How to Catch World Cup Fever

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One billion people watched the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil, roughly 10 times more than the Super Bowl. (Photo: Danilo Borges/Wikimedia Commons)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “How to Catch World Cup Fever.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

For soccer fans, it’s easy. For the rest of us? Not so much, especially since the U.S. team didn’t qualify. So here’s what to watch for even if you have no team to root for. Because the World Cup isn’t just a gargantuan sporting event; it’s a microcosm of human foibles and (yep) economic theory brought to life.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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Roger BENNETT: The World Cup is a global eclipse, it’s been called, that just casts its shadow across the whole world for an entire month at the same time. Everywhere apart from America.

That’s Roger Bennett. What’s he do for a living?

BENNETT: My wife asks me the same question. I sit in front of a television, watch a lot of football and shout at that television thinking it will impact events as they’re unfurling thousands of miles from me.

Bennett grew up in Liverpool. But he’s pretty American by now; in fact, he just became a citizen.

BENNETT: I arrived here right before the 1994 World Cup.

Stephen DUBNER: Ah. You mark it by the World Cups, then. Yes?

BENNETT: My whole life, whenever someone gives me a year, I immediately back it up to the nearest World Cup and I’m able to locate myself, my emotional memory by that nearest World Cup.

Bennett is co-host of Men in Blazers, a podcast-and-TV enterprise devoted to the sport known as … well, it depends. Here’s another Brit-turned-American, Stefan Szymanski:

Stefan SZYMANSKI: Well, everybody in America calls it soccer. And a lot of people think that this is a word that comes from the United States, but actually it’s an English word coined in the 1890’s at Oxford University and up until the 1970’s it was a perfectly acceptable word. However, in recent years, Brits have decided that they think soccer is a terrible word and that you Americans should stop using it and start calling it football instead. And that’s completely absurd.

Okay, back to Roger Bennett. He’s also the host of a new podcast about the 1998 U.S. men’s national team.

BENNETT: One minute, they thought they were going to win the World Cup. The next minute, they were humiliated.”

This new podcast about the old team is called American Fiasco. But even Roger Bennett, a soccer savant, couldn’t have known how well that title would fit this year’s U.S. team. For the first time since 1986, this year’s team failed to qualify for the World Cup finals. This did not go over well in the American soccer community.

Taylor TWELLMAN: This is an utter embarrassment.

In its final qualifier, the U.S. needed only a tie.

TWELLMAN: With the amount of money that’s in Major League Soccer and in this sport, you can’t get a draw? A tie?

It needed a tie against Trinidad and Tobago.

BENNETT: The big takeaway is we should stop playing two countries at the same time. Never again should we play Trinidad and Tobago. One at a time. Let’s take baby steps.

Bennett’s kidding, of course. Trinidad and Tobago is really one country, whose population is about one-sixth of New Jersey’s. So: yes, another American fiasco. Though it may be even worse for the American broadcaster carrying this year’s World Cup. Yes, there are plenty of people in the U.S. who’ll be rooting for France and Mexico; Brazil and Germany; even first-time qualifiers Panama and Iceland. But Fox Sports, without an American team to show during the month-long tournament, has had to figure out a clever way to attract a domestic audience to tune in to foreign teams. So they unleashed a marketing campaign with 23andMe called “Root for Your Roots.” That said, even if you’re an American with little interest in soccer, there are so many reasons to catch World Cup fever this year — and we’ll ask some economists why. Yes, economists.

SZYMANSKI: One reason is that actually probably more people care in developing nations about this national soccer team than the state of the national economy.

Toby MOSKOWITZ: Well, one thing that we looked at was the home-field advantage. And we thought, Well, let’s put it to the data and see if in fact it’s true.

Luigi ZINGALES: If you are in swimming, you need to have a country rich enough to have swimming pools. But in soccer, you can be trained on a piece of dirt with a ball.

And then there’s the fact that, with the tournament held in Russia, several time zones ahead of us, it’s simply a great chance to shake up your daily routine.

BENNETT: What an alluring possibility for any American. You know, if you are in a bar at 7 o’clock in the morning with a Budweiser, society frowns on that, right Stephen?

DUBNER: Yes.

BENNETT: Yeah. But if you’re in that same bar, with that same Budweiser and on the television, Spain are playing Portugal in the opening group game of the World Cup, what are you?

DUBNER: You’re a football fan.

BENNETT: You’re a football fan.

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Every four years, soccer teams from across the globe gather to compete for the sport’s biggest trophy, the World Cup. Historically, the Americans have been brilliant, winning three of the past seven World Cups, never finishing worse than third. The American women, that is. The men’s national team? Not so hot. The U.S. has never finished higher than eighth — except for 1930, the very first World Cup, when we finished third. And this year, as noted, we failed to make the 32-team field.

But don’t worry; the rest of the world will hardly notice. The World Cup is a staggering phenomenon: the 2014 men’s final, with Germany beating Argentina in Brazil, was watched by 1 billion people — about 10 times more than a Super Bowl. The sport has been growing in the U.S., among players and fans; attendance at Major League Soccer games last year averaged 22,000. Some people are concerned the American failure to qualify for this year’s World Cup could endanger that growth. Roger Bennett thinks that’s nonsense:

BENNETT: You know, when England do badly, it’s bad. We feel bad. But we live. No one, in the wake of it, is saying, “Oh my god. What’s this going to do to the future of soccer in England?” Italy didn’t qualify for this World Cup, nor Chile, nor did the Netherlands. No one’s been like, “It’s going to affect the popularity of the very game.” I think Americans are going to realize they just love the World Cup for its own sake, not purely because of the self-interest of the American team.

