World Cup-ology

Illustration by Marshall Hopkins

Illustration by Marshall Hopkins

Everyone from financial analysts to geographers has weighed in on the 2006 World Cup. Some offer small insights related to their particular disciplines, others elaborate predictions based on rigorous, though admittedly non-sports related, analysis. All seem driven by a deep desire to shoehorn their professional expertise into some aspect of the tournament.

The investment banking giant Goldman Sachs offers one of the better options with its annual report ‘The World Cup and Economics.’ The 57-page report offers an economic overview of each nation with a team in the tournament along with some soccer analysis.

Additional soccer commentary comes from some big names including David Beckham choosing his “World Dream Team” and former Brazilian Central Bank Governor Arminio Fraga discussing his home country’s unparalleled World Cup history and this year’s squad.

Economists of all stripes seem unable to keep their mathematical formulas and talk of GDPs off the Cup. Brown University economist Ignacio Palacio-Huerta narrowed his focus exclusively to penalty kicks. Using game theory, Palacio-Huerta tries to figure out what makes players like French superstar Zinédine Zidane and Italian goalkeeper Gigi Buffon rise above others when it comes to this tension-inducing probability contest.

Meanwhile the World Bank is pondering the macroeconomic impacts of the Cup with a raft of reports. And for good reason, four years ago Argentina’s economy plummeted following the national team’s shocking departure in the group round.

Not to be outdone, philosophers have been brought onto the pitch as well. Sportswriter Dave Eadevic matches teams to famous deep thinkers. Of Confucius, Eadevic said, “ultimately it’s a philosophy for bureaucrats, and who is more bureaucratic than the Swiss?” The Italian penchant for victories at the cost of beautiful play earns them a pairing with their scheming countryman Machiavelli.

The French? They get the romantic Rousseau whose ideas, Eadevic argues, match the team’s play which “can be brilliant, given to insights and play from the creative to the sublime, but like the national character a tad melodramatic.” Aristotle, with “his love for classification,” would be in the press box calling games.

Oh if we were only so lucky, audience frustration with ESPN’s commentators has seeped onto august pages.

Linguists get in on the action as well. Stanford’s David Beaver lays out a doomsday scenario linked to the rise of the verb ‘fizz’ in Cup coverage.

A geographer makes a serious argument that England, along with 28 other national teams, should not qualify for the World Cup as independent nations.

Some professions seem to keep the eye on the prize, or at least their bottom lines. A Dutch insurer offered coverage to companies wanting financial protection against the rash of employee sick days anticipated during the World Cup. The idea came after tens of thousands of Dutch workers called in sick during the 2004 European Championships, Reuters reported.

Lawyers are not immune to temptation. Various English law firms took the Cup as a marketing opportunity a flurry of press releases highlighting “unheralded legal problems” linked to the month-long soccer bacchanal. The firms naturally then offered their services as expert commentators should any media outlets require them, according to “The Times of London.”

Not all lawyers are trying to cash in on the soccer madness. Mark D. West, a University of Michigan Law Professor, offers ‘Legal Determinants of World Cup Success.’ West makes a case that countries with legal systems based on the French model, such as the last two Cup champions France and Brazil, perform well because the Napoleonic Code largely removes decision-making power from managers and coaches in the same way the civil law system curtails judicial activism.

But Dutch bank ABN-AMRO seems to favor Italy, at least fiscally. In its report ‘Soccernomics 2006,’) Dutch bank ABN-AMRO argued that the best outcome for the global economy would be an all-European final with Italy as the victor. The paper’s authors told Reuters, “Leaving aside the fact that many economists who are soccer fans will use any excuse to bring soccer into their work, we are convinced that soccer has an impact on the economy.”

The hard sciences are hardly left out. To understand the physics of David Beckham shots like this, you apparently need look to German physicist Gustav Magnus’ work in the middle of the 18th Century on the lateral deflection of a spinning object.

The best method of throwing in a ball? You need to consider velocity as much as angle, say a pair of British physicists. They found that going with a lower angle, around 30 degrees, allows a player to generate more arm speed offsetting the loss in height.

A sports scientist from the University of Bath warned of the bamboozling effects of Adidas’ new super-smooth ‘Teamgeist’ ball. By evaluating matches from the German Bundesliga and previous World Cups, two mathematicians proved the old chestnut true. Once a goal is scored, both teams have a much easier time finding the back of the net.

Here in the U.S., psychologists worked their way into the sports world more than a decade ago. But European national teams seem to just be catching on to the competitive advantages of professional ego-management techniques. German coach Jürgen Klinsmann brought in sports psychologists in the run up to the Cup. Spain as well, opting for a psychology professor from Boston University..

Psychology doesn’t always provide results. English striker Wayne Rooney was sent off the pitch against Portugal in part for failing to control his temper. This despite the anger management classes
he attended last year after his professional club Manchester United required them.

But for the fans, especially us male fans, the Cup has psychological benefits. 64 percent of the men surveyed for a British study felt that soccer made it easier to share their feelings. Adding to the rosy picture, 86% of the Englishmen polled said they would rather be present at the birth of their first child than watch England in the final of the World Cup. Touching.

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