An Alternative World Cup

The once-every-four-years hysteria is here once again. Whether you love the ‘beautiful game’ or loathe it, what is undeniable is that the FIFA World Cup can provide a boon of teaching opportunities. Forget the 5-nil hammering of Saudi Arabia by hosts Russia when the tournament kicked off today (we all know deep down that it’s all anti-climatic from here on in) especially if you are an England fan! So, here are a handful of resources to get your blood pumping instead, including something I cooked up myself.

Football (soccer) stats as you’ve never seen them before

Are you a Maths/Statistics teacher? If you’ve not heard of FiveThirtyEight yet, then you must take a look. It is a website dedicated to a statistical look at the world, in everything from politics, through economics to sport. For every topic or event that gives the statistical analysis treatment, the website often produces a methodology so you can look at the statistical guts of their work.

FiveThirtyEight’s 2018 World Cup Prediction statistical grid is a Maths geek’s dream… especially if they click on the “How This Works” link at the top. You can also turn the time back on the table at the bottom to see what the statistics were before certain games were played.

Statistically, how are England looking according to FiveThirtyEight? Well, statistically, we’ve only been given a 7% chance of lifting the trophy come 15th July. (I could have given you those statistics simply based on experience, yet we English love to believe the spirit of 1966 will mean that 7% will be enough!)


It seems that, according to statistics, England will crash out at the Quarter Final stage against Brazil (sound familiar?). However, if they can get over that particular hoodoo, then they have a good chance at getting to the Final where anything can happen.


Keep an eye on FiveThirtyEight’s World Cup predictor throughout the tournament, as it is live and will update after every goal, game and newsworthy event (injuries, internal affairs etc).

The World Cup of the unrecognised

The Guardian ran a very interesting feature about a ‘World Cup’ held for unrecognised territories and ethnicities.

‘Established in 2013 for states, de facto states, self-declared regions, ethnic minorities and “sportingly isolated territories”, ConIFA brings together teams such as Tuvalu, Tibet, Padania, Matabeleland, Abkhazia and even the Isle of Man. They each have different backstories but what unites them is that none are yet recognised by Fifa, football’s global governing body.’ – The Guardian

ConIFA has 47 member teams worldwide, 16 of which qualified for this year’s tournament, its third edition. By contrast, FIFA has 211 member nations with 32 competing at the upcoming World Cup in Russia. The two organisations have no formal affiliation though FIFA has offered its best wishes to ConIFA. Source: The Guardian.

If one of the reasons why you may dislike major global sporting events because of the all-powerful franchise that run them, then the story of the ConIFA World Cup is very refreshing. I urge you to have a read.

The World Cup… of development statistics

What if the result of the World Cup was based on development indicators rather than footballing skill, gamesmanship and overpaid overblown egos?

It took me the entire game between Russia and Saudi Arabia to make this interactive spreadsheet. Using selected statistics from the UN’s Human Development Reports, the spreadsheet allows you to find out which country would win the World Cup using the clicks of a few buttons.

I do like to make my spreadsheets colourful!

Let’s give a couple of examples. One which yields perhaps a not so surprising result, and another which does.

Firstly, let’s put the teams up against each other according to the Human Development Index (HDI) value. The HDI is a combination of statistics evaluating the health, wealth and education of country. The result is a number between 0 and 1, where the closer to 1 means the more developed (GCSE and A-Level Geography students must learn to use the HDI).

On the first sheet of the spreadsheet, clicking on the ‘Human Development Index (HDI) button ranks teams in their World Cup groups by their HDI. England (using statistics for the UK), top Group G with a HDI of 0.909. No African nation makes it out of their group (in fact, they all finish bottom). Brazil finishes bottom of their group.

Subsequently, clicking on the HDI button for the knockout stages produces the following result (England, again, being knocked out at the Quarter Finals!):


Of course, Switzerland were always going to win the World Cup 2018 of HDI, since they are the country with the highest HDI in the tournament. Shame Norway didn’t qualify, then!

But, if you take the % infants lacking immunisation against measles (where the lower the number, the better) then you get a surprising result:


The team with the highest (or lowest, for e.g. infant mortality) will end up winning the tournament of course, but who qualifies for the knock-out stages, and, who knocked out when is more interesting. The spreadsheet also allows you to choose different statistics for each round, so you can mix it up a bit. You can choose to look at a combination of social, or economic or environmental indicators.

Here’s some food-for-thought for you. There is no statistic (on the spreadsheet), used through the whole tournament, where England win the World Cup… (typical – the only way I could get England winning was to ‘fiddle the system’ by choosing a winning statistic for them at each stage)! But there is at least one where a Sub-Saharan African nation wins on just one statistic. I guess that’s an omen that an African nation is more likely to win the real World Cup before England win it again!

I hope to generate some off-the-shelf lesson materials to use with the spreadsheet at some point before the tournament is over. However in the mean time, feel free to download the spreadsheet and using it as you so wish in a lesson or two… Or just to have a play yourself!

Click here to download the World Cup of Development Statistics spreadsheet.

C’mon England!!!


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