There are, after all, so many story lines in this year’s World Cup:

BENNETT: Ronaldo, Messi, the heroic Icelandic story, the kind of Pro Bowl roster of the Belgian team. Spoiler alert, one of the three winners — Brazil, Spain, or Germany — one of these three is going to win it. You’ve got the African challenge, you got the intricacies of some of the incredibly organized, passionate teams coming from Asia. South Korea: wow.

Another reason to watch: familial bonding. That’s how it works in my house.

SOLOMON Dubner: My name is Solomon Dubner. I am a co-host of Footy for Two and I’m the biggest and youngest benefactor of nepotism in the podcasting world.

Yes, that’s my son.

SOLOMON: Nice to see you.

Footy for Two is the soccer podcast we make together. Basically, Solomon extols the virtues of his favorite club team, Barcelona, and schools me in the intricacies of the world’s most popular sport.

SOLOMON: The 4-4-2 is the traditional, English, direct football formation associated with more physicality than technical ability. In Spain it’s kind of looked down on; the most technical, tactical-intrinsic league.

STEPHEN: It’s looked down as kind of too muscular?

SOLOMON: Lower-class football, not enough brains or technical ability. But Valverde has made it beautiful, I think we were playing beautiful football today…

Anyway, he’s really looking forward to the World Cup.

SOLOMON: I’m 10 for excitement, but I would be a higher 10 or an 11 if the U.S. was in it. In Mother Russia.

STEPHEN: In Mother Russia.

SOLOMON: The homeland.

STEPHEN: Whose homeland?

SOLOMON: I think America’s at this point.

STEPHEN: And who would you say is the outright favorite to win the World Cup?

SOLOMON: There are four teams I put in that category: Spain. They have the pedigree, they have a great team. France. Great team, I think they’re too young. Brazil. They have a great team, great coach named Tite. And then the obvious favorites are Germany. They have a great team. They all know each other well. Joachim Low is a great coach and they are the reigning champions, which could go for or against them.

But Solomon, like Roger Bennett, appreciates the many story lines beyond the winning.

SOLOMON: Iceland is going to be there, which is fun. Everyone probably knows how excited people were about Iceland in the Euros, which we were at: at one game, eight percent of Iceland’s population was in the stadium watching them play. It’s pretty awesome.

Awesome perhaps, but also intriguing. How does Iceland, a country with a population of roughly 330,000 people, make it to the World Cup, when the U.S., with nearly 330 million, doesn’t?

BENNETT: They have hardwired their country to produce phenomenal collective football players. They invested heavily in training facilities. They invested heavily, intentionally, in elite coaching. They have a ridiculous number of elite coaches per capita.

DUBNER: I know the manager of the national team, at least until recently, was also a part-time dentist.

BENNETT: He was. Heimir Hallgrímsson. A very good friend of mine.

DUBNER: Have you ever had him do any work on you?

BENNETT: You know, I’ve watched him do root canal, and I asked him, “Why do you keep, as an international manager, keep doing part-time dentistry?” And he said, “The other managers blow off steam by hunting. Other guys gamble.” He said, “I do root canals.” Like I was a moron.

So Iceland’s presence in the World Cup can be explained by shrewd investment in coaching, and shrewd steam-blowing by its manager. But could it also be explained by economic theory? Stefan Szymanski is one of many economists around the world who study soccer. He’s co-author of the excellent 2009 book Soccernomics — nice title there, friend-o — which has been updated for this World Cup, as well as a new e-book called It’s Football, Not Soccer (and Vice Versa).

DUBNER: I understand you used to write about things like the cost of garbage collection and labor-market hierarchies. Why’d you stop that and how do you get away with this?

SZYMANSKI: Nobody read my papers on garbage collection, as wonderful as they were and everybody seemed interested in any old garbage I write about soccer.

One of Szymanski’s recent papers is called “Convergence vs. The Middle-Income Trap: The Case of Global Soccer.”

SZYMANSKI: So convergence is the idea that poorer countries will end up catching up economically with richer countries simply because they offer, in a sense, better investment opportunities.

DUBNER: So that’s an economic theory, what is the evidence that that theory is at least somewhat true?

SZYMANSKI: Well there’s good evidence at the level of, say the United States itself. So there’s been convergence amongst the states of the United States over more than 100 years. There’s also good support for this amongst developed nations and the nations of the Far East. Where this falls down, though, has tended to be some of the poorer nations, particularly in Africa.

DUBNER: And can you just give a sense of what sort of, I guess, magnitude of convergence or to what degree should convergence be complete?

SZYMANSKI: Well, a lot of countries start a very, very long way behind. So even China, with growth rates of 10 percent-plus for 20-plus years, they’re still considerably poorer on a per-capita basis than the United States. So this is a sort of process that we’re talking about over decades and possibly centuries rather than in terms of 10 years or so.

DUBNER: And you argue that the sector in which convergence between nations seems very, very, very strong is manufacturing.

SZYMANSKI: Right, and one reason for that might be that manufacturing is something that is easily copied and transferred across the world. And often you can buy the equipment and machinery that you need to make it happen. Whereas some of the more intangible things about education and social structures, those things are harder to copy and take much longer to catch up with.

DUBNER: And what does all this have to do with, or have in common with, soccer?

SZYMANSKI: Well, most studies of convergence are about G.D.P. per-capita income. And that’s one of the few statistics for which we have figures for every country in the world going back many decades. And to study convergence, you need many decades of data. What other statistics do we have that would similarly have for all nations of the world? Well, probably the results of international soccer games is the only other thing for which we have complete records going back 60, 70 years.

DUBNER: And so talk about looking at historic G.D.P. data and historical soccer data through the lens of convergence, and what did the results tell you?

