*We* are the champions…

Sport is a truly global phenomenon.

The many tentacled reach of football and athletics – in particular – to every island, forest, desert, mountain range and urban sprawl on the planet is both proof of their enduring appeal and a fantastic jumping off point for an article so long and excruciating that even the most hardened Nerdius fan will be rather happy when it’s all over. I know I was when I finished writing it.

Take the Premier League.

At the time of writing 109 of the 207 FIFA recognised countries have been represented. Some have sent a huge cohort over to England for differing, but obvious reasons: Belgium (proximity), Brazil (wealth of talent), Australia (grandparents from Salford and Colchester). Some nations have only ever had one player in the Premier League, but they still make the list.

Obviously you’d like to see that list, so here it is:

  • Albania 🇦🇱
  • Angola 🇦🇴
  • Armenia 🇦🇲
  • Burkina Faso 🇧🇫
  • Central African Republic 🇨🇫
  • Faroe Islands 🇫🇴
  • Gambia 🇬🇲
  • Gibraltar 🇬🇮
  • Guinea-Bissau 🇬🇼
  • Kenya 🇰🇪
  • Kosovo 🇽🇰
  • Malta 🇲🇹
  • Oman 🇴🇲
  • Pakistan 🇵🇰
  • Phillipines 🇵🇭
  • Seychelles 🇸🇨

Trailblazers one and all (though you’ll have to find out *who* those players are under your own steam, and there’s no points for getting Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Victor Wanyama without Googling of course, not around here).

Some sports however are dominated by just a handful of nations. This usually emerges where history meets slightly complicated rules or requirements. It’s harder after all to gather the various accoutrements needed for a good game of snooker (“What do you mean you haven’t got a spider Derek?!”) than it is to find a field to run around in.

Below is an exploration of those sports with limited range to see if we can find a comprehensive answer to the following questions: “If I only have space for ONE scarf  supporting one nation team and designed clearly for use while cheering on one sport, then what will give me the most value in terms of consistently being on the winning side”

Or, to put it another way: is there any country that completely and utterly dominates one sport?

  • Rugby? Cricket? Obviously neither, but I’ve gone hardcore on the workings anyway.
  • American sports? Not really, I mean three of them have been Olympic Sports, but I’ve added some colour.
  • British sports? You know, ones that don’t involve breaking a sweat. Bit closer, but not that close.
  • Other sports that actually answer the question? Yes. These indeed answer the question (so you may as well just scroll through to the end, unless you want to see A LOT of flag emoji).

Ready? *Whistle sound effect*


The Empire Games

Let’s start with two high-profile sports for those of us born into a world reported by the BBC and characterised by a physical inability to jump a queue. With their first internationals taking place in 1871 and 1844 respectively Rugby Union (we’ll get to Rugby League in the detail) and Cricket are sports steeped in history. History that relies on what we’ll call the ‘ups and downs’ of the British Empire as it swept across the world doing unspeakable things, growing tea and finding countries to be much better at sports than the people who invented them, but history nonetheless.

Rugby 🏉

We’ll kick off (pun very much intended) with Rugby Union because it’s where rugby started (on that note the story about William Webb-Ellis picking the ball in a game of football at Rugby school and inventing the game is hardly cast iron – it always struck me as a weird origin story anyway), but that hasn’t stopped the World Cup in the sport being named after him. But before we get to the World Cup breakdown, let’s explore the dual axes of power in the world of scrums and gum shields…

The Six Nations: England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿, Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿, Wales 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿, Ireland 🇮🇪(technical flag inaccuracy, but, emoji), France 🇫🇷and, the upgrade from the long standing Five Nations, Italy 🇮🇹.

The Rugby Championship (formerly the Tri Nations who, of course, spent many years as the most pun worthy major sporting event on the planet): Australia 🇦🇺, New Zealand 🇳🇿, South Africa 🇿🇦, Argentina 🇦🇷.

There are in this elite group a total of 10 teams, nine of whom – sorry Italy – are (a few caveats aside) the teams perennially in the mix. They are joined, to some extent, by the Pacific Island nations of Fiji 🇫🇯, Samoa 🇼🇸 and Tonga 🇹🇴, and indeed between these 12 teams (i.e. The Six Nations minus Italy plus The Rugby Championship plus The Pacific Islands) they have filled all but one of the 64 berths that have been available in the QFs of the Rugby World Cup since it’s inception (the other place went to Canada way back in 1991).

At the sharp end however, not even all of these nations have every really had a serious chance of winning the Webb Ellis Trophy with eight of these teams making up all semi-final appearances and just five of them – New Zealand 🇳🇿, Australia 🇦🇺, England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿, South Africa 🇿🇦 and France 🇫🇷 – taking up 27 out of 32 of those berths and contesting all finals. Even a casual fan is aware that few teams have a realistic opportunity to take on 15 New Zealanders with egg-shaped ball in hand.

That all said, there is one area of Rugby that isn’t Kiwi heaven (well, not exclusively, they’re still incredibly successful) and that’s Rugby Sevens. In the short form, sped up version many of the games experts hail from the Pacific Islands . Fiji 🇫🇯won their first ever Olympic medal as a nation when Rugby Sevens was admitted to the 2016 event in Rio roundly beating all opposition. Historically Fiji and New Zealand battle it out at the top of the Sevens tree, but England, South Africa, Samoa and, in a positive blip to be fair, Wales have taken top honours in major tournaments. There is also the notable addition of Kenya 🇰🇪in the Sevens game scrapping around making life difficult for the bigger teams. But that’s it, aside from the usual suspects.

