The Geopolitical World Cup: Group Stage Part I

As you may know, the soccer (or perhaps more properly, futbol) World Cup is starting later this week in Russia and there have been tons of takes on which squad to root for given the absence of the United States from the competition. I figured I’d do something a little different to celebrate the World Cup, one of my favorite sporting events: run the whole event as if it were a geopolitical competition instead of a soccer one. To do this, I’ve compiled a rating for each of the 32 nations competing in the 2018 World Cup based on their military strength, economic power, population size, and living conditions (based on the UN’s Human Development Index). The lower the rating, the more ‘powerful’ the country, as these rankings were all indexed with 1 being the best and higher numbers being worse. These rankings are not at all exhaustive and the weighting I used is based on my personal opinion, so don’t expect this to be applicable to the real world; it is far more useful as a fun thought exercise as you watch the real sporting competition.

As a brief aside, here are the rankings I used to compile my overall scores for each country: military, population, GDP (nominal), GDP (PPP), GDP per capita (nominal), GDP per capita (PPP), and UN Human Development Index.

In this Part I of the Geopolitical World Cup, I’ll be breaking down the Group Stage, particularly Groups A, B, & C and choosing the winners of those competitions given they were contested in the realm of geopolitics. I’ll be laying out each group’s members, the strengths and weaknesses of the nations involved, and why the winners of each group would come out on top. Without further ado, here’s the breakdown.

World Cup Groups
Groups for the 2018 World Cup, held in Russia.       Image Credit: Fox Sports

Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay

Group A is comprised of countries from across the globe, including the regions of Europe, the Middle East/North Africa, and South America. The nations included in this group may not be super-impressive in terms of soccer skill (although Uruguay has been quite good depending on the year), but the geopolitics of the group are a bit more interesting. The clear favorite in this group should be Russia given its strong military (#2 on the world rankings), large population, and high overall GDP. Russia’s overall score is taken lower slightly by its problematic Human Development rating as well as its lower per capita GDP figures. Still, the country tops the group with an overall ‘Geopolitics Score’ (yes, I made that up) of 21.675. The battle for the second nation coming out of Group A is a bit tougher, but the answer becomes fairly clear when the analysis is done. Uruguay, despite its soccer successes, is simply not a match for any of the nations in this group, given its small population and military and low GDP. However, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are Arab nations with relatively strong militaries and fairly large populations (Egypt ranks 14th globally), so they are somewhat comparable. Saudi Arabia takes the win over Egypt for second-ranked nation in this group due primarily to the difference in GDP and especially GDP per capita between the two; Saudi Arabia has, for example, the 12th highest GDP per capita in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms, whereas Egypt ranks all the way down at 92nd. For those economic reasons, as well as Saudi’s higher placement on the HDI, the Saudis (Score: 27.475) join the Russians as the two survivors from Group A.

Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

This group seems more interesting given the nations that are involved, but the overall competitiveness is similar to that of Group A when the Geopolitics Scores are averaged (Group A averages 47.4 while B averages 47.8125). Still, the epic historical rivalry on the Iberian Peninsula is interesting and the inclusion of a rising Iran makes things a bit more difficult to decide. Morocco is the clear loser in this group, with a score of 77.475, the lowest in Group B (and lower than all but Uruguay in the first 3 groups). The North African kingdom simply ranks too poorly on the economic and HDI measures to merit advancement. On the other hand, Spain is far and away the leader in this group. The Spanish come to play with a somewhat sizeable population, as well as a good military (19th globally) and excellent economic measures. Spain’s GDP (either measure) ranks within the top 15 worldwide and its reasonable population means this translates well to per capita numbers. Spain’s HDI rank is also enviable, coming in at 27th in the world. The true battle here is between Portugal and Iran for second place in Group B. Each nation has its own strengths (Iran: military, population; Portugal: per capita GDP) and weaknesses (Iran: HDI, per capita GDP; Portugal: population, military), but Iran comes out on top altogether. Iran’s Geopolitics Score is 37.225, while Portugal comes in below that at 54.375. The real difference-maker between the two countries is the mediocre overall GDP figures for Portugal compared with the increasingly robust total GDP for Iran, as well as Iran’s significant advantages militarily (13th best military globally). Therefore, the two nations advancing from Group B will be Spain and Iran.

The geopolitical world.        Image Credit: Public Radio Tulsa

Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

Group C is a veritable Group of Death (although we’ll have a tougher Group in our next preview), including some of the most advanced Western nations on earth in France, Australia, and Denmark, and a rising power in Latin America, Peru. The average score for this group is a fantastic 33.33125, second-lowest overall. The disparities in Group C are not nearly as significant as in other groups, and the fight between the top two nations here is serious (both are excellent overall contenders for the title). The bottom half of the group is still robust, however, and would likely qualify for the knockout stage in many other groups. Let’s deal with those bottom two contenders in Group C before we hit the top nations. The worst nation in this difficult group is Peru, somewhat unsurprisingly. What is surprising though is Peru’s overall rating of 58.95, which would place it just below the average score for all contending nations of 51.219. Peru has decent ratings on military and population, as well as having solid GDP figures in total (per capita is less impressive). The other second-tier nation in this group is Denmark, a country that would have advanced in several other groups with its score of 42.65. Denmark excels at the per capita GDP numbers and has a very high HDI (5th globally), but falls off when the overall military, population, and total GDP numbers are included. That leaves us with the top two finishers in Group C: France and Australia. These two highly developed Western nations truly duke it out for top dog status here, and are only separated by 5 points from each other. France (13.5) ends up on top of Australia (18.225) by a slim margin, one that is largely based on France’s better rankings in population, military (5th best in world), and total GDP figures. Australia beats out the French when it comes to HDI (2nd globally) and in per capita economic figures, but still falls just short of claiming the top spot. Both of these nations will be serious contenders when it comes to the knockout stages, and I would not be shocked if either won the whole thing.

I’ll be back later this week to break down the final 5 World Cup groups in geopolitical terms, so be sure to check that out to find out who advances to the knockout stage in this fictional competition. Until then, enjoy the soccer action and pick someone other than the hosts (or the Iranians for that matter) to root for!

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