SZYMANSKI: Well, first thing to say about comparing soccer data with G.D.P. data is soccer data is way better. It’s far more reliable. We know who won the game and there’s no real argument about that. Whereas G.D.P. — boy, even for developed nations, there’s always some margin of error. But what we found when we looked for convergence in the soccer data was something that has never really been found in the G.D.P. data, which is something called unconditional convergence. Which is just to say, it’s very clear in the data that the countries with the worse results are getting better, are catching up with the countries with the better results, and that’s regardless of any other factors at all. That’s not something you find with G.D.P.

DUBNER: So you’re saying it’s easier to catch up in soccer than in your economy. Why’s that?

SZYMANSKI: One reason is that actually probably more people care in developing nations about this national soccer team than the state of the national economy.

DUBNER: How can that be? I mean, really?

SZYMANSKI: The soccer team is something concrete and real, it’s there on your TV, you’re watching it. Whereas the national economy is a sort of abstract concept. Does anybody come home saying, “Oh I did a great job for the national economy today, I feel really good about that.”

DUBNER: No, but you do come home saying, “I don’t have enough money to pay my light bill,” right?

SZYMANSKI: Right. But that then depends on the nature of the economic structure and the nature of the economic relationships. I think many of these underlying economic conditions have a significant impact on whether you can get goods and services, and most of that is not really relevant to the development of the national soccer team. The players play, you see who the good ones are, they immediately — you don’t get an example where the president of the country pays a bribe so that his son can play on the national soccer team. That’s not the sort of thing that’s going to work.

DUBNER: How does that contribute to soccer being easier to improve?

SZYMANSKI: I think people are focused and if the team does well, they know who’s responsible for that. And likewise, when you do badly, I think it’s difficult to conceal the fact and action must be taken, heads must roll. So there’s a natural process of weeding out poor performance and encouraging good performance. If you want to build a soccer team that’s going to be internationally competitive, you need to find the finest players in your country, and that’s a process of selection that is not quite so trivial, I think. And if you want to see any examples of countries where that’s turned out to prove really challenging, if not impossible, think of India and China.

DUBNER: You know, I wanted to ask you: India and China have a combined population of about 2.7 billion. Neither of them are in this World Cup. China has qualified I think for exactly one World Cup in its history. India has never played in one, and yet they have more people in their countries than the rest of the 32 qualifying teams combined by more than a billion.

SZYMANSKI: So it turns out that having the raw materials is not as simple as it sounds, right? See, it’s certainly true that nations that are more populous tend to win more games than nations that are less populous. But clearly translating that potential into competitive teams is actually a little bit more challenging than one might think.

DUBNER: All right, you’ve found that convergence is happening in soccer, perhaps more robustly than in national economies. So how, if at all, will this inform the way you watch the World Cup and perhaps should inform the way the rest of us watch it?

SZYMANSKI: Well, one of the things I think is firstly, take account of the economic characteristics of the nations that are competing. Those disparities matter and that has an effect on what the likely outcome will be. But then also think about who’s getting better and who the dark horses might be. So for example one team I would think a lot of us are now looking at this this summer is Egypt, which is, again, not a team that has traditionally done that well, obviously an African nation as well. But they look like they are producing quite a lot of good players. But I think we’ll see some interesting teams like that come through, and perhaps produce some surprising results.

International soccer is, historically, full of surprising results. Including the very site of the World Cup, and how the site is chosen by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body. The 2022 tournament, for example, will be held in Qatar, a tiny country with a nominal soccer presence and a summer climate so inhospitable that the tournament had to be shifted to wintertime, which will disrupt league calendars around the world. Very curious. And what about this year’s site, Russia? It’s not on the list of most brotherly nations these days. How did it get the World Cup?

SZYMANSKI: Well I’d, like to tell you a lot in great detail about this, but the computers on which all the records of their bid were stored were mysteriously lost by the Russians when FIFA conducted an investigation into alleged corruption surrounding the bids, and Russia was one of the few countries acquitted of any corruption largely because all the evidence had been destroyed. Most people believe that Russia secured this by corrupt means. That certainly wouldn’t be a first. We know pretty much corruption took place in securing the 2010, 2006 World Cups and even more the 2022 World Cup which is due to take place in Qatar.

FIFA is infamous for cronyism and corruption on a grand scale. Occasionally, this leads to repercussions.

CBC broadcaster: Charges and arrest of FIFA officials. Fourteen people including high-ranking officials, leaders of regional bodies. In total, 47 different counts that include racketeering and money laundering, and the New York news conference suggested this has been going on for two decades.

SZYMANSKI: There are many forms of corruption which operate in FIFA but in terms of securing the World Cup, usually it seems to have been a matter of money in envelopes at meetings with representatives of small federations. Remember, the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis has one vote in the FIFA Congress just like the United States or Germany. And hence there are lots of small countries with a lot of power and seemingly people who are less than scrupulous with how they make their decisions.

So the awarding of the World Cup is susceptible to corruption. What about the actual World Cup matches?

Simon KUPER: So I think the World Cup, given that it’s in the grasp of FIFA, is very susceptible to corruption.

That’s Simon Kuper, a Financial Times columnist and Szymanski’s Soccernomics co-author.

KUPER A lot of soccer leagues are susceptible. So in China, or Bulgaria, or Greece, there’s a lot of match-fixing that goes on. And countries really want to win the World Cup. So I do not find it unimaginable that some countries bribe FIFA officials to ensure that they get the right referee and win a World Cup match. In 2002, you know there was this shocking game really, South Korea beat Italy and the referee seemed incredibly biased against Italy.

South Korea, we should say, was a co-host of the 2002 World Cup, along with Japan.

