INTRODUCTION & SUMMARY
In this post, I try to measure recent team over/underperformance using FIFA World Rankings and the The Guardian’s List of the World’s 100 Best Players. I do this by 1) calculating each team’s level of “superstardom,” and 2) correlating this variable with FIFA World Rank measures. From this analysis, I investigate whether each World Cup team with at least one player in the Top 100 has exceeded or failed to meet expectations with its endowed talent base. A few highlights:
- Even with a team full of superstars, Spain has exceeded expectations
- Uruguay, Italy, and the Netherlands have performed in-line with expectations
- France has underperformed relative to both expectations and teams with comparable talent
- England seems to have (surprisingly) exceeded expectations
I find the last bullet point particularly interesting, especially considering the scrutiny that the media tends to place on the English national team. Perhaps these findings suggest that there is a disconnect between “expectations” defined by objectively measured standards and those based on public sentiment.
For my analysis, I draw on the Guardian’s List of the World’s Best Players and the most recent FIFA World Rankings (released in December 2013). Because I rely on interval (i.e., based on a point tally) rather than ordinal measures (i.e., integer rank), it’s worth taking a look at how both measures are calculated by The Guardian/FIFA:
- 2013 Guardian Top 100: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2013/dec/20/the-guardian-2013-world-top-100-footballers
- FIFA World Rank: http://www.fifa.com/worldranking/procedureandschedule/menprocedure/
Using the Guardian’s 100 Best Players list, I start by defining each national team’s “Superstar Index” as the aggregate point tally from players of that particular nationality. Figures 1a and 1b illustrate the Superstar Index (in descending order), along with the Player Average (plotted on the secondary y-axis), for the World Cup teams with at least one player in the Top 100:
On their own, these figures may be interesting, but they don’t seem to mean much (I found myself asking the “So What” Question immediately after putting the charts together).
The Superstar Index, however, becomes useful if we want to know if a team has successfully translated its stock of superstardom into desired match results, and ultimately, a high World Rank. Because the FIFA ranking system is based on recent match results, the natural next step is to correlate each team’s Superstar Index with its corresponding World Rank Point Tally (see Figure 2). This ultimately allows us to determine whether a team has over- or underperformed given its endowed talent base.
Looking at Figure 2, we find a positive correlation between Superstar Index and FIFA World Rank. In other words, teams with a higher stock of talent tend to be ranked higher. No surprises there.
The chart, however, also suggests that the Superstar Index alone does not fully explain the variation in World Rank among the countries listed. If it were, we would expect to see the bubbles align perfectly with the dotted regression line. To be more precise, we can refer to the of R-squared statistic (you can learn more about the statistic here). That is, with an R-squared statistic of 0.633, the Superstar Index explains 63% of the variation in World Rank Points. Note that at this point, we can only speculate on what drives the remaining 37%–possible factors include management, coaching, and team chemistry.
The dotted regression line becomes extremely useful as it illustrates the expected number of World Rank Points for a given Superstar Index. For instance, if a team had a Superstar Index of 1,400, we would expect it to have a World Rank Point Tally of 1,300.
Taking this concept further, we can argue that the teams with bubbles lying above the dotted line have accrued more World Rank Points than the number forecasted by the Superstar Index, suggesting that these teams have overperformed relative their respective talent base. On the other hand, teams with bubbles lying below the dotted line have accumulated fewer World Rank Points than expected, suggesting that these teams have underperformed. With these explanations in mind, we can generate the following insights:
- Spain has surpassed expectations… Even with a team brimming with talent, Spain is rated higher than its Superstar Index would suggest. This makes sense, however, if we keep in the mind that the team has both a top-notch manager and excellent team chemistry (a majority of members play together at the club level–think Barcelona and Real Madrid)
- …and so has Portugal. While management and team chemistry may have played a role, a more compelling argument seems to be that Cristiano Ronaldo has been the driving force behind Portugal exceeding expectations. Notice how Portugal’s World Rank Tally is in line with Argentina’s, even though Argentina has far more attacking options in Messi, Aguero, Higuain, di Maria, and Tevez
- Uruguay, Italy, and the Netherlands have performed in-line with expectations. While these teams have their fair share of superstar talent, it’s worth noting that a lot of it is skewed towards their offense (Suarez-Forlan for Uruguay, Balotelli-Rossi for Italy, and van Persie-Robben for Holland). As a result, while these teams may receive a great deal of public attention, they don’t seem to be as well-rounded as teams such as Spain and Germany)
- France has failed to meet expectations. It’s hard to fault the French for feeling let down by their national team. According to the Superstar Index, France has a talent base comparable to that of Uruguay, Italy, and the Netherlands, but has a ranking in-line with that of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Ivory Coast. It looks like Didier Deschamps will need to find a way to get more out of his players in 2014
- England has surprisingly exceeded expectations. This finding is surprising if we consider just how much scrutiny the public places on the national team. If we are to take the Guardian’s Top 100 list as an objective measure of team talent, we find that England’s talent base is far from impressive. Perhaps these findings suggest that there is a disconnect between “expectations” defined by objectively measured standards and those based on public sentiment
Of course, there are inherent limitations in the measures used in this analysis. I elaborate on these limitations below:
- FIFA World Rankings. Point weightings by confederation and “match significance” can be considered arbitrary or outdated, especially if there has been a recent structural shift in the relative quality of play by variable (e.g., the AFC may have become more competitive in recent years)
- Superstar Index. That the index only accounts for players in the Guardian’s Best 100 makes it impossible to factor in the relative quality of unranked players by team. Assuming that all non-ranked players are the same seems unrealistic