A final word then on all things Rugby Union can be reserved for Georgia 🇬🇪and Japan 🇯🇵, two teams on the up. This year’s World Cup is in Japan, who are if not knocking on the door of the ‘big 9’, certainly making good strides across the front garden. The same can be said about Georgia. Indeed, their world ranking is well above Italy’s at the time of writing and has been for a while. To some that would make a fair shout for their inclusion in the Six Nations ahead of the Italians and maybe, just maybe, things will continue to the point where the Six Nations needs to offer a relegation/promotion system for last place (Spain, Russia and Romania would be other contenders seeking that spot over the long haul). Meanwhile Japan have had their own team, the Sunwolves, in the Super Rugby competition (featuring teams from the Rugby Championship countries) since 2016, a sure step forward for a country that defeated South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World cup and will hope to show the world they can compete at the top end consistently as they host the good and great to knock-on simple balls and get covered in mud.


An excellent point and one we shouldn’t overlook, not least because we’re not sexist dinosaurs, but also because the likelihood of finding intense domination by one country in a sport is statistically more likely in women’s tournaments given their relative youth. Woke and wily. Check it.

The Women’s Rugby World Cup has been dominated over the years by two teams, New Zealand 🇳🇿 (who have won five of the eight editions), and England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 who have made all but one final, though only won twice. The first winner, back in 1991 was the USA 🇺🇸 – a newbie on the scene for this article – with Canada 🇨🇦and France 🇫🇷(who have come 3rd six times!) also showing well.

Proving however that what the men do, doesn’t always follow when it comes to the women, we must give a nod to the Kazakhstan 🇰🇿 team who have attended the World Cup on 6 occasions, just missing making the QFs each time.


Yes. We’re doing that now. Chill.

Rugby League originated in 1895 as the ‘professional’ code of rugby meaning, quite simply, that players could be paid. It took until August 1995 for Rugby Union to follow suit. League is particularly popular in the North of England (where it was founded), parts of Australia 🇦🇺, New Zealand 🇳🇿and France 🇫🇷and also in Lebanon 🇱🇧. Rugby League is the national sport, nonetheless, of Papua New Guinea 🇵🇬. It’s also played in pockets of all the usual countries mentioned above.

At World Cup level three teams have won the championship since it started in 1954 and on all but four occasions the winner has been Australia 🇦🇺. In 2008 New Zealand 🇳🇿took the title and on three occasions prior to 1972 Great Britain 🇬🇧took the honours (since 2005 the home nations – England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland – have competed separately with Great Britain as a team retired in 2008 with the hope if improving the results of the individual nations. GB will return for a tour of the Southern Hemisphere in 2019 however after several years of reform rumours. Think of them like a 90s boyband).

So with the exception of PNG 🇵🇬and the brilliantly exotic Lebanon 🇱🇧we’re looking at the same simple, but still a little bloated for my liking, list of countries. There’s domination, but it’s not all conquering.

In the Women’s tournament, which has been held since 2000, we again see dominance from New Zealand 🇳🇿, so much so that they’ve featured in every final winning three and losing three. Which is weird, since there’s only been five. In 2005 two teams from New Zealand were entered; ‘New Zealand’, and ‘New Zealand Maori’, with the former trotting out 58-0 winners. Added extras who’ve not made the word count yet keep us in the deep Pacific: The Cook Islands 🇨🇰, Niue 🇳🇺and Tokelau 🇹🇰.

But really now, with 1200 words on Rugby alone, we must move on…

Cricket 🏏

There are twelve test playing cricket nations. Which means, essentially, that there are twelve ‘proper’ places were they play cricket. Twelve isn’t many. They are, in order of their gaining test status: England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿(1877), Australia 🇦🇺(1877), South Africa 🇿🇦 (1889), West Indies 🏝(1928), New Zealand 🇳🇿(1930), India 🇮🇳(1932), Pakistan 🇵🇰(1952), Sri Lanka 🇱🇰(1982), Zimbabwe 🇿🇼 (1992), Bangladesh 🇧🇩(2000), Ireland 🇮🇪(2018) and Afghanistan 🇦🇫(2018). Which is also to say that until the 21st Century only nine countries were allowed to play ‘proper’ cricket.

Test cricket however is not the only cricket. It’s simply hardcore cricket, and there is of course a version for people who just want to have fun (i.e. ‘lightweights’). The ICC Cricket World Cup is therefore instead based on the One Day International format of the sport. 20 teams have competed since it was first held in 1975. The extras are…

  • Bermuda 🇧🇲
  • Canada 🇨🇦
  • East Africa 🏳
  • Kenya 🇰🇪
  • Namibia 🇳🇦
  • Netherlands 🇳🇱
  • Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
  • UAE 🇦🇪

These 20 however are not the only 20. There are a total of 105 countries where cricket is well established enough to have a membership body of some sort (12 test nations plus 93 associate members). Of these countries five have managed to win the World Cup (25% of those who’ve competed, just under 5% of the total). For comparison 8 out of 79 teams have won the FIFA World Cup from a total pool of 211 eligible teams (10% and around 4%). Which is interesting in as much as the figures aren’t *that* different.

So is cricket the over-localised sport we’re here to salivate over? Kinda. But we can do better.

But before we move on, a final bit of cricket/country based knowledge for you. Above we mentioned that the first international in the sport took place in 1844. Who was it between? Canada 🇨🇦and the USA 🇺🇸. The first mentions of one of those nations in this section. Oh the irony (and thus, so deliciously English).