KUPER: He withheld a penalty, he disallowed a good goal, he sent an Italian player off. And I thought, Well, it’s just, you know, referee being swayed by the home crowd, there’s nothing kind of venal about it. But that guy, Byron Moreno, an Ecuadorian, eight years later he was arrested arriving at J.F.K. Airport in New York and found to have a lot of heroin concealed in his underwear. And then I thought, you know what, the guy’s a criminal. So who chose a criminal to officiate a World Cup match to make sure that the hosts won? And that leads you on to the belief — I’m not normally a conspiracy theorist, but I do think that there is quite a bit of skullduggery in World Cups. The easiest way to fix a result is to find a compliant referee.

DUBNER: Now, presumably, one easy way to get around that would be to assign referees, let’s say, last minute and/or secretly, yes?

KUPER: There is a bit of that. But you might have a powerful guy who says, “Look, I really want to know who the referee is going to be, tell me. And you tell him and then he finds the referee, etc. You can also fix teams because there’s an enormous amount of money bet on every single World Cup match. So it’s worth the match fixer’s while to bribe a team to lose or to achieve a certain score. Often the bribe will be: “You must lose by three goals or more. And here is $20,000 for each of you to make that happen.” This can be appealing to journeyman players in some of the weaker teams who probably know, “Well, we’re going to lose that game anyway,“ or, “We’re already knocked out of the World Cup.” So Declan Hill, he’s a Canadian writer, has produced very compelling evidence that Brazil’s three-nil victory over Ghana in 2006 was fixed. The Brazilian players knew nothing about it, but Hill writes with quite a lot of evidence that some Ghanaian players were fixed to lose by three.

There’s also the issue of how the World Cup bracket is drawn up, especially which group a team gets placed into for the first round. This has a big effect on that team’s likelihood of advancing into the later rounds. Consider this year’s draw:

KUPER: Russia’s first-round group — Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt — has been calculated as I think the weakest first-round group in the history of the tournament. Is it an amazing coincidence? Or did somebody take care of that?

BENNETT: They organized the groups by pulling balls out of pots.

Roger Bennett again.

BENNETT: And then they organized which four teams play against each other in which cities in which order. My partner in Men in Blazers, Michael Davies, cut his teeth on quiz games, working with the great Merv Griffin, and Davo always says, at this stage in our technological reality, if you’re still using balls for any kind of a draw — be it a lottery draw or a World Cup draw — you’re doing it for a reason, and that reason is to fix the draw. You can heat the balls. You can freeze the ball so when they’re to the human touch, “Oh yes, and Russia, oh my lord, is in the easiest group!”

DUBNER: If Russia were to win the World Cup, what would you say are the odds that someone intervened with a briefcase of cash, a loaded weapon, etc., etc.?

BENNETT: Russia are a hapless, pathetic soccer team. I’m saying that as a guy born in England. I know hapless, pathetic soccer teams because England more often than not fit into that category. The World Cup is an incredibly grinding tournament where you need tenacity. You need skill. You need incredible leadership. You need elements of luck. Of the 17 things you need to win it, Russia has maybe two, arguably, and I’m being very very kind. They will not win it. And if they do win, in your crazy scenario — I think America is more likely to win the 2018 World Cup than Russia.

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Luigi Zingales is a professor of finance at the University of Chicago. Among his specialties: the effect of corruption and cronyism on the economy. He’s also a soccer fan; has been since he was a kid.

ZINGALES: In fact I cried when my favorite team lost a derby, and my mother banned me to watch soccer for a year as a punishment.

For Zingales, one appeal of the sport is how egalitarian it is.

ZINGALES: If you are in swimming, you need to have a country rich enough to have swimming pools because otherwise you can’t really compete effectively. But in soccer, you can be trained on a piece of dirt with a ball and still being a Maradona. And you see the countries like Cameroon or Nigeria, they’re certainly not rich by any standard, but they have phenomenal soccer teams.

We asked Zingales for his view on host-country Russia’s weak first-round opposition in this year’s World Cup.

ZINGALES: If there are rules that allow the hosting team to choose its opponents, that’s fine, as long as they’re transparent. But if they are done by the people inside the organization, it’s not fine, and it’s set up a tone at the top that will reverberate down the line. And I think that this is the problem with the soccer organization in my view.

So Zingales is no fan of FIFA. But his antipathy has an economic angle.

ZINGALES: Soccer is so popular around the world that there’s basically no comparison in terms of sport. And has a caché, a brand value, really, really difficult to tarnish. In fact, in spite of all the scandals we’ve read about, people still love soccer and it’s not very much affected. So I think that having a monopoly of that size with no real controls, because the organization is not really accountable to anybody in a serious way, I think inevitably leads to favoritism and some form of institutional corruption. Whether this takes the form of explicit violation of the rules, or takes the form of an extreme favoritism at some level is irrelevant. The point is that it’s not a fair game. And for a game that would like to be fair and for a game as I said as the beauty of being intrinsically a fairly level playing-field game, having the organization that is unfair is I think a capital crime.

By this time, we’ve probably made you fairly suspicious that there will be some shadiness in at least a few World Cup matches. Especially involving the Russian team. But let’s say the Russian team — or some other team — does do much better than expected, or does have a referee’s call go their way. Is that necessarily the result of corruption or cronyism? Maybe not. For this, we turn to yet another soccer-loving economist.

MOSKOWITZ: I’m Toby Moskowitz. I’m a professor of finance and economics at Yale University.

DUBNER: Yes, so you have won a really prestigious academic award as one of the top finance scholars in the world. Why do you mess around with sports?

MOSKOWITZ: It’s called tenure. They can’t fire me. So, a lot of what I study is behavioral economics, and how people make decisions when faced with a lot of uncertainty. Sports is just a really rich field to look at those kinds of things.

