The World Cup: our most progressive global institution?

The World Cup isn't just popular in England. Football fever is at crazy levels all over Ghana at the moment too.

The Ghanaian Black Stars are currently at the top of what was considered a pretty tough group, having won four points from two matches with Serbia and Australia. They play against Germany tonight and a draw would be enough to see them through to the finals.

While a win for the Germans looks more likely in Johannesburg tonight, the Black Stars have grown in confidence and are undefeated so far. It’s certainly going to be an interesting match.

Football is undoubtedly the world’s most popular game, loved by millions, if not billions, of people, irrespective of race, gender, religion or class. It is also the world’s most globalised sport.

Take Ghana’s Black Stars for example. Their coach is a 55-year-old Serbian, Milovan Rajevac, who has been praised for his consistent hard work in building up the team. There’s Stephen Appiah, the Ghanaian midfielder who plays for Bologna; John Mensah, who plays as a defender for Lyon; and regular captain, talismanic midfielder Michael Essien who plays for Chelsea, sadly injured and unable to take part in the World Cup.

Football is also a rare example of globalisation that works, that is, globalisation that doesn’t just advance the interests of rich and powerful nations at the expense of poor nations.

An interesting, if somewhat geeky, paper by economist Branko Milanovic shows how football’s global rules allow poor countries to capture some of the value of the improved skills which their players acquire playing for big foreign clubs.

If globalisation is defined as the ability of players to move between clubs and countries, then it has increased markedly over the last twenty years. Limits on the number of foreign players in European leagues have been lifted and clubs have become more commercially minded. This has resulted in greater inequality, with good players being concentrated in a few top clubs, but also an increase in the overall quality of the game, as good players from different countries play together and learn from each other.

However, in the arena of national teams, the rules have remained restrictive: the role of money is limited, and players can only play for the country where they were born. This means that poor countries have a chance in the World Cup arena to reverse the “leg drain” in football skills that is the concomitant of the “brain drain” from poor to rich countries.

The evidence supports this hypothesis. Milanovic’s paper shows how after a period where the traditionally best football nations – Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Italy – dominated the World Cup, the situation changed in the 1980s, with newcomer teams increasingly joining the ranks of elite nations and the quality difference between national teams gradually decreasing. The expansion in the number of nations participating in the World Cup – from 16 before 1978, to 24 in 1982, then to 32 in 1998 – confirms this general levelling of quality at the national level.

So, football shows how the forces of efficiency but also inequality unleashed by globalisation could be harnessed by global institutions to make things better rather than worse for poor countries. No wonder the beautiful game is the most popular sport in the world.