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FIFA World Cup: Whose cup of joy?

Study shows World Cup win for Nigeria, Brazil or Mexico will bring most aggregate happiness.

Updated: June 27, 2014 3:02 pm
Nigeria's huge, football crazy population, coupled with country's povery means a World Cup win will bring them the greatest joy. (Source: AP) Nigeria’s huge, football crazy population, coupled with country’s povery means a World Cup win will bring them the greatest joy. (Source: AP)

By: Dean Karlan

Most of the world considers football’s quadrennial World Cup to be the most important sporting competition of all. A growing number of fans have embraced the event, and if their country isn’t a part of the event, are not so sure for whom to root.

I am offering an alternative, utilitarian guide to help Americans choose a country to support.

The basic principle is simple, drawn from utilitarian principles: Root for the outcome that will produce the largest aggregate increase in happiness. So I came up with a simple index, calculated by a country’s passion for football multiplied by its average level of poverty multiplied by its population. It’s perhaps a bit crude, simply to multiply these factors by each other, but the exercise highlights some important truths about the world.

Why this formula? Considering football interest seems obvious enough — the more passionate fans are, the happier they’ll be if their team emerges victorious. I incorporate poverty into the score for several reasons. First, happiness and wealth are correlated, and all else being equal, a utilitarian would prefer to help the person who is worst off. Second, the wealthy have more outlets for dealing with sports disappointments — such as going out to a nice meal — and can bounce back faster.


Finally, if we are to embrace the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number of people, we need to think about the population of the countries in question. While Uruguayans undoubtedly love football, it will be a nation of only 3.3 million people celebrating their triumph should Uruguay come out on top. In contrast, if neighboring Argentina wins, it will mean a celebration for 42.7 million.

The first challenge is measuring a country’s passion for football. It doesn’t take a genius to know that Ghana was more invested in its match with the United States than the United States. Ghana shut down factories and imported electricity from neighboring Ivory Coast to make sure that the power grid would support all households watching the match. To quantify such passion, I turned to Google Trends and looked at how football compared with the other most popular sports in each country, based on searches. While football accounts for 16 percent of searches about top sports in the United States, the share is a stunning 85 percent in Colombia. The region with the highest appetite for football? Africa, with Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast all finishing in the top six (the other two most soccer-crazed countries are Brazil and Ecuador).

Share of interest

In a recent Upshot study of public opinion in 19 World Cup countries, conducted by YouGov, Colombians showed more interest in the sport than people in any other country, and several European countries had a larger share of the population not interested in football than many might imagine. Only 20 percent of German respondents said they were “very interested” in the sport, compared with 50 percent in Colombia.

So which country comes out on top of our utilitarian ranking? Nigeria, which advanced out of group play on Wednesday. Nigeria finishes fourth in our passion ranking, and is one of the poorest countries in the tournament. Separating it from the rest of the African countries in the World Cup is its huge population — 174 million people. Simply put, the Nigerians have a lot of very passionate, low-income people who are ready to celebrate Nigerian success. Nigeria finishes with a far higher score than any other country.

After Nigeria come Brazil, Mexico, and Ghana — all countries with large populations and plenty of passion for the game.

What about the ones that don’t really care? Along with Japan, South Korea and Australia, the United States are one of only four World Cup nations where football is not the most-searched sport. But helped out by a big population over all, the USA finishes slightly ahead of Australia.

Ultimately, life is full of choices. We can’t have more than one winner of the World Cup and so we must choose. So let’s choose the ones that will have the biggest impact.

(Karlan is an economics professor at Yale and the founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, which looks for and promotes cost-effective solutions to poverty. The article appeared in the New York Times)

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