The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The World Cup of Democracy might look like this

What if we cheered for the more-democratic country in each World Cup match? Here’s who would win.

The Netherlands beat the United States in a World Cup match on Saturday. If winners were determined by which country had a higher level of electoral democracy, the result would have been the same. (Noushad Thekkayil/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Soccer is the world’s sport — and people across the globe look forward to World Cup matches and celebrations every four years. At least that’s what usually happens.

This year’s World Cup is controversial not just because the games take place in November/December rather than June/July, but also because of its location, in Qatar.

According to data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project, which measures democracy in individual countries, Qatar is one of the least democratic nations ever to host the World Cup. Qatar ranks behind Italy (the 1934 host) and Argentina (1978), but ahead of the last World Cup host, Russia (2018).

Why Qatar’s World Cup was controversial a decade before the first game

This isn’t unusual. The share of autocratic countries hosting sporting mega-events like the World Cup has been increasing over the past 30 years. Hosting these events provides benefits for autocratic regimes, but also presents risks. This year, Qatar has attracted negative publicity for human rights restrictions, including the criminalization of consensual same-sex acts between men and harassment of LGBT people. Fans also objected to more trivial restrictions, like a hastily imposed ban on beer in World Cup stadiums.

What team to cheer for?

Qatar, as host, received an automatic spot, and 31 other teams battled their way to a World Cup qualifying group. Who will win? One way for democrats to watch the World Cup, particularly a World Cup in an autocratic regime, is to always support the more democratic nation in each matchup. As someone whose own national team did not qualify for the World Cup, I welcome the distraction from my country’s lack of sporting success.

Here’s how this approach might work for one of the qualifying groups. Let’s start with Group A, which includes Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands.

The figure below shows, for each of the teams in Group A, the most recent “electoral democracy” value, according to the V-Dem project rankings. Higher scores represent higher levels of democracy.

V-Dem’s electoral democracy measure — like its other measures of democracy — draws on expert surveys about democratic features in countries worldwide. Political scientists and analysts use V-Dem data to understand trends in democratic backsliding, political party polarization and even abortion bans.

Each plotted point represents V-Dem’s electoral democracy score on a scale from 0 to 1. This number is the result of asking multiple country experts a series of questions about politics in their chosen country, and then using a sophisticated measurement model to turn these expert judgments into a single number.

What might this mean for World Cup odds? If the match results followed countries’ levels of democracy, we’d expect the Netherlands to top the group, with Senegal narrowly beating Ecuador to the second qualifying spot.

And the actual soccer results for Group A matched those expectations — on Tuesday, the Netherlands won its group, beating Qatar 2-0, while Senegal placed second with a 2-1 win over Ecuador.

Good soccer and exciting matches always make fans happy. One of the best features of the World Cup is the potential for sporting upsets — and that’s what happened in Group C. These results were an upset both in the soccer world and in the world where footballing prowess follows quality of democracy.

Saudi Arabia, the World Cup competitor with the lowest levels of democracy, managed to shock Argentina by winning 2-1. Before the tournament many people had picked Argentina to win this year’s World Cup, but those predictions are now being hastily revised.

Would democracy triumph?

Building on The Washington Post’s tournament bracket and considering the V-Dem electoral democracy measures for all of the teams that made it to the Round of 16, we’d expect to see something like this:

In the games for the Round of 16, we’d see the Netherlands (0.86) beat the United States (0.82), and Australia (0.85) beat Argentina (0.82). The matchup between those two winners in the quarterfinals is a close call, with Netherlands just barely ahead of Australia. If we consider the standard deviations for V-Dem’s measures of liberal democracy (model estimates that help to account for some uncertainty), the outcome would probably be a draw.

On Sunday, the games would not be close, with England (borrowing the United Kingdom’s V-Dem measure, 0.86) beating Senegal (0.71) and France (0.87) beating Poland (0.59).

In this fantasy world, where football results follow levels of democracy, Switzerland (0.885) would probably end up the tournament winner. Even if they win this World Cup of Democracy, however, the Swiss are still behind their fellow Europeans, Denmark (0.908), who were eliminated after losing to Australia in the group stage. According to the most recent V-Dem data, from 2021, Denmark has the highest level of electoral democracy of any country in the world, let alone World Cup contenders.

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This exercise isn’t entirely serious. Democracy isn’t a zero-sum competition, like a sporting tournament. Researchers have found links between democracy and the performance of men’s national soccer teams, but democracy doesn’t determine sporting outcomes.

A knockout format like the World Cup also exaggerates small differences in our estimates of democracy that can result from measurement error. But envisioning this type of World Cup does help us imagine a world where we can draw as much joy from improving the quality of democracy as we do from sporting success.

Chris Hanretty (@chrishanretty) is a professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. His most recent book is A Court of Specialists: Judicial Behavior on the UK Supreme Court (Oxford University Press, 2020).

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