The increasing politicization of the sports world has recently become readily apparent to even the casual observer of American sports. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become the symbol of the intersection of politics and sports, spearheading a movement to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality, drawing the ire of many viewers, as well as condemnation from President Trump.
But do politics and political correctness also play a role in soccer, and its marquee event, the World Cup?
The World Cup is undeniably the biggest sporting event in the world: virtually the entire world is a member of FIFA, football’s governing body which oversees the tournament. Every four years countries vigorously compete for one of the coveted 32 berths in the tournament. The classifications are continent-based, and each continent is assigned a certain number of berths.
For the 2018 World Cup the 31 available slots (host Russia gets an automatic bid), are distributed as follows: North America’s CONCACAF gets 3.5 berths, Africa’s CAF gets 5 berths, Europe’s UEFA gets 13 berths, South America’s CONMEBOL gets 4.5 berths, Asia’s AFC gets 4.5 berths, Oceania’s OFC gets 0.5 berths.
What is Fairness?
But is the distribution of these berths fair? Do we want a democratic or populist distribution, or a meritocratic distribution?
Here is the fundamental question: What is fairness? Is it inherently fair to explicitly state that the goal is to have the 32 best squads in the world in the World Cup? Or is it fairer to allot berths based on population?
Japan shocked the world by defeating Colombia this week, but until that unexpected result, an Asian team had not defeated a South American team in 17 straight meetings.
Two South American powerhouses’ chances of advancing to the Round of 16 tournament now hinge on their performance against an African team. Argentina must beat Nigeria to have any hope of advancing. And Colombia almost certainly needs to defeat surprise star Senegal in order to advance. Likewise, Senegal and Nigeria can both guarantee their advancement to the tournament with a win.
However, in general, the performance of African teams has been quite disappointing at the World Cup. No African team has ever come close to winning the cup, and the vast majority of African teams in recent decades have been eliminated long before reaching the tournament stage.
In fact, only three times in history has a non-European or South American team even made it to the final 4: those teams would be the United States, placing third in 1930, and Turkey and South Korea, placing third and fourth in 2002.
Of the 20 World Cups in history, South America has won 9 (Brazil: 5 wins, Uruguay: 2 wins, Argentina, 2 wins), while Europe has won the remaining 11.
Why does Africa get more berths than South America?
It begs the question, then. Why does Africa get 5 berths in the World Cup, when they have no realistic chance of any of their teams winning it, or even advancing far in the tournament, while South America only gets 4.5 berths?
Why does Asia get 4.5 berths, putting it on par with South America, when the quality of its teams is so inferior?
59.6% of the world’s population lives in Asia, while 16.6% lives in Africa. Football powerhouses South America and Europe have 5.6% and 9.9%. North America has 7.4% of the world’s population, while tiny Oceania has just 0.5% of the world’s population. So, let us posit, for purposes of argument, that the World Cup employed an entirely “fair” strategy for allotting berths. Here’s what that would look like:
Asia: 19 berths
Africa: 5 berths
Europe: 3 berths
North America: 2 berths
South America: 2 berths
Oceania: 1 berth
Clearly, any football aficianado can quickly see that this version of “fairness” would be ludicrous: it would have a dramatically negative impact on the tournament and the quality of play, and have catastrophic effects for both Europe and South America, where the vast majority of the world’s best teams hail from.
Olympic ping-pong and Harvard University admissions
China’s domination of both men’s and women’s ping-pong is legendary, and in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China won the gold, silver, and bronze medals in both the men’s and women’s competition. Many countries felt that this was unfair, so the rules were changed. Thereafter, China was only allowed a maximum of two entrants in both the men’s and women’s tournaments; this, in order to provide for “fairer” competition, and greater opportunities to other countries.
This is likely to rub civil libertarians the wrong way. Personally, I think it is preposterous to place a limit on the number of Chinese entrants in the tournament. If they have the best players, then those players should be allowed to play, free of national and geographic considerations. If China wins all three medals, that should provide incentive for other top ping-pong powers like Taiwan, South Korea, and Germany to work harder. But it is ludicrous to suggest that the sporting world benefits because China is restricted from fielding more players in the tournament, even if they are the best.
At Harvard University, a group of Asian students is currently suing the school, alleging group discrimination against them. The students claim that they need higher GPAs and test scores than other racial groups in order to receive admission to the prestigious institute. If we were to inject a member of Harvard’s Admissions Office with a truth serum, we might find an interesting parallel with the Chinese ping-pong situation.
I would venture to bet that Harvard would say: “Well, it’s just not fair that we have too many Asian students at Harvard, relative to their percent of the population. Yes, we discriminate against Asian students, but it is in the interests of greater racial and cultural diversity; and so that we can give more opportunities to other groups that haven’t had the opportunities of Asian students.”
Again, our American Constitutional tradition and our pragmatism as libertarians, should preclude such foolishness. Every human endeavor should be based on merit. It is both impractical and immoral to practice discrimination, even if the intentions are good and well-meaning.
32 teams selected solely on meritocracy
FIFA could implement a new system that would be entirely based on meritocracy. Without question, it would give a major boost to both Europe and South America. Such a system would be simple enough to implement. It would involve doing away with the current paradigm whereby teams only compete within their own continents for World Cup classification.
Rather, FIFA could adopt a strategy that resembles the current International Tennis Association (ITA) system for determining berths for tournaments: any player can play any other player, and there is a currently updated ranking system. If you beat an opponent, you move up. If you lose to an opponent, you move down. If you beat an opponent ranked much higher than you, you move up more. If you beat an opponent ranked slightly above you, you move up a little.
It seems to work well with tennis.
Of course, such a “meritocracy” would elicit a fearsome push-back: from Asia, from Oceania, from North America, and from Africa.
And there would be a predictable outcry from a host of cultural, government, and media elites regarding the fairness of taking away opportunities, especially for Asian and African countries, where the majority of the world’s population is concentrated.
It’s a reasonable argument, and one I am a bit sympathetic too. It would be a bit of a bore to have a tournament with just a handful of teams from outside Europe and South America. There is certainly an element of excitement added to a situation where teams from geographically disparate regions battle in the group stage.
But, we must also confront the cold hard reality that the current tournament structure is not designed to give opportunities to the best teams, but to promote geographic diversity.
FIFA: A Hybrid strategy, between meritocracy and democratic populism
Clearly, what FIFA currently does is neither a pure meritocracy, nor a purely equitable distribution based on geography. They are looking for that “sweet spot.” While they want to be inclusive towards regions of the world where the quality of play is not as good, they also don’t want to seriously impact the quality of the play, by giving mathematically “fair” representation to regions where the quality of teams does not equal Europe and South America.
So, is politically correctness negatively impacting the World Cup? That largely depends upon your idea of what constitutes “fairness.”
Depending upon your perspective, the democratic populism (or “political correctness” if you will) utilised by FIFA is either an outrageously discriminatory policy against South America; or FIFA’s current system unfairly denies World Cup opportunities to the teeming masses of Africa and Asia.
As football continues to increase in popularity around the world (by some estimates the World Cup final is the most-watched event in the history of humanity), look for these debates regarding the concept of “fairness” to continue…and recognize that the same philosophical and theoretical principles discussed in a sports setting, also apply to many other economic and political issues, that often serve to define our respective worldviews.