The women’s World Cup, in a notable parallel with what we saw in Rugby above features similar teams with a bit more dominance. Of the 11 tournaments so far, 10/11 have been won by either England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿or Australia 🇦🇺. In 2000 New Zealand took home the trophy. Until then they’d been 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd. More recently things have been shaken up a little by India, South Africa and the West Indies, but it’s hardly a confusing slate of cricketing nations.

Dominance indeed, but it’s not quite perfect so we must move on…

* * * *

American Athletes

The great/weird (depending on your outlook) thing about American sports is that while they are insanely popular across the 50 states, they are, to a greater and lesser extent, often ignored elsewhere. This is less true of Ice Hockey which is hugely popular in Canada, Scandinavia, Russia and Central Europe, while Basketball can claim popularity on a casual and less casual basis in many countries, if not powerhouse leagues worth all the 💰💰💰. And while baseball has its World Series (we’ll get to that) it’s played in even fewer places than its long distant cousin cricket. As for American Football? The clue’s in the name.

Baseball ⚾️

Baseball’s premier competition is, of course, The World Series a competition played between Major League Baseball teams from the USA (plus the Blue Jays, from Toronto). In fact, it’s all about the USA (apart from the Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos who upped and moved to Washington in 2005 to be closer to everyone else). So why’s it called the World Series? Well, in 1903 the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates – winners of National League – wrote to the owner of the Boston Red Sox – winners of the American League – to suggest a ‘World’s Championship Series’. And the name stuck. And why are there two leagues in Major League Baseball? Let’s worry about that another time.

But despite being played almost exclusively in just 18 US States plus  Ontario, Canada (great stat for you there) 27% of Major League Baseball players are foreign born. So is there an appetite out in the rest of the world?

Sort of.

Since its founding in 2006 20x teams have taken part in the World Baseball Classic, the real ‘world championships’ of the game. In addition, baseball featured at the 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics and will return in 2020 in Tokyo. The Olympics featured eight teams on each occasion. In terms of success it’s the Cubans 🇨🇺(3 Olympic golds and two silvers) who were dominant on the world stage, while Japan 🇯🇵 (2 World Classics for the men, 6 for the women), Puerto Rico 🇵🇷, Dominican Republic 🇩🇴, Australia 🇦🇺and South Korea 🇰🇷 are a bit handy too. Surprisingly, or not really, the USA 🇺🇸have only featured intermittently on this world stage, but of course that’s because the best players are paid far too much to drag themselves off to represent their country against Venezuela 🇻🇪or the Netherlands 🇳🇱for a mere metal necklace.

So while it’s basically all American, this is not the dominance we’re after.

Basketball 🏀

Basketball is the most globally popular of the American sports. It has been an Olympic sport since 1936 (and was a demonstration sport in 1904) and 16 different countries have medalled at the FIBA World Cup in the men’s event, with 17 medalling in the women’s. Although, to rewind a moment, the USA have medalled at every Olympics except 1980, when the whole US team boycotted, and have won Gold in all but three of the men’s tournaments and all but two of the women’s. So that’s pretty dominant. But given the existence of professional basketball leagues and teams in Spain 🇪🇸, Germany 🇩🇪, Italy 🇮🇹, Russia 🇷🇺, Turkey 🇹🇷, France🇫🇷, Lithuania 🇱🇹, Greece 🇬🇷, Australia🇦🇺 and China 🇨🇳 it’s fair to say it’s not a one nation sport. And while you might get pretty excellent value from your Team USA scarf, we’re going to keep going.

Ice Hockey 🏒

Ice Hockey isn’t played everywhere because it needs ice and the equator laughs in the face of ice. But we’re back in Rugby and Cricket territory here really with a handful of usual suspects (Canada 🇨🇦, USA 🇺🇸, Russia 🇷🇺, Sweden 🇸🇪, Finland 🇫🇮, Czech Republic 🇨🇿 – in that order) taking the vast majority of place on the Olympic podium and World Championships medal table for both men and women (with notable additions for Switzerland 🇨🇭, Slovakia 🇸🇰 and the German 🇩🇪 men’s team’s Olympic Odyssey in 2018).

So no (d)ice here.

American Football 🏈

The Americans LOVE  their version of football.

Most of the biggest stadiums on the planet were built with a gridiron on the pitch (and the very biggest are not for professional teams but for College teams, eight in total with a capacity of over 100,000 – when I was at University there was one football pitch and that was often used to store random outdoor furniture). But does anyone else? Well, kinda yeah, kinda no.

Japan 🇯🇵have won 2x IFAF World Cups (1999 and 2003 when the US didn’t take part) and picked up a podium place in every tournament since. Not many countries can muster a national team, but the 2015 version did attract European frontrunners Germany 🇩🇪, Austria 🇦🇹, Sweden 🇸🇪 and France 🇫🇷 as well as the US 🇺🇸, Canada 🇨🇦, Mexico 🇲🇽 (who are a bit handy), Brazil 🇧🇷, South Korea 🇰🇷, Japan 🇯🇵, Australia 🇦🇺 and Morocco 🇲🇦 (qualification happened by region as you can probably tell).

Nobody comes close to the USA for strength or, indeed, popularity. The overwhelming majority of players at the top of the game are American and the top teams are all fighting it out in the NFL. But like baseball and basketball the dominance kind of works against them as they don’t always bother to properly turn up to beat the rest of the world as it’s not really the point.

So don’t go knitting that USA scarf quite yet…

Other Footballs

But hold on, what about other footballs? It goes to follow that if you name a brand of football after yourself and make sure it doesn’t get too popular, then nobody else is going to play it.