Moskowitz is co-author of a book called Scorecasting, which takes an empirical look at some of the standard decision-making in sports. In basketball, does it really make sense to bench your star player if he’s in foul trouble? In football, does it really make sense to punt on 4th and 1 from your own 40? How about icing the kicker — does that work? And does defense really win championships, like the cliché says? In a lot of cases, Moskowitz found, the conventional wisdom turns out to be not so wise. We’ll hear more about that in a whole sports series we’re just starting to work on now. But some conventional wisdom is pretty true.

MOSKOWITZ: Well one thing that we looked at was the home-field advantage. This is talked about throughout sports and almost every sport. And we thought, “Well, let’s put it to the data and see if in fact it’s true.” And that’s something that is true not only in every sport but every sport no matter where it’s played, what country, and throughout history over time. So that is true, that is a fact. There is a strong home-field advantage.

Truth be told, this wasn’t so hard to figure out. You basically look at a team’s winning percentage at home versus on the road. There were, however, some interesting wrinkles. For one, there’s a large variance in the size of the advantage among different sports. In baseball, for instance?

MOSKOWITZ: So, slightly better than 50-50. A clear advantage but not a huge one.

But in soccer:

MOSKOWITZ: In soccer, and this is true worldwide — so if you’re looking South American leagues, leagues in Russia, Australia even the U.S. — you’re talking like 65, 67 percent.

This leads to a couple questions. No. 1: why is there such a difference among sports? And No. 2, which might help explain No. 1: what are the causes of home-field advantage? If you are even a little bit a of a sports fan, you’ve likely heard a lot of different explanations. For instance: the enthusiasm of the fans improves the performance of the athletes.

MOSKOWITZ: This is I think the No. 1 thing that most fans think when they think of the home-field advantage, which is, their adrenaline increases because the fans are pumping them up. Conversely if you’re on the road, people are yelling terrible things at you, questioning the chastity of your sister and your mother and all kinds of things.

So how solid is this theory?

MOSKOWITZ: Doesn’t seem to be true.

And what’s the evidence that fan enthusiasm isn’t driving home-field advantage?

MOSKOWITZ: So take basketball. You look at free-throw shooting, where you take everything else out of the game. There’s no defense. The referees are removed at that point as well. The player’s at the free throw line. The only interaction is between a crowd that’s either dead silent and hoping you’ll hit the free throw if you’re the home player, or there’s screaming, banging those thunder sticks. And what we find is in professional sports and college sports, the same player shoots exactly the same percentage at the free-throw line whether he is on the road or at home. Just doesn’t seem to have an effect.

How about the idea that teams are built to take advantage of their home field, like stacking a baseball team with left-handed sluggers if the stadium has a shallow right-field wall?

MOSKOWITZ: We just didn’t find any evidence of it.

How about the weather? Like when teams from warm-weather cities have to play in the cold? Nope; no evidence of that either. Okay, how about the effects of travel itself — not sleeping as well or eating as well. To test this idea, Moskowitz looked at games where the traveling team doesn’t actually travel.

MOSKOWITZ: My favorite example is when the Lakers play the Clippers. They play in the same stadium. The only difference is they change the decals on the court and the season-ticket holders who are there. If you look at those same-city games, versus games where, let’s say, you’ve got Miami traveling to Seattle, there’s just no difference in the home-field advantage.

So what does account for home-field advantage? Moskowitz did find that in certain circumstances — back-to-back road games in the N.B.A., for instance — fatigue does matter.

MOSKOWITZ: On the second night, if you played the previous night, your chances of winning go from say — let’s say there are two even teams, so it’s 50-50; it would drop to about 36 percent.

But that effect, Moskowitz found, can only explain 10 or 15 percent of the home-field advantage in those cases. So what’s the real story? Here’s the real story.

MOSKOWITZ: In 2007, there were a couple of soccer riots — well, as there typically are in Europe. This happened to occur in Italy, and the Italian government banned fans from 21 matches. And a couple of Swedish economists collected the data and examined the home-field advantage in these 21 games where there were literally no fans. All there were were coaches, players and the referees. And what they found was, that the home-field advantage all but disappeared, when the fans were gone. But what was interesting is the players didn’t play any better or worse. Their accuracy of passes, their mistakes, their tackles, their fouls — all those things were about the same. So whether the fans were there or not, these players weren’t affected.

DUBNER: So this would seem to pose a riddle. You’re saying home-field advantage does exist in all sports. It’s highest in soccer but in a kind of natural experiment in which fans were banned, the home-field advantage essentially disappeared. Which would seem to suggest that the fans are influencing the game somehow. But I guess not in the way that we might typically think — is that what you’re getting at?

MOSKOWITZ: That’s exactly right. That basically the fans had a marked impact on the success of the home team, yet the home players didn’t seem to play any worse when the fans weren’t there. Nor do they seem to play any better when the fans were there. So what’s going on? Well there’s really only one other participant who could possibly be influenced by the fans and that is the referee.

Now to state something like that obviously sounds controversial, and you better provide some proof. So what a couple of economists did was they gathered data on soccer. This was in the Spanish La Liga, and they looked at a very unique feature of soccer games, which was the extra injury time. Now what’s unique about this is it’s a part of the game where the players have literally no influence. This is the point in the game where what the head referee is supposed to do is add up all the substitutions throughout the game, and all the injuries and all the fouls, and add some extra time.

Now what was neat about this was, the data was gathered I think in the 90’s and early 2000’s, and at that time, the head referee did not have to announce how much time he was putting on the clock. It was not posted anywhere and not even the other referees knew what it was. He would just blow his whistle at some point declare the game was over. And what was really interesting is if the home team was behind by one goal, the amount of extra injury time the head referee added was more than twice as large as when the home team was ahead by a goal. And you can see what might be going on here which is, they’re shortening the game to preserve the win for the team. Or they’re lengthening it to give the home team a better chance to tie.

