Maybe the World Cup Wasn’t the Best Example

In our recent New York Times column, we talked about what makes people good at what they do.

As one example, we conjectured (based on some academic work done by others) that people born in the early months of the year would be overrepresented on World Cup rosters. The underlying theory is that in 1997, FIFA made January 1 the cutoff for determining ages in all international soccer competitions. If this rule had an important impact in determining who made the national youth soccer teams, then these early selection rules would play out to more long run success at the highest levels of soccer. The academic evidence is that these national teams are overwhelmingly made up of players born early in the calendar year, even on the age 21 and under teams, where a few months of physical development isn’t likely to make a big difference. A commenter on our blog, Bill Loyd, has done some hard work to gather data and argues that for past World Cups and for a few of the 2006 squads that he found, he doesn’t see the pattern we predict.

Why might this be the case? For the earlier World Cups, it might not be very surprising that no pattern is there because the FIFA rule didn’t come in until 1997. More fundamentally, the FIFA selection rules and the rules that different countries use for play within the county differ.

For instance, as many readers have emailed us, in the U.S., the age cutoffs tend to be in the summer. In Germany, the within country age cutoff is August 1. Thus, in soccer there are two different competitive pressures at work: one pushing towards more players born in the early months and the other towards more players in the later months. Much of the study of birth-date timing focuses on the cutoff rules within countries, virtually all of them finding important effects.

In light of this difference between FIFA and country rules, the example we gave of the World Cup might not have been the best one, even though the age effect is very strong in the national youth squads that feed many World Cup teams.

This shouldn’t distract from the important fact that the evidence in the literature overwhelming supports the basic point — that across many activities, you can identify long-term effects of essentially arbitrary age cutoffs early in life.

Perhaps a better example than the World Cup would have been the N.H.L. Here is one graph that I found on the web of the birth month of NHL hockey players versus Canadians and Americans more generally:

The black-and-white dots are the NHL players, who are much more likely to be born in January and February and much less likely to be born September-December. This is the sort of pattern that appears over and over in these sorts of studies.

Some other readers have offered a clever, very Freakonomics-y alternative explanation for these age patterns: the parents are lying about their child’s birthday. If the parents want the kid to be a star, they take an older kid and change his date of birth to make him eligible to play with younger children. While I don’t think this is actually the primary reason for what people find in these studies, is definitely worth thinking about.

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  1. Lobes says:

    From the FIFA World Cup Website:

    Italy’s Giovanni Trapattoni, meanwhile, relied on a greater power than ties, toothpaste or lucky numbers, and was often seen sprinkling holy water from a bottle provided by his sister, who is a nun. This practice caused controversy in Trapattoni’s homeland, but not nearly as much of a stir as the current France coach, Raymond Domenech’s admission that he takes players’ star signs into consideration before selecting his team.

    Scorpios, such as Robert Pires, are said to be the principal victims of this practice as, according to Domenech, “they always end up killing each other”. Nor can there be a surplus of temperamental Leos as they are liable “to try something daft”, a belief that Werder Bremen’s Johan Micoud blames for his omission from the French FIFA World Cup squad. “He (Domenech) was my coach at U-21 level, ten years ago, but apart from that I have never been contacted by him,” said Micoud. “Maybe I am not in the squad because my star sign is Leo and there are too many in the French team.”

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  2. Lobes says:

    From the FIFA World Cup Website:

    Italy’s Giovanni Trapattoni, meanwhile, relied on a greater power than ties, toothpaste or lucky numbers, and was often seen sprinkling holy water from a bottle provided by his sister, who is a nun. This practice caused controversy in Trapattoni’s homeland, but not nearly as much of a stir as the current France coach, Raymond Domenech’s admission that he takes players’ star signs into consideration before selecting his team.

    Scorpios, such as Robert Pires, are said to be the principal victims of this practice as, according to Domenech, “they always end up killing each other”. Nor can there be a surplus of temperamental Leos as they are liable “to try something daft”, a belief that Werder Bremen’s Johan Micoud blames for his omission from the French FIFA World Cup squad. “He (Domenech) was my coach at U-21 level, ten years ago, but apart from that I have never been contacted by him,” said Micoud. “Maybe I am not in the squad because my star sign is Leo and there are too many in the French team.”

