point value, the better the team. The men’s point system is also slightly different from the women’s point system, but are still follow the same principle. I used the latest rankings published on March 27, 2014.

Measuring how developed a nation is also can be quantified. The best numerical representation of a country’s development is known as the Human Development Index or HDI. Created by the United Nations, it uses three main dimensions of “development”: life expectancy, education and per capita income, to create a positive, numerical value between 0 and 1. Highly developed nations (or what is commonly known as “First World countries”) have values closer to 1, while less developed nations (or what is commonly known as “Third World countries”). I used data published by the United Nations Development Programme’s recent Human Development Report from 2014.

Using these two variables, my goal was determine whether there was any correlation between FIFA Ranking and HDI. I needed to find what is known as the correlation coefficient, or r, in statistics. This number can be any value between 0 and 1, positive or negative, and measures the strength of a linear relationship between two variables. The closer the absolute value of the coefficient is to ‘1’, the stronger the relationship and the closer the absolute value of the coefficient is to ‘0’, the weaker the relationship. A positive coefficient means an increase in Variable A tends to correspond in an increase in Variable B and vice versa, while a negative coefficient means a increase in Variable A tends to correspond in a decrease in Variable B and vice versa.

There were a couple nations who couldn’t be included in the final tally (notably North Korea), due to the fact that the UN has not been able to get accurate enough data to determine their HDI. But regardless, several hours and over 130 data points plotted gave some intriguing results.

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Each individual dot represents a nation and after crunching the data, I received an r value of 0.5756, which is a moderately strong positive linear relationship (represented by the dotted blue line) between FIFA Ranking and HDI. It seemed like a country’s HDI proved to be a fairly decent indicator of its success in women’s soccer. But perhaps then again, more developed nations tend to perform well regardless of which sex is playing and the earlier comment about the dominance of Nordic and North American nations in women’s soccer and their mediocrity in men’s soccer is just an exception. And so, a few more hours later made the picture much clearer.

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Again, there is a positive linear correlation, but this one is significantly smaller, at around r=0.3800. What this data shows is that HDI is a much better indicator of a nation’s performance in international soccer in women’s competitions compared to men’s.

Now, arguably the most well-known saying in statistics is “correlation does not mean causation,” but we can at least make some reasonable explanations of why we see this difference in correlation.

More educated, developed nations place more emphasis on the well-being of their citizens, granting the same basic rights to all citizens, regardless of sex. Developed nations fight for gender equality and encourage women to engage in the same activities men take part in. Athleticism isn’t confined to archaic gender roles in these nations.

However, less educated and developed nations have a history maintaining patriarchy, suppressing women and placing them in a subordinate role. Obviously, a nation that suppresses the basic rights of women is not going to produce high-performing teams. For instance, Saudi Arabia doesn’t even have a women’s national soccer team.

With men’s teams, while more developed nations will have some advantage in providing infrastructure to help foster growth, more rests on tradition of the sport and its popularity to create well performing teams. African and South American teams tend to do well, since soccer is such a huge part of their culture and boys are encouraged to play it at a younger age. Togo, a nation with one of the lowest HDI’s at 0.473 and doesn’t field a women’s team, sent their men’s team to the World Cup in Germany in 2006.

While these statistics may seem somber, there is hope. Ideas such as equality and individual rights have always succeeded in spreading across the globe in years past and even in the seemingly dismal situation in these nations, there have been remarkable strides in women’s rights in developing nations and even in more develop nations like the USA. Nations will develop and more and more people will fight for gender equality. So there’s no reason not to think that Americans will one day take just as much pride in their women’s national team as their men’s national team.

Image Credit to Sports World Report

Visual Data Credit to Drew Marshall

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