  • Gaelic football is very Irish 🇮🇪(and one of the world’s few staunchly amateur sports). Australian Rules football is very Australian 🇦🇺(and only played professionally in Australia). BUT, the two can be combined under a code known as International or Compromise Rules when the top Gaelic teams play the top Australian teams. And so, by definition, the purity of the game in one nation is sullied. But oh so close. This dual-axis is further cemented by the Papua New Guinea, Irish, New Zealand dominance of the Australian Football International Cup
  • Canadian football is very Canadian 🇨🇦, though the top competition, the Grey Cup, was once won by the Baltimore Stallions who were involved during a brief American expansion during the 90s. So we’re very very close again, but not quite. And there isn’t an international competition anyway.


The Best of British


The World Snooker Championship has been held 84 times. In that time it has been won on 4 occasions by non-Brits: an Irishman 🇮🇪, a Canadian 🇨🇦 and two Australians 🇦🇺. New Zealand 🇳🇿, South Africa 🇿🇦 and, in a buck from British Colonialism, China 🇨🇳 have also been represented in the final. The women’s game can add a champion for Hong Kong 🇭🇰 and an Indian 🇮🇳 finalist.

It’s as close as a ball hanging over the pocket, but it’s not quite going to drop.


Since 1978, across both the BDO and PDC World Championships, the men’s title has been a good clutch of Dutch 🇳🇱, an Australian 🇦🇺, a couple of Canadians 🇨🇦 and A LOT of Brits. The women’s game has reached the powers of Russia 🇷🇺 and the USA 🇺🇸as well. But it’s mainly the St George’s cross flying.

No bull.


The World Indoor Bowls Championship has returned a Scottish 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿or English 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿winner in 69% of all championships (men’s, women’s, team) competed for since 1979. Of the rest, the majority have been won by the Welsh 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿, Northern Irish (emoji says 🙅‍♀️) or a few plucky souls from Guernsey, Australia 🇦🇺and New Zealand 🇳🇿sent the balance.

Close, but jack all here.

Onward. (and, at last, a straight answer).

The All-Conquering Heroes

There’s a good list of every single World Championships (and similar) in sport on Wikipedia and I’ve looked through it so you don’t have to.

Floorball is a perennial toss up between Sweden 🇸🇪and Finland 🇫🇮(though the Swiss women play their part), Ringette between Canada 🇨🇦and Finland 🇫🇮(what is it about the Finns, they LOVE an odd sport), Lacrosse by the USA 🇺🇸and Canada 🇨🇦, Padel between Argentina 🇦🇷and Spain 🇪🇸, Bandy between Sweden 🇸🇪and Russia 🇷🇺. And while Brazil 🇧🇷dominate at Beach Soccer, Australia 🇦🇺netball, the Dutch 🇳🇱the long track and the South Koreans 🇰🇷the short track in speed skating, Polo is the domain of the South American trio of Brazil 🇧🇷, Chile 🇨🇱and Argentina 🇦🇷and plenty more besides… in each of these others always get a look in.

Below are the sports in which the world champions have only ever come from one nation and so are vying for that single scarf berth.

  • Kabaddi, India 🇮🇳have won every single World Cup in both the Standard and Circle style. That’s 13x victories across men’s and women’s competitions. CLEAN SWEEP.
  • Indoor Lacrosse can go one better though with the same winner, runner-up and bronze medallist in each of the four global competitions held so far: Canada 🇨🇦🥇, Iriquois 🥈, USA 🥉.
  • Tchoukball, For the women, a victory: every single world tournament has been won by the Chinese women 🇨🇳, and all bar two by the Chinese men. (the 1970 and 2004 World Tchoukball championships were won by the French 🇫🇷and the Swiss 🇨🇭respectively).

And that’s it.

So take your pick. But as well as your one and only scarf, you’re probably going to need a rule book (although, fun fact, we used to do Kabaddi in PE lessons at my school in Glasgow which is very much not in India, so you never know where there could be potential future shoots of growth).



Last year, just before all that football stuff kicked off in Russia, I wandered from my home in South East London to Hayes Lane, the home of Bromley Town F.C. There, after purchasing a reasonably priced pint of beer and taking my seat in a spartan stand behind a new born baby and a man still wearing his cycling helmet I watched Cascadia (a region of the Pacific Northwest) take on Western Armenia (a region of Turkey) in the CONIFA World Cup. The game was entertaining for many reasons: It was end to end, it had four goals (all to Cascadia), and it was soundtracked by the father of one of the Cascadia players whose general anger at decisions made during that 90 minutes would rival anything Alex Jones is capable of. It was wonderful.

I’d long yearned to attend a CONIFA game, and here I was, on a Tuesday afternoon leaving my pregnant wife at home to do the hoovering, watching one. All my Christmases and all that.

Actually, that’s not strictly true as CONIFA was only founded in 2013.

I’d long yearned to attend a competitive fixture organised by the N.F. Board, a predecessor of CONIFA since I’d worked with a chap in a small office above a Ladbrokes in North London. The days were slow but filled with joy. We’d listen to Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show and marvel, ponder the life stories of the people passing on the busy street below and spend hours eking out increasingly esoteric facts about, well, anything. But often, about football. And not a week would pass without a wistful and yearning conversation about the romance of the N.F. Board, now CONIFA.

CONIFA, if it wasn’t already clear, operates as an alternative to FIFA. They put together competitive football fixtures for regions, areas and islands not officially recognised as countries (in most cases), and therefore not recognised by the official body of the sport. All told, they give an opportunity for glory for those who don’t subscribe to accepted geography. Heroes one and all.

* * * * *

CONIFA is, as these things so often seem to be, headquartered in Sweden and currently represents 54 different teams from all corners of the globe. Five of these teams also have a women’s team which is to be applauded.

