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Political Pitch

How governments nurture soccer.

This article was adapted from The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup.

There have been revolutions to create socialism, democracy, and authoritarian dictatorship. But humankind has yet to fight a revolution to guarantee one of the most vital elements--if not the most vital element--of the good life. That is, a winning soccer team. If we were to take up arms for this reason, what kind of government would we want to install?

Political theory, for all its talk about equality and virtue, has strangely evaded this question. But, after 17 World Cups, there's now a mass of empirical data, and, using the most sophisticated methods available, we can now determine the political and economic conditions that yield soccer glory.

To begin, we must first reach back into the dustbin of history. Communism, despite its gulags and show trials, produced great players and rock-solid teams. The Hungarian squad of the early '50s has gone down in history as one of the best to never win a championship. A few decades later, in 1982, the Poles finished third in the tournament, drawing with Paolo Rossi's Italy and beating Michel Platini's France en route. These triumphs are reflected in the overall record. In World Cup matches against noncommunist countries, the red hordes bested their capitalist foes more often than not--by my count, 46 wins, 32 draws, 40 losses.

But the fact remains that a communist country has never won the World Cup. After watching the communists perform efficiently in preliminary rounds of the tournament, you could usually count on them to collapse in the quarterfinals. There are many explanations for why communism never ascended higher. For starters, there's the Lobanovsky factor. Valeri Lobanovsky, the great Soviet and Ukrainian coach of the 1970s and '80s, believed that science could provide underlying truths about the game. He would send technicians to games to evaluate players based on the number of "actions"--tackles, passes, shots--that they performed. These evaluations perversely favored frenetic tackling over the creative construction of an attack. Lobanovsky's method captures the pernicious way in which the rigidity of Marxism permeated the mentality of the Eastern bloc. Such rigidity might produce a great runner or gymnast, but it doesn't produce champions in a sport that requires regular flashes of individuality and risk-taking. Then there's the misery of life under the hammer and sickle. Hungary, for instance, couldn't prevent its greatest players--László Kubala and Ferenc Puskás--from defecting to Spain in the '50s.

If the above data leads us to conclude that communism does not produce a superior soccer society, fascism has far more to recommend itself. Fascist governments can masterfully manufacture a sense of national purpose and, more than that, national superiority. This ethos, while not so appealing from the perspective of those who worry about individual rights, cultivates the perfect climate for aWorld Cup. Not only can it produce a healthy confidence, but it can also generate a powerful fear of losing. Who wants to disappoint a nation swept up in this kind of fervor? Or, more to the point, who wants to disappoint a leader who might break your legs and imprison your grandmother? What's more, fascist governments subscribe to a cult of fitness and hygiene that leads them to siphon considerable national resources into sports programs. The fascist record speaks for itself. During the '30s, Il Duce's Italy claimed two trophies; Germany took third in 1934, as did Brazil in 1938. (Under the reign of Getúlio Vargas, Brazil was quasifascist or actually fascist, depending on whom you ask.) Overall, fascism compiled a record of 14-3-3 in that decade.

But fascism has performed miserably since the fall of the Axis. Proto-fascist regimes like Francisco Franco's Spain or Juan Perón's Argentina presided over some of the great underachievers in the game's history. How could Spain squander the talent of Alfredo Di Stefano? Antonio de Oliveira Salazar's Portugal appeared in only one tournament during his 36-year reign. (To be sure, it was a tremendous performance, with Eusebio leading the country to third place. But, back in the days of Mussolini and Hitler, a good fascist dictator would have considered such a result an abomination--and would not have permitted Eusébio, a black player, to play in any case.) What accounts for the falloff? In the 1930s, fascist nations were an independent force in the world. They were the most ferocious regimes on the planet. After the war, this swagger vanished. Suddenly, the power of these nations rested on their alliance with the United States. Once you become lapdogs of the Americans, it's hard to muster the same will to win.

There's an important corollary to this finding. No country has ever won a World Cup while committing genocide or gearing up to commit genocide. Germany and Yugoslavia both faltered on the eve of their mass murders. In 1938, Germany didn't win a single game. The greatest Yugoslavian team of all time lost in the quarterfinals of the 1990 tournament. Apparently, lusting after the blood of Jews and Muslims distracts vital energy from the more pressing task of scoring against the Swiss and the Argentines.

Now we've examined two of the most ubiquitous forms of command economy. That leaves a third: the good, old-fashioned military junta. You can't find too many of these in the world today. But military juntas are historically superb at winning World Cups. The Brazilian and Argentine juntas presided over the most glorious victories in the tournament's history in the '70s and early '80s. It makes sense that juntas would excel at this. They are collective efforts, where even the strongmen are part of a broader apparatus. A good soccer team is, in a sense, a junta.

