Who Would Win the World Cup if Countries Were Competing on Democracy and Human Rights

What if the World Cup were decided not by the footballing ability of each country, but their respect for democracy and human rights?

The draw for the 2014 football World Cup, to be held in Brazil, took place last week. Competing nations and their fans can now start plotting their route to the final, particularly those with favourable draws. Those drawn in the infamous Group of Death - there is one at every World Cup - can probably buy their return flights already.

But what if the World Cup were decided not by the footballing ability of each country, but their respect for democracy and human rights? I ran a simulation of the tournament after assessing the 32 competing nations on several globally-recognised indexes - including those published by Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the CIRI Human Rights Data Project, Transparency International and Reporters Without Borders - and found the event took a few unexpected turns.

Before we delve into the tournament, it is worth remarking on those countries which did not make it through the qualifications stage. First of all, the qualifiers can breathe a huge sigh of relief that no Scandinavian nation has made it to Brazil. Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Denmark consistently top the rankings in any comparative study of democracy, and would have made formidable competitors. The same goes for Europe's smaller nations: Andorra, Luxembourg and San Marino are all high-ranking democracies, although it was unlikely any of them were ever going to qualify.

Round one

In the first round of the World Cup the teams are divided into eight groups of four, with two qualifying from each group. I decided the final group positions based on each country's ranking in the 2012 Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

This is the top half of the draw:

The biggest shock of these results, in footballing terms, is the failure of Spain to make it out of the group stage. The World Cup holders were placed in a fearsome group against Australia and the Netherlands. In fact, Australia are the lowest-ranked team competing in Brazil, according to FIFA, but comfortably qualify for the second round here.

Croatia only manages to squeeze past Mexico by a single point to qualify from Group A. Mexico outperforms Croatia in the Democracy Index on 'functioning of government' and 'political participation', but Croatia is ahead on 'electoral process', 'political culture' and 'civil liberties'.

England finish top of Group D, circumstances not likely to be repeated in 2014. Their ranking of 16 is actually that of the United Kingdom rather than England. This is controversial: the failure to recognise England constitutionally is a source of contention for many democracy campaigners, but that issue is probably beyond the scope of this discussion. Four-time World Cup winners Italy finish bottom of this group, no doubt a consequence of replacing their democratically-elected government with one led by the unelected technocrat Mario Monti in 2011.

This is the bottom half of the draw:

Group F stands out here, emerging as the undisputed Group of Democratic Death in the tournament. It includes the least democratic nation competing at the World Cup, according to the Democracy Index: while the 2013 election of moderate Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran may have raised hopes of reform, real power in the country still rests with the unelected Supreme Leader. Argentina is considered a 'flawed democracy' in the EIU analysis and Bosnia-Hercegovina a 'hybrid regime': both can count themselves lucky as neither would have qualified from any other group in the draw.

Algeria's position in Group H is also notable, for highlighting the absence of any countries transformed by the Arab Spring in recent years. Major protests have erupted in Algeria, but their very low ranking reflects the fact that political reform has so far been modest. Egypt would have stood a much better chance after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, although the subsequent coup against the elected President Mohamed Morsi would have limited the country's progress.

Round two

For the second round, I used the 2013 Freedom House index, which gives each country a rating based on its respect for civil liberties and political rights. It plays out like this:

Most of these results are decisive, although some may be surprising, such as Japan's defeat to Uruguay. Germany need penalties to beat Belgium after a score draw. The Belgians are in possession of a golden generation of footballers for Brazil 2014 - and rate highly on political and civil rights - but tensions between the Flemish and Walloon communities have affected the country's ability to form stable governments after democratic elections.

United States and South Korea is another close game. In effect, the result comes down to a refereeing decision. Under the EIU rankings South Korea would have been narrowly ahead of the US, but the Americans rate higher on the Freedom House index. This slight shift may reflect the fact Freedom House is a Washington-based organisation that has - and has been criticised for - close links to the US government.


The quarter-finals require a slightly more fine-grained analysis, as each of the remaining eight teams has perfect ratings from Freedom House. The chief struggler is Franc, which is considered a 'flawed democracy' by the EIU: this may reflect hostility shown by recent governments to Roma migrants in the country and/or the popularity of the far-right National Front party.

I used the 2011 index published by the CIRI Human Rights Data Project, drawing on a range of different measures, to determine the quarter-final victors. The round plays out like this:

The Netherlands' victory is fairly comprehensive in this round, with the Dutch outscoring Uruguay on every measure except 'electoral self-determination', which assesses whether elections in the country are free and fair. They are joined in the semi-finals by Germany after a more even game with Switzerland, decided by the Germans' greater respect for women's political rights.

England's World Cup run ends in predictable fashion with another quarter-final defeat, still the furthest stage we have reached in the football competition since 1990. Australia's win comes courtesy of workers' rights, which are considered to be stronger than in the UK. The same measure determines France's unexpected victory over the United States.


For the semi-final stage I introduced two new, specialist indexes. The first is the 2013 World Press Freedoms Index from Reporters Without Borders (RWB), ranking countries based on the independence and pluralism of the media. The second is the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International (TI), which ranks countries based on their perceived level of public sector corruption.

The results of the semi-finals are:

The Netherlands continue their stroll to the final with a routine victory over Germany, helped by an impressive press freedom ranking: second in the world. Only Finland, who didn't qualify for Brazil, are able to better the Dutch in this index.

We might expect Australia to dispatch France the same way, given their strong performance in every round of the tournament so far. But their press freedom ranking is surprisingly low, which is likely to reflect in part the dominance of the country's newspaper industry by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Australia do make the final, but if the draw had pitted them against Germany rather than France, it seems clear they would instead be preparing for the dreaded third-place play-off.


For the deciding match, I have undertaken to produce a more rounded assessment of the two finalists' performance in global democracy indexes. I noted the individual measures on which each country is ahead of the other. The result of the final is:

The Netherlands outranks Australia in the Press Freedom Index, and very narrowly on the Corruption Perceptions Index. Australia is ahead in three of the five measures in the EIU's Democracy Index, and in the overall ranking. In the CIRI humans right index, however, the Netherlands is ahead on women's political rights and freedom from torture; the latter may reflect Australia's alleged role in the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects. Australia is ahead on CIRI's freedom of speech measure, although this may be down to looser controls on media ownership, which is not necessarily conducive to democracy.

The Netherlands has competed and lost in three football World Cup finals, in 1974, 1978 and 2010. In the Democratic World Cup, however, their moment has finally arrived.

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