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  3. harlant says:

    The article about whether a star is made to me is extremely true. I play soccer for a competitive soccer club and because of the cut off date I am allowed to play with the older team (the players which are in my grade-level) .At the same time since the cut off date is August 30 and I was born on August 26, it allows me to also play with the younger team. I find that when I play with the younger team, that I am not bigger by any means but that my mind is already a step ahead of them in what the next thing I should do on the field. Now, when I play with my team (the older one) I am just an average player, thinking just as fast or slow as they might be. The article above about NHL player I can not relate to but I do know cutoff dates have caused a lot of players to either move on or to be left behind. In Florida, the soccer Olympic Development Program (ODP) has a cutoff date which divides by year and this causes an issue because some players are in the higher grade level and are at a high playing level and some are in the grade below and are at a lower playing level because of the August cutoff date for travel soccer. This doesn’t seem like a huge issue until the player is in their junior or senior year and is trying out for the last time. These players that juniors but older have to try out with seniors who are getting ready to play at the college level. This doesn’t allow a fair chance for those juniors who are just as good as other juniors but not as good as those seniors. So overall I strongly agree that cutoff dates have a huge disadvantage but when is the time right to place a correct cutoff date? There will still be those who are at a disadvantage no matter what.

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  4. harlant says:

    The article about whether a star is made to me is extremely true. I play soccer for a competitive soccer club and because of the cut off date I am allowed to play with the older team (the players which are in my grade-level) .At the same time since the cut off date is August 30 and I was born on August 26, it allows me to also play with the younger team. I find that when I play with the younger team, that I am not bigger by any means but that my mind is already a step ahead of them in what the next thing I should do on the field. Now, when I play with my team (the older one) I am just an average player, thinking just as fast or slow as they might be. The article above about NHL player I can not relate to but I do know cutoff dates have caused a lot of players to either move on or to be left behind. In Florida, the soccer Olympic Development Program (ODP) has a cutoff date which divides by year and this causes an issue because some players are in the higher grade level and are at a high playing level and some are in the grade below and are at a lower playing level because of the August cutoff date for travel soccer. This doesn’t seem like a huge issue until the player is in their junior or senior year and is trying out for the last time. These players that juniors but older have to try out with seniors who are getting ready to play at the college level. This doesn’t allow a fair chance for those juniors who are just as good as other juniors but not as good as those seniors. So overall I strongly agree that cutoff dates have a huge disadvantage but when is the time right to place a correct cutoff date? There will still be those who are at a disadvantage no matter what.

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  5. Jef Simpson says:

    The birth data graph is one I prepared for my website for a study on the NHL that was done at the Cosmic Data-Bank. People steal my work and use it without any mention of its source. There is hardly anything one can do about it but I am starting to incorporate my website name into each graphic; getting wiser as I get older!
    The Cosmic Data-Bank has just celebrated its 20th anniversary. It is not an astrology site but for those who are only trained and not educated it may seem like an astrology site. The connections between humans and their solar system is largely unexplored because of astrology and its reputation as entertainment. Astrology did link us to the solar system and while most of the belief system of astrologers is as believable to me as the belief systems of those who believe in gods, our connection to the solar system is undeniable. It is our greater environment. Describing the connection is something that is attempted in earnest at the Cosmic Data-Bank and the results to date have been very encouraging. Yours truly, Jef Simpson, B.Sc., M.Sc., Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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  6. Jef Simpson says:

    The birth data graph is one I prepared for my website for a study on the NHL that was done at the Cosmic Data-Bank. People steal my work and use it without any mention of its source. There is hardly anything one can do about it but I am starting to incorporate my website name into each graphic; getting wiser as I get older!
    The Cosmic Data-Bank has just celebrated its 20th anniversary. It is not an astrology site but for those who are only trained and not educated it may seem like an astrology site. The connections between humans and their solar system is largely unexplored because of astrology and its reputation as entertainment. Astrology did link us to the solar system and while most of the belief system of astrologers is as believable to me as the belief systems of those who believe in gods, our connection to the solar system is undeniable. It is our greater environment. Describing the connection is something that is attempted in earnest at the Cosmic Data-Bank and the results to date have been very encouraging. Yours truly, Jef Simpson, B.Sc., M.Sc., Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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