World Cup: Why You Should Root for Nigeria

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Most of the world considers soccer’s quadrennial World Cup to be the most important sporting competition of all. A growing number of Americans have embraced the event, but many are only vaguely aware of it, and, aside from the United States, not so sure for whom to root.

I am offering an alternative, utilitarian guide to help Americans choose a country to support. This guide can also be used if the Americans lose, to help decide whom to root for among the remaining teams.

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 soccer 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 soccer 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 soccer, 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 soccer. 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 soccer compared with the other most popular sports in each country, based on searches. While soccer accounts for 16 percent of searches about top sports in the United States, the share is a stunning 85 percent in Colombia.

Some countries considered big soccer nations did unexpectedly poorly by this measure. For instance, we know Germans love soccer, but they also have a soft spot for team handball (which got almost half as many searches as soccer). The region with the highest appetite for soccer? 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).

Notably, these results are broadly similar to those from a recent Upshot study of public opinion in 19 World Cup countries, conducted by YouGov. In that study, 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 soccer than many Americans might imagine. Only 20 percent of German respondents said they were “very interested” in the sport, compared with 50 percent in Colombia. (Because of low Internet access, no African countries were included in the study.)

So which country comes out on top of our utilitarian ranking? Nigeria, which plays a crucial match on Wednesday against Argentina. 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. Brazil and Mexico have advanced to the second round, while Ghana must beat Portugal on Thursday; hope for the United States to lose to Germany; and then prevail via one of the tiebreakers.

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