While military juntas have a tremendous record--three trophies in all--they still can't claim to be the most successful form of government. This is partly a problem of dilution. Military juntas must also claim credit for straggler countries like Paraguay and El Salvador. Their achievements, in the end, can't compete with the most effective form of soccer government known to man.

Social democracy delivers more championships than the juntas--six in all. And even the worst social democratic teams--Belgium, Finland--win more consistently than their authoritarian peers. To understand this success, one must understand the essence of the social democratic economy. Social democracies take root in heavily industrialized societies, and this is a great blessing. No country has won the World Cup without having a substantial industrial base. This base supplies a vast urban proletariat, which in turn supplies players for a team. Industrial economies also produce great wealth, which funds competitive domestic leagues that improve social democratic players by subjecting them to day-to-day competition of the highest quality. And, while the junta mindset nicely transposes itself to the pitch, the social democratic ethos is a far neater match. Social democracy celebrates individualism, while relentlessly patting itself on the back for its sense of solidarity--a coherent team with room for stars.

The new paradigm of political theory posited above can not only help guide a revolution, but it can also help fill out a tournament-prediction bracket. It is my contention that the outcome of each match in the World Cup can be forecast by analyzing the political and economic conditions of the countries represented on the pitch. This isn't quite an unbeatable system. But I have yet to see a method for filling out a tournament bracket that beats it. In addition to using the hierarchy above to guide your picks--fascism beats communism; military junta beats fascism; social democracy beats military junta--there are several other iron laws to apply:

1. EU means "experience unlimited."

Since its inception in 1992, the European Union has racked up an impressive World Cup record of 44 wins, 24 draws, and 36 losses. Western Europe has, of course, always dominated the tournament. But its recent performance is slightly better than the continent's past. In part, that's because the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) expanded the tournament in 1994 from 24 teams to 32. Old-world powers have more minnows to devour. But the change can also be attributed to globalization. While most countries that qualify for the tournament have members playing for clubs in Spain, Italy, and England, smaller European nations have benefited most from the opening of the big leagues to foreign talent. (To be sure, African and Latin American nations have also benefited greatly, but less so.) A country like Sweden has almost none of its starting eleven now playing for home clubs. Because of this migration of talent--and exposure to superior competition--a European nation without much of a history of football success can suddenly transform itself into an impressive performer.

2. Liberated and in a winning mood.

Countries that have just thrown off the yoke of communist or authoritarian oppression are extremely difficult to stop. The post-Iron Curtain tournaments were testaments to this phenomenon, when Bulgaria and Romania played deep into the knockout round. Poland had one of its most glorious runs in 1982, with the Solidarity movement playing in the background. And Germany won its last WorldCup in the middle of its reunification.

3. Colonizers over colonized.

These matches happen several times a tournament. Spain plays one of its old Latin American outposts. France faces the likes of Senegal or Algeria. Portugal takes the field against Brazil. When these imperial overlords battle their old subjects, you'd expect that the colonized nation would play better. After all, imperialism is an inherently doomed venture. No colonial overlord can eternally resist its subjects' demands for liberation. But that political reality doesn't translate into soccer. In fact, excepting the improbable 1950 U.S. win over England and Senegal's victory over France in the first game of the 2002 World Cup, the imperial powers historically win more often. Perhaps the imperial powers want to compensate for the psychological damage that accompanies the loss of empire and political decline. You might ask, shouldn't this trend benefit England, the greatest empire of the last 200 years? It should, except that England planted rugby and cricket more firmly than soccer in most of its colonies. Consequently, England can go whole tournaments without playing any commonwealth countries.

4. Never invest hope in an oil-producing nation.

If a nation heavily exports oil--Nigeria, Russia, Mexico, Norway, the Gulf states, Iran--it's doomed to underachieve. When an economy can generate wealth so easily, even if that wealth only flows to a small oligarchy, a country can get lazy, thinking that riches will forever flow to it naturally. Political scientists call this the "paradox of plenty." And, on the pitch, these countries lack a winning temperament and an innovative mindset. The USSR was the only oil-rich country ever to make it to the semifinals.

5. Neoliberal shock therapy is a buzz kill.

Argentina hasn't made it past the quarterfinals since its government embarked on neoliberal reforms. Over the last decade, Brazil has faltered only once, in 1998, at the height of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's push to open his country's markets. So you should pick against any country that is in the midst of privatizing its banks and energy sector. But there's good news for Thomas Friedman and other proponents of classical liberalism. Countries normally bounce back from their liberal setbacks. Brazil is the locus classicus of the genre, but Poland and Ecuador also prove that neoliberalism only hurts soccer in the short term.

6. The caveat.

There's one iron law that overrides all the others. The political reality most likely to produce a Jules Rimet trophy at any given moment in history: whatever form of government has taken up residence in Brasilia that week.

Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic.

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