At this point on Citius, Altius, Nerdius, I’d normally list the nations for you complete with icons of their flags rendered in emoji. But these nations not being the kind of nations that are recognised by anyone much, let alone the good people who make the emoji, I can’t do that. Instead, here is a snapshot of the CONIFA rankings – yes, of COURSE they have rankings – as at October 2018:

Here’s the top 40 rankings, and here’s the full list of members (flags and all).

Wikipedia also gives us a great breakdown of the qualifying criteria for members that I’ve brazenly reposted here for those of you too engrossed to click the links above:

CONIFA expressly uses the term “members” rather than “countries” or “states”. A football association may be eligible to apply for membership of CONIFA if it, or the entity (ethnic and/or linguistic minority, indigenous group, cultural organization, territory) it represents, is not a member of FIFA and satisfies one or more of the following criteria:

  • The Football Association is a member of one of the six continental confederations of FIFA, which are: AFC, CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, OFC, UEFA
  • The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of the International Olympic Committee
  • The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of one of the member federations of Association of IOC Recognised International Sports Federations (ARISF)
  • The entity represented by the Football Association is in possession of an ISO 3166-1 country code.
  • The entity represented by the Football Association is a de-facto independent territory. A territory is considered de facto independent if it meets all of the following criteria: (a) a well-defined territory; (b) a permanent population; (c) an autonomous government, and (d) diplomatic recognition by at least one of the Member States of the United Nations
  • The entity represented by the Football Association is included on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories
  • The entity represented by the Football Association is included in the directory of countries and territories of the Traveler’s Century Club.
  • The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of the UNPO and/or the FUEN
  • The entity represented by the Football Association is a minority included in the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, maintained and published by Minority Rights Group International
  • The entity represented by the Football Association is a linguistic minority, the language of which is included on the List of ISO 639-2 codes

If you’ve read this far, you will now I imagine be suitably inspired to get lost in a CONIFA shaped rabbit hole that will fill you with joy and numerous browser tabs, and I encourage you to go deep. The history of non-FIFA related football is a wonderful one only made more wonderful through self discovery.

But I will leave you with one snippet…

When I went to Bromley, just beyond the borders of South East London to attend that match at the 2018 CONIFA World Cup, the event itself was not actually hosted by England or the UK. It wasn’t even hosted in Europe. It was hosted by CONIFA member Barawa, a region on Somalia. Not that the Barawa FA are based in Africa. They are based in London, officially representing the Somali diaspora in the city. And so, it was to Bromley (and Haringey, Carshalton, Enfield and beyond) that far flung football fans made their way to watch the beautiful game.


The Federation of InterBirthday Football Outifts (FIFO)

There are, depending on how you look at it, around 200 countries in the world:

  • 193 members of the UN
  • 206 sovereign states
  • 206 nations with National Olympic Committees
  • 211 members of FIFA

And it’s these nations that are used to splice up the world into the neat packets (politically questionable of course, but still) that make international competition possible.

It can’t have escaped your notice however, because it hasn’t escaped mine, that nations are not all born equal. Some are massive, some are tiny. Some have many people, some have not very many at all. Some have the perfect weather for schlepping around outside, some are devastatingly wet and windy.

It’s ultimately not fair. But then, what is?

Well, how about the overall distribution of birthdays? 🎂

Sure, there’s some shift throughout the year with September/October sitting a well positioned 9 months after Christmas and New Year frivolities but the overall the numbers are convincingly consistent (England/Wales data, US Data) for 363/366 potential birthdays at least. Only Feb 29th (obviously a special case), Christmas Day and Boxing Day exhibit notable drops from the mean.

And so what? So this…

What if FIFA, or the IOC or the IAAF or anyone else decided to run teams not based on citizenship but based on the day you were born? A truly international coming together of sisters and brothers who share birthdays rather than passports. Would it work? Who cares. Instead, let’s see which teams might perform well in a football tournament organised around this concept and spend some time elbow deep in spreadsheets. Of course, I’ve chosen football because it’s easy to get data on all professional footballer’s birthdays so we’ll leave it there for now and, as ever, I’m tired/my child needs rearing… (although, bonus info, Steve Redgrave, Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny AND Mo Farah four of the UK’s top 6 all-time Olympic medal winners were all born on March 23rd which is frankly BIZARRE and slightly unnerving and leads me to seriously consider whether lizards are in fact running the planet).

* * * * *

Having crunched the data very unscientifically and while trying to also eat a croissant, I have identified birthdates that might offer the spine of a successful team from the pool of current players presented to you here in a vague kind of seeding. I could have tried to eke out a full XI of course, but I really wanted to enjoy the croissant.

Team February 5th 🎂
I find it hard to believe that it is only in researching this weird idea that I have discovered the fact that Neymar and CR7 are candle-cake twins. But there you are. And, along with a couple of other names at either ends of their careers, they could well be brought together to argue about dead-ball duties in actual Portuguese.

Oh, and Sven-Göran Eriksson would qualify to take the helm in the dugout.

Team February 14th 🎂
Romantics will love the idea of seeing Kevin Keegan back on the World stage at the head of a team surely nicknamed ‘The Valentines’, not to mention Eriksen and Cavani providing some very lovely goals.

Kevin Keegan would be the man needing special tracksuits made.

Team January 8th 🎂
Strong through the midfield, but – like every other team here – totally devoid of any presence in net.

Manager TBC.

Team December 20th 🎂
A mix of youth, experience and a love of a fine pizza might just drag this team through the rounds making up for all those times they’ve been given a ‘joint’ birthday and Christmas present that’s barely the sum of its parts.

Manager TBC.

