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Including the World in the World Cup

Chuck Blazer, an American and North America's representive to the FIFA executive committee has blasted the committee's decision to not award North America's soccer confederation, CONCACAF, an additional slot at the next World Cup. Blazer aruges that based on the performance of CONCACAF teams in 2010 in South Africa, the confederation should have 4 instead of 3.5 slots at the next World Cup in Brazil.

While I am sympathetic to his argument, if the goal of the World Cup is to have the best teams competing, then the correct determination of the number of slots per confederation should not be the average performance of teams but instead the marginal performance of the best team excluded from each confederation.

Imagine a continent composed of the Netherlands, Spain, and the Faroe Islands that receives two slots at the World Cup. By an average performance measure, the confederation should receive an extra berth as the continent had the two finalists in the big event, but including the Faroe Islands, the marginal team, and excluding another qualifier from another continent, will clearly reduce overall quality in the World Cup.

A similar thing may be happening in CONCACAF. Mexico and the U.S. are perrenial powerhouses that nearly automatically qualify and frequently advance to the round of 16 (although admittedly, it is there that they typically hit their ceiling.) Including another team from CONCACAF does not mean including another U.S. or Mexico but rather another Costa Rica, Honduras, Trinidad, or Jamaica, hardly soccer giants on the world stage. 

Indeed, if one places in confidence in the accuracy of the FIFA World Rankings, the top six currently ranked teams not in the World Cup in 2010 were all from Europe - Croatia (9), Norway (11), Russia (12), Montenegro (25), Sweden (29), and the Czech Republic (30). The top non-European team excluded was Egypt (33) followed by Nigeria (40), Burkino Faso (41), Iran (44) and finally the first CONCACAF member, Costa Rica, at 48. If anything, the average quality of the Cup would have risen by the inclusion of more Europeans, hardly a position Blazer would endorse.

In any case, this is a good example of thinking like an economist: think at the margins, not at the average. In addition it highlights the problems from using a limited number of data points. Africa's poor performance in the 2010 World Cup is probably best explained by the rash of upsets in qualifing that excluded many top teams from the finals rather than lack of playing skills in the region.