But here’s the thing: Moskowitz isn’t saying that referees are cheating in favor of the home team. Or that they’re even consciously making calls in their favor. It’s subtler than that — more human than that.

MOSKOWITZ: Referees, like anybody, any other human, feels social pressure. Relieving that social pressure is natural and emotionally, you get caught up in the game. They don’t necessarily want the home team to win. I don’t think this is conscious. I don’t think there’s any conspiracy. I think it’s just a natural, “I want to please 50,000 people and I don’t want 50,000 people screaming at me.”

DUBNER: Or worse, we should say.

MOSKOWITZ: Or worse. Yes.

Another piece of evidence in this argument? In soccer, the home-field advantage is cut in half when the game is played in a stadium where the field is surrounded by a running track — that is, where the crowd is farther from the referees. Moskowitz is pretty convinced the referee-bias theory can explain a lot of the home-field advantage effect.

MOSKOWITZ: So I don’t think it’s the whole thing, but I think it’s the largest part.

DUBNER: I’m also curious about the variance in sports — soccer, you mentioned, has the highest home-field advantage. Baseball is the lowest. And for people who follow either of those sports and especially both, they know that the referee or the umpire has, obviously, different functions but also a different amount of leverage. And also there’s a lot less scoring in soccer, and so one pivotal call really can determine the game.

MOSKOWITZ: Absolutely. In soccer, there’s so little scoring that a penalty kick, throwing a player off, any sort of free kick can have a huge impact on the game, and can tilt the odds very significantly in favor of the home team. Whereas, take the other end of the spectrum — baseball, you know, quite honestly most calls in baseball aren’t that close.

DUBNER: You’re telling us that fans don’t influence the outcome of a game in the way that we think — that is, they’re not influencing the players. But you’re also telling us that fans do influence the outcome of the game by influencing referees. So the bottom line is really the same, isn’t it, which is that fans should be as loud and obnoxious and maybe as threatening as possible, right?

MOSKOWITZ: There’s a little bit of that and I hesitate to say that.

DUBNER: I’m not asking you to personally condone violence, but I mean the data are the data yes?

MOSKOWITZ: Well, I think there’s no question that you’re right. The data is the data that on a close call, if fans yell and yell loudly it does tend to influence the referee’s perception.

So that’s something to watch for in the upcoming World Cup: do the referees seem to favor Russia, the home team? Or, this being a World Cup, where fans travel from all over, some games might feel like home games. If you’re the prime minister of, say, Iceland, maybe you pay for the entire citizenry to go to Russia to pack out the stadiums?

MOSKOWITZ: I would argue it’s probably not worth it, but I guess it would depend on the government. I would expect that the costs far exceed the benefits.

We’ve given you several reasons to pay attention to the World Cup. Although we haven’t said much about the actual soccer. The players. The greatest players in the world. And maybe the greatest player in the sport’s history.

Joaquim Maria PUYAL: Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi. Immense Messi.

Lionel Messi is about to turn 31. This will likely be his last World Cup. He’s won every trophy imaginable with his club team, Barcelona. But he’s never won a World Cup with his national team, Argentina.

ANNOUNCER: Argentina’s dream was to win a World Cup. In Brazil, it’s proved just that: a dream.

My son Solomon is a true soccer fanatic. But his adoration of Messi goes beyond that.

SOLOMON: If Argentina wins the World Cup, I am moving to a rural town in Argentina and becoming a shepherd for the rest of my life, because I think that’s what Messi would want.

STEPHEN: Why would he want you to be a shepherd?

SOLOMON: I just think he would.

STEPHEN: Does he have sheep that he needs caring for?

SOLOMON: That he needs shepherded? No I just think I should respect Argentina and him.

STEPHEN: You think that would be the kind of tribute that he would appreciate?

SOLOMON: That would be the perfect way.

I asked Solomon for some biographical background.

SOLOMON: It’s going to have a little bit of a stalkerish detail, is that okay? So on June 24, 1987, in Rosario, Argentina. There was a huge tree in the middle of town. There was a huge storm and lightning struck it. And from the tree emerged the god that is Lionel Andres Messi. As a child he had a growth deficiency. He would have ended up being 5’1” or 5’2”. Except he was an unbelievable soccer player. When he was diagnosed, he started taking growth hormones. His club, Newell’s Old Boys, they couldn’t really afford it. His family, I think, sought out the attention of scouts in Barcelona, where he happened to have family. They almost didn’t sign him because of his height. But then they realized he was pretty good anyway. And they started paying for his medicine. That was one of the main reasons he went.

STEPHEN: Wow. He was how old at this time?

SOLOMON: He was 12 or 13. Originally his whole family moved, but then they couldn’t do it, so he just he and his father stayed. And he grew up in La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy.

STEPHEN: So it’s an academy where you obviously—

SOLOMON: You live right by the Comp Nou, the stadium. You can it see out your window.

STEPHEN: Wow.

SOLOMON: La Masia I think means “farmhouse,” is what I want to say. It’s in an old farmhouse. So it’s where Barcelona raises the next generation of football warriors.

STEPHEN: Do you go to school as well?

SOLOMON: You do. I’ve heard it gives you a pretty decent education, actually.

STEPHEN: Who are some of his classmates, yeah?

SOLOMON: Mainly Gerard Piqué and Cesc Fabregas. They thought they were going to be able to bully him at first, on the pitch. And he said they were getting ready to kick the crap out of him, and then he got the ball and they just couldn’t get near him. The rest is history and he’s probably gone on to become the greatest player of all time.