Team May 4th 🎂
Team ‘Star Wars’ have past and future star appeal but no actual war lords (as far as we know).

Manager TBC.

Team February 26th 🎂
Those who like players with one name and North London might be seduced by the boys running out for team 2/26. A solid line-up to fight through the rounds (which would be even more protracted than the multi-year FIFA qualification route presumably with 155 extra teams to deal with).

Ole Gunnar Solskjær would be shouting tactics.

Data from Transfermarkt.com

Great Expectations

On Sunday 15th July the 2018 World Cup Final kicked off after a month of sweaty Russian VAR-checked action. France won it beating a resurgent Croatia 4-2 after some highly questionable refereeing decisions.

But you know that.

The real question (i.e. the question we’re going to waste our time on now) is:

Was it what we expected?”

And the answer, should you be too lazy / busy / entirely disinterested to read further is: Mostly.

Netherlands v Northern Ireland, 1978 FIFA World Cup Qualification
Netherlands v Northern Ireland, 1978 FIFA World Cup Qualification. Not relevant, but aesthetically great.

* * * * *

Russia 2018. The FIFA World Cup. 32 teams supplement their training camps with borscht, visits to towering Soviet era monuments and general confusion because “…isn’t Russia meant to be cold? What about those hats?! I bought three!!!”. Fans from 32 nations debate with each other and the rest of the world about how well they will do, have done, could do next time and should be doing year-in-year-out. The media feed on the fatty morsels of ‘expectation’ served with a crusty side of pessimism (or a lovely optimism salad, depending on their agenda and appetite for extended metaphors).

As results billow in the post-mortems are quite clear on whether expectations have been missed, met or exceeded…

Germany, to get slightly ahead of ourselves, spectacularly missed expectations.
But you don’t need two separate tables of data to tell you that. Though we’ll get to that glory soon…


Expectation is riddled with context.

There is, for example, almost no expectation that I will be the President of Tuvalu in the year 2050. This is for many reasons, not least because Tuvalu does not make room for the role of President. However, if we were to find ourselves in 2050, the office of President having now been passed into local law, its election process based on a knock-out Super Mario Kart competition that only I and 73 other people have entered all of whom are known to be rubbish on Rainbow Road… then the expectations are very different (because I OWN Rainbow Road).

Before the World Cup, the expectation that Germany would go out in the Group Stage was lower than an ‘legend level’ limbo bar (a stick on the ground). After losing to Mexico in the opening game there was negligible expectation, but possibility. About 75 minutes into the final round of games with Sweden leading Mexico 3-0, South Korea giving nothing away, a complete lack of energy from the Germans and 15-20 minutes left on the clock… then the expectation became tangible.

Of course it doesn’t always cook so slowly. Expectations for ‘Sbornaya’ (the hosts) rocketed after they beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game. And rightly so. Having looked likely to fumble themselves to a devastating early exit during their last competitive outing at the Confederations Cup, they proved that home advantage means something when it matters. And those expectations, of course, were well surpassed…

Great Expectations.

The expectation pre-World Cup was that Brazil would lift the trophy.

I say this not as my opinion, or as a general feeling from the masses. I say this with certainty. This is because I’m simply stating what the market believed. The market, in this case, being sports betting.

What’s useful about the odds offered by bookmakers on sporting events is that they essentially measure the expectation of what will happen in a given match and give it a quantifiable ‘score’. If something is very likely to happen, then it will have short odds meaning that if you bet money on it, you won’t win very much back. If it’s very unlikely to happen (either statistically, such as there being 50 corners in one football match, or based on cold hard information, such as Patrick Thistle making the Champions League final before the end of the decade), then it will have long odds.

Bookies become very rich because they put a lot of time and effort into determining the odds they offer to ensure that, over the long term, they are right and ‘things-that-aren’t-meant-to-happen’ don’t happen. Because when they do it costs them LOTS OF CASH. And it’s this reliance on data plus the crucial driver of money-at-stake that make the odds for a sporting event very reliable as an indicator of what’s meant to happen. AKA, what the real expectations are for the outcome. Something the partisan press, your mate Barry or ‘a feeling you had in the shower’ are less able to do.

On June 18th, the odds on which country would win the 2018 World Cup looked liked this:

  • 🇧🇷 Brazil: 4/1
  • 🇪🇸 Spain: 9/2
  • 🇫🇷 France: 7/1
  • 🇩🇪Germany: 8/1
  • 🇧🇪Belgium: 10/1
  • 🇦🇷 Argentina: 12/1
  • 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 England: 16/1
  • 🇵🇹 Portugal: 22/1
  • 🇺🇾 Uruguay: 28/1
  • 🇭🇷 Croatia: 30/1

Info taken from The Week article based on Oddschecker data.


But that was the 18th June. And the world was a very different place when, on 15th July nearly a month later, 11 Frenchman took to the field in Moscow to take on Croatia. On that day the odds broke down like this:

🇫🇷 France @ 6/5 | Draw @ 2/1 | 🇭🇷 Croatia @ 3/1

France were *expected* to win.

Odds from Odd Portal’s averaged odds for the World Cup.

A word on odds.

For the rest of this article, despite what I’ve done above, I’m going to use decimal odds (HK style, like the best sweet and sour dishes) simply because it makes it very easy to compare lots of numbers at a glance, not least if you’re not used to looking at these things. Fractional odds, as used above – 4/1 for example, ‘four to one’ – are the usual go to which is why they’re quoted above, but as things get tighter, they become a bit (or a lot) trickier to follow.

