Neymar of Brazil (Peter Powell / EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Much has been made of tiny Iceland’s maiden voyage to the World Cup. Trying to imagine how a nation with a population of less than 350,000 people developed a top-30 team on the planet is difficult to wrap one’s head around.

But the perception of Iceland needs more context; viewed with broader sociological measures, its team hasn’t overcome the most to get where it is. As it turns out, you should feel a bit more happy for Brazil, Egypt and a handful of other nations.

I collected data on more than 150 nations including population size, GDP per capita, average temperature and the Life Satisfaction score compiled in the World Happiness Report, an annual ranking published by a United Nations initiative. Life Satisfaction is the result of a global survey that asks people in more than 150 countries to rate the quality of their life on a scale of 1 to 10. We can think of the score as a proxy for a combination of things including financial well-being, physical infrastructure, social support, life longevity and other positive or negative attributes of a nation.

I used that data to predict national teams’ Elo rating, a methodology that weights results by a number of factors including game importance, goal difference, location and opponent, and that has proved a far more accurate predictive measure than the more widely cited world rankings used by FIFA. Then I selected the 32 teams from this year’s World Cup to see which nations have done the most, in soccer terms, with the least.

This data can predict about one-third of the variance of the Elo rating across all nations in the data set. Not surprisingly, the prediction skews positive when isolating at the World Cup participants.

All of the variables I mentioned earlier except GDP per capita were significant to the prediction. That is likely because the Life Satisfaction score implies a certain level of financial well-being, but also contains other valuable information about the quality of life in that nation. The Life Satisfaction score, in fact, was by far the most significant variable to the prediction. Temperature is a matter of extremes. If a country’s average temperature is below 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) or greater than 20 degrees Celsius (68), the teams do not perform as well.

Here is a plot of the Elo rating against the prediction based on resources.


The vertical axis indicates what the resources of the nation should produce in terms of its soccer team’s Elo rating. The horizontal axis is the actual Elo score. Brazil is the highest-rated team, but also has the biggest gap between its actual and predicted scores. Iceland, while an overachiever, is in fifth place in that category, also behind Senegal, Colombia and Portugal.

Japan is the only pure underperformer in the group as it should be rated marginally better than it is. Egypt scores the lowest in terms of its head start from a resource perspective. Egypt’s Life Satisfaction score is 3.9 compared with the global average of 5.5, and the average temperature there doesn’t help matters, either.


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On the flip side, Iceland has a Life Satisfaction score of 7.5, one of the highest in the world. The cold temperature and tiny population are difficult to overcome, but the overall support system and resources enable them in more important ways. Germany has the biggest head start of the group but also has overachieved.

If you’re an American soccer fan feeling unlucky, it’s worth pointing out that the United States scores the highest of all the nations using this method. The U.S. national team should have a 1,905 Elo rating but is underperforming by 150 points.

Jared has covered soccer since 2013 for a variety of outlets including Stars and Stripes FC and American Soccer Analysis. He covers the U.S. national teams and MLS with a focus on the numbers and trends that underlie the sport. Follow him on Twitter @jaredeyoung.

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