STEPHEN: It sounds as though part of the appreciation is almost an artistic appreciation.

SOLOMON: He’s beautiful to watch. I wouldn’t call him graceful necessarily. I think elegant maybe, but it’s breathtaking to watch. How he doesn’t look like an athlete. He’s 5’7”, he’s a little stocky. But when he’s with the ball and he’s running at an opponent, you can tell they’re terrified. That’s not necessarily the artistic part, but what he does. It’s so beautiful. There’ll be two defenders and there’s no space, he just squeezes himself and the ball through. I think part of that is actually his height. It gives him the ability to twist. But it’s really — he’s beautiful to watch.

BENNETT: He’s the single greatest footballer I have ever seen.

Roger Bennett again.

BENNETT: Amazing. He looks like he’s just wandered out of your local SuperCuts. And to understand him you have to know about his nemesis: Ronaldo.

DUBNER: Who is the opposite in every way.

BENNETT: So Ronaldo, Portugal captain. The two of them, it’s like LeBron and Steph Curry. You know, which is the greatest player? Both of them have completely different attributes, different physical styles of play. Ronaldo is physically beautiful.

DUBNER: He seems to be allergic to wearing shirts after goal-scoring.

BENNETT: I often think he doesn’t enjoy scoring goals in their own sake, they’re just stages for him to rip his shirt off, show the world his nipples. Ronaldo. It’s a truly remarkable thing. He is a sculpture of a man. Dominant. Beautiful. I mean, potent is the word.

DUBNER: And a good goal scorer. But Lionel Messi, you’re saying, is a better player because not only does he often outscore Ronaldo but what else does Messi do?

BENNETT: When he takes to the field, a combination of his vision, his ability to accelerate at incredible pace into crevices of space that really no one else sees, leaving behind only smoking cleats where defenders once were, just vaporizes opponents, his ability to compute angle, wind speed, traject— I mean he has a beautiful mind in there. The way he finishes goals: rarely smashing the ball home. It’s always with just enough effort, just enough power. Only what it needs. The great Uruguayan poet and social critic Eduardo Galeano described him, he said, “Lionel Messi runs with the ball as if he’s wearing it as a sock.” No one else can take it from him and he scores stunning goals with routine, for Barcelona, under great pressure, delivering over and over and over again.

KUPER: Soccer is really a dance in space.

Simon Kuper again.

KUPER When you have the ball, you try to open space, and when you don’t have the ball you have to try to close space. You do that not as an individual but as part of an 11-player team. And so the players who have the best sense of space, and Messi is a great example, are the best players.

But there are a couple things to consider. First: the World Cup features national teams whose players spend most of their time spread all over the globe on their club teams. Which means it’s hard for national teams to have a lot of cohesion for the World Cup. But also: soccer is played differently in different leagues, on different continents. There are, for instance, distinct European characteristics and South American characteristics. Messi, coming from Argentina and playing for Barcelona, exhibits both.

KUPER: So when Messi gets the ball in Barcelona’s close, short-passing moves, he can say to the defender trying to mark him, “Look, I can post to these four guys near me, or I can dribble and shoot. You have no idea which of these five options I’m going to choose.” And so he’s terrifying. And Messi, what I always tell my children is Messi doesn’t pass into somebody’s feet. Messi doesn’t pass where you are. Messi passed into the space where he wants to you be. So usually Messi gives the ball into a space and the teammate runs onto it, unmarked, and scores. So Messi has seen the space and told the teammates, in effect, “That’s the space.”

DUBNER: So that ability, if I put two and two together, I would think would be devalued in a World Cup because his teammates are not as accustomed to thinking about being in the space where they’re not yet. Am I right?

KUPER: Yeah. I mean Argentine players have a much weaker sense of space partly because the Latin Americans, they didn’t grow up in that European tradition and they’re just not as good. I mean there’s several of the guys who played alongside him in 2014 that, had they won the World Cup final, people would have said, “That guy won a World Cup final?” And you know it’s an amazing achievement of Messi’s. He’s often criticized in Argentina. But it’s amazing that he got those players into a World Cup final.

DUBNER: So let’s say that someone doesn’t watch a lot of soccer — maybe they’ve heard about Lionel Messi, maybe seen some highlights but never really seen him play — how would you advise that they watch him during this World Cup?

KUPER: Well, watch him knowing that he’s handicapped by the team he’s in. But Argentina have typically said to him in effect, “Here’s the ball. You do it alone.” Messi thinks, “Well I can do that, but I’m a team player so I need people moving around me to offer decoys even if I don’t pass to them.” And so when they give him the ball 50 meters from the opposition’s goal and the whole Argentine team standing still and Messi isolated, he’s kind of stuck. So, typically for Argentina, because they don’t have a system, he dribbles. So what you see at World Cups is much more Messi the soloist and not Messi the team player. You won’t see him as the interpreter of space. You’ll see him as the kind of brilliant soloist.

BENNETT: The last three big tournaments he’s played, he’s got his team to the final. But, it’s like watching LeBron. It’s like an unbelievable player and the rest of the cast, they underperform around him and they delegate, like they just wait for him to do magic and he’s got them to the final of the last World Cup, the final of the last two Copas. They both — all three of them have ended both in defeat and with him in tears.

SOLOMON: He’s a big-game player. But I think it’s been proven, one player can’t win a World Cup. It’s just not possible. And I think that’s why he hasn’t and that’s why I don’t think he will. I don’t think Argentina is going to win it.

There’s one more thing to watch for in this year’s World Cup even if you have absolutely zero interest in soccer. It’s not every day that a massive global event takes place in a country that’s considered, in many quarters, to be some combination of dictatorship, rogue state, and pure bully. How’s that going to play out? We called the Stanford political scientist Michael McFaul, who knows a bit about geopolitics and Russia.