When it comes to decimal odds (and to clarify, and for the purist, while we’re using Honk Kong odds, there are slight variations used in the UK, Europe, US and beyond),  then the closer to 0 the odds are (the lowest they can be, 0 would literally just get you your money back) the more likely it is believed that result will happen. So 0.5 is expected to happen more than 1.5. Got it? Good.

I’ve used Odd Portal’s averaged odds for the World Cup to ‘write’ this article. This is a store of the match odds (i.e. for the result after 90 minutes) in the minutes before each game kicked off averaged from a number of bookmakers based around the world.

According to their data the most sure-fire of results came in at 0.21, for 🇪🇸Spain to beat 🇮🇷Iran and 🇧🇷Brazil to beat 🇨🇷Costa Rica. Both did. If you’d put £10 on those games at those odds you’d have found yourself with the princely sum of… £12.10 at the final whistle. A profit of £2.10. Get in the Um Bongos.

Once the odds get out to around 3.0 – and admittedly I’m going to get a bit unscientific here – you’re reaching ‘less likely’ territory. And by the time you hit 6.0 you’re well into ‘unlikely’ territory. But of course it happens.

The longest odds to win in Russia 2018 were the 18.48 odds for 🇰🇷South Korea to beat 🇩🇪Germany in the last round of group games. If you’d foreseen that (or, more likely, your finger had slipped when placing the bet), then you’d have collected £184.80 profit from your £10. Comfortably enough for a flight to Frankfurt to console fans of Die Mannschaft.

To get the most from this article (and I’ll admit, like much Nerdius content, it’s a tough squeeze) that’s all you need to know. That and that life IS NOT too short to engage with this stuff.

Now let’s get back to context. And, because they had nothing to do with the World Cup and won’t sully our data, let’s talk about 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿Scotland. Because a) they never do so this won’t really age and b) they’re the team I was born to lament.

There are, I think, four different contexts when discussing the expectations of a football (or I guess any) team:

HISTORICAL EXPECTATION: What normally happens?

We lose to the minnows and put up a fight against decent teams.

GENERAL EXPECTATION: Where should we be?

In the World Cup final! We have more people than Croatia or Uruguay and the ability to invest in facilities. Plus we managed to produce Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law and many others, so we can again. We just need to get our boys playing competitively abroad and sort out the domestic structure and it will come.

ADVANCE EXPECTATION: What’s likely to happen next week, next month?

We’ll lose and it will be gutting.

IMMEDIATE EXPECTATION: What’s likely to happen later today?

We’ll lose but will still go to the bar.

The self-deprecating Scotland fan chat aside, these four contexts often get muddled when people talk about expectations. Indeed, I’d contend that if we want to have a useful conversation about whether teams have failed to meet or surpassed the expectations set for them, then the only thing that really matters is the ‘immediate’ context.

You can, to use a footballing cliche, only play one game at a time. And you can only beat who’s in front of you. Not only that, but expectations live in the very real here and now, not in some fantasy parallel universe where there’s been more investment in the game, where a world class player turns out to have a Scottish grannie and where Scottish clubs were subsumed into the English system a la Swansea and Cardiff. This is true for the fans of course, but even more so for the players and their support staff who work hard and don’t want to come up short.

Historically, the Netherlands have an excellent team. Best team never to win the World Cup basically. But their current team didn’t even qualify. It’s pointless to base expectations on what Cruyff et al did, just as it is to pine for the team who made the final 8 years ago and finished third at the last outing. They’re old. They’re gone. The new lads may as well be wearing clogs.

In terms of the General expectation based on, say, ‘available players’, the top 10 nations by raw numbers are: China, USA, Germany, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia. This is from FIFA’s ‘Big Count’ a survey of all 207 member nations on the numbers involved in the game. Sure, economics come into it too, but 🇧🇩Bangladesh – who have the 9th biggest football playing population in the world – are currently ranked 194 in the world by FIFA, while 🇨🇲Cameroon (49), 🇨🇮Côte d’Ivoire (68) and 🇸🇳Senegal (27) all have a lower GDP per capita. Just some top line stats of course, but its enough to tell you they tell you nothing.

Advance calls on what might happen are useful and based on the current ‘real’ scheme of things, but things can change quickly: Injuries, a great or terrible performance in the lead-up, a sacked manager, an owl roosting in the ground. It all matters.

It’s therefore only the ‘Immediate’ context, the judgement call made in the final moments before the game with all the info at our disposal that can be said to really represent whether we should be overjoyed, or over-angry at the end result. Of course injuries or strange refereeing decisions happen mid-game to change the course of history too, and so expectation can change mid-game, but we’ve got to draw a line somewhere. Or at least, I’m going to.

And so, after all that, let’s get to the data.

Below is a table with all of the results from the 2018 World (that’s 64 games) and the odds from just before kick-off for a win for either team, or a draw. One caveat, as mentioned above the odds are for the 90 minute result. In the knock-out rounds I have taken any game that went to penalties to be a draw. If a game was won in extra time then I’ve counted it as a win (though this is only relevant for one game).

Note: Actual result highlighted by cell colour. ‘Favourite’ result (if not actual) shown by orange text. See the Expectation Key for a traffic light style totally made up system of my devising for how ‘likely’ each result was. 

