Over the summer I teamed up with Dr Melanie Krause from the University of Hamburg to look at the issue of convergence in results of men’s international soccer games between 1950 and 2014. the data came from the Russell Gerrard’s database which we used in Soccernomics, updated using Christian Muck’s database.
To appreciate the paper you need to know that in the economic growth literature there’s long been an argument about convergence – is the distribution of GDP per capita across countries converging to a single level, or are there “convergence clubs”, with countries falling into identifiably different groups? Melanie has done a lot of research on methods for discriminating statistically between these two hypotheses, and we applied those methods in the paper. The result: there is strong evidence of convergence in results and no evidence to support the segregated “convergence clubs” hypothesis.
Yet, still we see events such as the World Cup (men’s and women’s) dominated repeatedly by the same teams. We argue that one explanation might be what economic growth researchers have called the “middle-income trap” – convergence happens because it is relatively easy, by adopting best practices, to close the gap with the richest nations, but once the gap has narrowed, it may be hard to progress to equality. In economic growth terms, middle-income countries need to become leaders rather than followers, which requires long term investment in human capital (e.g. in education) and the promotion of risk-taking and innovation – a different skill set than the ones that enabled you to join the middle income group (which you might roughly describe as hard work and physical capital investment).
Maybe (and this is obviously a speculative point), the progress of the USMNT is an example of this problem. Since the 1980s they closed the gap and made themselves a regular fixture at the World Cup, but never threatened to join the elite. Failure to quality for the World Cup is a regular occurrence for middling national teams. This is not a prescription for change, but perhaps a useful context for thinking about where to go from here.