Michael McFAUL: I spent five years in the government during the Obama Administration — three years as the senior director at the National Security Council responsible for Russia and Eurasia and then two more years in Moscow as the U.S. ambassador there.

Given that Russians love soccer, delivering the World Cup was a major coup for Vladimir Putin.

McFAUL: For Putin, the World Cup is a victory both domestically and internationally. On the one hand that he is delivering this fantastic sporting event to his citizens. That is a great achievement and he will be loved for it. But then too internationally I do think it delivers a positive message for Russia because I think a lot of the world has a very outdated image of Russia as this thuggish, criminal place where everybody’s living in poverty, and that’s not what you’re going to see on television during the World Cup. Russia today is richer probably than it’s ever been in its history. And so fans visiting Moscow or St. Petersburg or the other venues, even some of the more obscure venues, for the first time are going to see that Russia is a wealthy European country.

Russia was awarded this World Cup back in 2010.

McFAUL: Well, the world has changed remarkably, between 2010 and today with respect to Russia’s relationship with the West. Starting with Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, then bolstering a dictator like Mr. Assad in Syria where, you know, countless tens of thousands have been killed and millions displaced. And then meddling in the U.S. election. And now, you know, alleged assassination attempts in the U.K. So I think the context has changed dramatically and I think the challenge therefore for the western and I would say the global community is how do you show up and participate in a sporting event that everybody loves — including me by the way, we all want to see the World Cup succeed — but without somehow giving legitimacy to many of those things that I just described in terms of Putin’s foreign policy behavior.

McFaul’s solution? He’s advocated that no government official from any NATO country should attend the World Cup.

McFAUL: I don’t understand why governments from anywhere should be involved. This is a sporting event. It’s not a United Nations event. I think we should get out of the business of using sporting events for diplomatic ends and just let the athletes do their thing and let the fans do their thing and keep the politics out of it.

Some countries, including England and Iceland, have decided to not send delegations.

BENNETT: Part of me is surprised that the world is not talking about boycotting the whole event —

Roger Bennett again, from Men in Blazers.

BENNETT: — because ultimately the World Cup’s got a dreadful history, Stephen, a dreadful history of prostituting itself to the propaganda desires of awful dictators, going back to Mussolini in the 1930’s. The Argentinean military junta in 1978, a devastating moment for anyone that cares about democracy, justice, human rights. Russia is a rogue state. And the world is going to go there for an entire month with Vladimir Putin presiding over it.

Bennett recently had Garry Kasparov on his show.

BENNETT: Huge Russian football fan and political dissident.

And Bennett said to Kasparov:

BENNETT: I was like, “What are, you know, you are an activist. You are speaking out. What do you want us to do?” He said, “I would never tell anyone to boycott the World Cup. You cannot boycott the World Cup.” There is a massive chance that this could be a World Cup, a great cacophony. And these stadia over four time zones and many have been flung together.

At the last major tournament, the Euros, the Russian fans, a plague of far-right, Nazi-infused, U.F.C.-trained football hooligans — I come from a nation that’s provided the gold standard of football hooligans. These Russians are next-level football hooligans. They ran through English fans with hammers and GoPros. They filmed everything, and they devastated, they maimed, and absolutely destroyed an entire town over a period of 24 hours. Putin’s response to that has been to bring in platoons of Cossacks on horseback with whips and have them police these stadia. Cossacks.

You’ve got your hooligans. You’ve got your stadiums that are unready. You’ve got your English fans descending for which they built Soviet-style enormous drunk tanks. They’ve legalized heroin and cocaine around the stadia and you’ve got Cossacks with whips on horseback. What could possibly possibly go wrong?

DUBNER: But it’s remarkable though, you’re saying that Kasparov says, essentially, that “I’m sorry for all that misery, for all those malign intentions, etc. Football is just too intoxicatingly attractive to actually shut it down.” What does that say, I mean it’s, to me it says more about football than it does about geopolitics, in a strange way.

BENNETT: I’m not arguing with it.

DUBNER: Yeah.

BENNETT: I’m not arguing with, “don’t take away my World Cup,” Garry Kasparov.

And thus are the complicated, conflicted, miserable, jubilant, ethereal, and occasional primal emotions that accompany the world’s most worldly sport. May you watch it in good health. And if you choose not to watch — well, check out Roger Bennett’s American Fiasco podcast, or the Footy for Two podcast; or the fine books Soccernomics and Scorecasting; or Michael McFaul’s new book: From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s RussiaOr, how about this option: you can start making plans to attend the 2026 World Cup — in America! That’s right: it’s just been announced that a joint bid by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico has been selected by FIFA for the 2026 World Cup. With 60 of the 80 matches to be played here in America. Anyone need a floor to sleep on in New York? Give me a shout.

Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica with help from Greg Rosalsky, Joel Meyer, and Eliza Lambert. Our staff also includes Alison Hockenberry, Stephanie Tam, Merritt Jacob, Max Miller, Harry Huggins, and Andy Meisenheimer. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

  • Roger Bennett, host of American Fiasco and co-host of Men in Blazers.
  • Solomon Dubner, host of Footy for Two.
  • Simon Kuper, Financial Times writer and co-author of Soccernomics.
  • Michael McFaul, professor of political science at Stanford University.
  • Toby Moskowitz, professor of finance at the Yale School of Management and co-author of Scorecasting.
  • Stefan Szymanski, professor of economics at the University of Michigan and co-author of Soccernomics.
  • Luigi Zingales, professor of finance at the University of Chicago and co-host of the podcast Capitalisn’t.

RESOURCES

EXTRAS