Some things of note:

  • 39 games met expectations, 25 games did not
  • Of the 25 games that did not meet expectations 14 still had results that were pretty likely (i.e. it was seen as a close contest)
  • Of the 25 games that did not meet expectations, 6 could be termed disasters / heroic (more accurately were over 4.0 odds wise)
    • 🇦🇷Argentina’s draw with 🇮🇸Iceland
    • 🇲🇽Mexico beating 🇩🇪Germany
    • 🇯🇵Japan beating 🇨🇴Colombia
    • 🇸🇦Saudi Arabia beating 🇪🇬Egypt
    • 🇪🇸Spain’s draw with 🇲🇦Morocco
    • 🇰🇷South Korea beating 🇩🇪Germany
  • From expectations of TOTAL 1.14 Germany games went 25.12 (and was 28.32 until Tony Kroos score his last minute free kick against Sweden). YIKES
  • Almost all upsets occurred in the Group stages. While 8x games were ‘unexpected’ results out of the 16 knock out games, only one – 🇪🇸Spain v 🇷🇺Russia – was a clear upset (3.16 for the draw prior to Spain being eliminated on penalties)
  • You may also note that England were actually favourites to beat Belgium in the group game, which was the only anomaly I found when cleaning through the data. However Belgium were more open about fielding a weakened team and England had been looking nifty. Further research confirms this was the expectation of the masses.

Of course, the real question we want to uncover is which teams at the World Cup over performed and which under performed. And for that, this table is far more useful…

Note: This is a simple traffic light system. Red = didn’t meet expectations, yellow = did, green = exceeded expectations (all based on the data from the previous table, of course).  In the first column I’ve given the teams an overall ‘colour’ rating based on their game-by-game results. In the second column is the ‘Advance’ expectation (unscientific, my view based on general chatter about each team). Under EQ I’ve made up a fancy ‘expectation quotient’ that means NOTHING but looks confusing and thus swanky (it’s just exceeded:met:missed). In the final columns I’ve marked ticks for if teams exceeded or failed to meet expectations on at least one occasion. It’s simpler than I’ve made it sound. 

Some more things of note:

  • 🇪🇸Spain failed the most. But only because they managed to fail twice and still make the KO round, so they could fail again
  • 🇪🇸Spain’s 4x failures comes in just ahead of 4th placed 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿England, who failed 3x times (and never exceeded expectations game-by-game)
  • It’s therefore, as in England’s case, very possible to far exceed advance expectations while actually failing to meet expectations game-by-game.
  • Three teams did just as expected and went out in the Group Stage (🇵🇦Panama, 🇹🇳Tunisia, 🇵🇪Peru)
  • 🇰🇷South Korea, 🇨🇷Costa Rica, 🇦🇺Australia, 🇮🇷Iran and 🇸🇦Saudi Arabia over performed, but still went out in the Group Stage
  • 14x teams met or exceeded expectations in every match (which means 18 teams dropped the ball at least once)
  • Of the finalists, 🇫🇷France ‘met expectations’ throughout (except a dodgy draw with 🇩🇰Denmark), while 🇭🇷Croatia were a right mixed bag
  • As such, any of the top handful of teams (🇫🇷France, 🇧🇷Brazil, 🇪🇸Spain, 🇩🇪Germany) could only ever really meet expectations, or flop
  • 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿England, 🇭🇷 Croatia and a handful of others show that you can underperform on a given day but still go far as long as you can take a decent penalty (or save them), or at least slip up at the ‘right time’.

* * * * *

And breathe…

So them’s the numbers. Have a poke around, berate my colour coding, marvel at 🇲🇦Morocco, 🇮🇸Iceland and 🇸🇳Senegal who managed to miss, meet and exceed expectations in their triplets of games – the holy trinity (for literally this article and no where else).

But what all this faffing about with odds really tells us is that while the media’s colouring of expectations aren’t quite accurate, the bare game-by-game results data is only useful in making the kind of technical-but-tedious point that won’t get you invited to many parties (obviously examining the data and finding weird coincidences (like the fact 🇧🇷Brazil’s results when stated as ‘.’ for didn’t meet and ‘-‘ for met  – no need for ‘*’ for exceeded – paints an appropriately sad face: .—.) is totally normal).

Expectations in football are bigger than that.

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿England (to use an example close to my house) were seen to have had a brilliant World Cup. Which is on balance fair. But when you step back and look at it they actually failed to meet expectations in three matches our of seven, and one of those was in the semi-final. So they really *should* have done better. They really *should* have been in the final (where it would have been expected to all go a bit ‘Taillebourg‘).

But then they won a penalty shoot-out.
And that was HUGE for England and their fans.
And it made a Radio 1 DJ point this out.
Which is wonderful.

Football is the most popular sport in the world precisely because it doesn’t always follow expectations. Whether it’s Denmark ’92, Leicester 2016 or The Miracle of Istanbul; the ‘Hand of God’ (or his second), the Panenka or the Milla wiggle. It’s the moments beyond the results that defy expectation but create their own world where the prize for your commitment is something wonderful you’d never quite see coming.

This World Cup had Ronaldo’s free kick against Spain and Neuer slipping against South Korea. It had ridiculous strikes from right backs, Panama’s first ever World Cup goal and it had the first teenager to score in a final since some lad called Edson Arantes do Nascimento. But it also had Senegal and Japan fans cleaning up the stadium. And it had this Brazilian fan in tears of joy along with the rest of us…

When you take them together it’s all of these intricate, all-encompassing narratives swarming together that fulfil the expectations of fans around the world. Sure, we never bring ourselves to  expect these things from great sport – after all it’s the knowledge that this could be another drab 0-0 that makes the drama possible – but it’s the expectation they can happen that lives in every kick and every chant and every stupid VAR-bothering replay on a pitch-side TV that looks like it should be showing a rotating graphic of what’s on the stadium carvery and an exhortation to ‘book early for Christmas’.

Because while it’s easy to kill an afternoon pondering the black and white reality of ‘success’ with stats and facts and data (and Lord is it easy to complain and goad as required), it’s the expectation that there’s so much more to sport that keeps us coming back.