A World Cup Miscellany: Group G

This is the seventh in series of brief and miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E, and Group F).  The mostly light-hearted intention is to both provoke and satisfy curiosities, to utilize Eric Hobsbawn’s notion that “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people,” and to fill some space towards the World Cup frenzy…

How many times do you think you’ve seen a world map in your lifetime?  Probably most days of your primary school years, all the times you’ve opened Google Earth, many of your trips to the library or poster shops, and quite a few others.  It’s probably safe to say most of us have seen a world map thousands of times in our lives.  So think quickly, using that automatic knowledge to respond on instinct to a trivia question: if you start in Chicago and go straight south to the equator, where will you be?

Did you say Brazil?  When I ask my students this question in General Psychology most say Brazil.  But let me come back to Brazil (along with their Group G mates North Korea, Portugal, and Côte d’Ivoire) below.  Because the correct answer to my trivia question is that you’d be in the middle of the ocean.  And the point is that despite an accumulation of much evidence from the things we’ve seen and known through our lives, the human mind is lazy: it relies heavily and commonly on cognitive short-cuts, or what psychologists call cognitive schemas.  In the case of a world map, our mind doesn’t bother to store the millions of specific bits of data gathered from thousands of viewings.  Instead, the mind approximates those specific bits into an easy schema that goes something like: Chicago is in the middle of North America, going south from North America puts me in South America, and Brazil is a big country that takes up most of the middle of South America.

Of course, most of the time the human mind is not trying to deal with pointless trivia questions.  Most of the time the human mind is trying to make sense of daily life, or learn about something really important like a soccer tournament.  And because we are pummeled with millions of specific bits of information every waking hour (the pixels on our television screen, the blades of grass on our lawn, the goop gathering at the corner of our dog’s eye), it is usually helpful to ignore many specific details.  In fact, the ability of the human mind to effectively use cognitive short cuts is one of the key characteristics that distinguishes it from a computer: computers are much better than us at processing millions of bits of information, but they are not very good at employing schemas.  Computers, unlike the human mind, have trouble solving ill-defined problems, so as of yet there is no such thing as true artificial intelligence.  But those human short-cuts come at the cost of some mistakes on the details.

Which brings me back to Brazil.  Why, with brutish Lúcio as their captain, dour Dunga as their coach, and an obvious willingness to do whatever it takes to win, do we continue to buy the manufactured illusion of joga bonito?  Certainly part of it may be that Brazil did once play in something genuinely approximating a samba-style, and that individual Brazilian players and teams sometimes still do.  But most of it, I would hypothesize, is because it offers us an easy cognitive short-cut: by simply associating the Seleção with the Brazilian schemas of joga bonito and the samba, the human mind doesn’t have to do the hard work of paying attention to counter-evidence on the field in nearly every modern Brazilian game.

This hypothesis has been germinating in my own human mind since July 4th, 1994, when the US played Brazil in the World Cup Round of 16.  As hosts, everyone just seemed relieved that the US had made it out of the group stage.  No one expected the US to be competitive against Brazil (who would go on to win the tournament in a penalty shoot-out after a very joga feio 0-0 tie with Italy).  Yet, somehow, the US was competitive—despite having only one player who could even approach the skill of the Brazilian eleven, the US played them straight up through nearly the entire first half.  Until Brazil realized that one player was their solution, and proceeded to put Tab Ramos in the hospital for 3.5 months with a fractured skull by way of a vicious Leonardo (of recently-fired-from-AC Milan vintage) elbow.  It was arguably the most cynical foul in the history of the World Cup.  It is my retort whenever I hear anyone crowing about Brazil with the lazy cognitive short-cut that is “joga bonito.”

Now, one could argue that my own efforts to offer World Cup previews distilling complicated, diverse places down to random statistics and subjective impressions is also an appeal to cognitive schemas.  And that would be true.  As I noted above, these short-cuts are mostly useful—they allow us to process, sort, and discuss the millions of bits of information that confront us everyday such that we can experience the enjoyment of coming to understand the things we see.

So as much as I dislike it, I can appreciate why people like to think of Brazil in terms of ‘samba-style.’  And I know it is not quite fair to present North Koreans as repressed and robotic.  We can’t reasonably say that Ivorians—Les Éléphants—are simply big and powerful.  It is an over-generalization that the Portuguese play with a hollow Mediterranean flair.  But all those schemas do give us a basis for some pretty good conversation.

Group G: The Group of _______________

ESPN's 2010 FIFA World Cup Murals by the Cape Town-based AM I Collective

Group G is widely considered the tournament’s real ‘Group of Death’ thanks to the presence of three legitimate title contenders in Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, and Portugal.  Interestingly, however, the fact that North Korea is the lowest ranked team in the tournament according to FIFA (at 106th as of April) means that the average ranking of the quartet is actually the second worst in the tournament behind Group F with Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, and Slovakia.  Côte d’Ivoire also doesn’t help things at 27th—though the Ivoirians look much better with the book-makers.  The point here, though, is that settling for calling this the Group of Death just wouldn’t work for my statistical miscellany.

The next problem is that North Korea made gathering random national statistics for Group G something of a challenge.  In many international databases North Korea just shows up as “not available.”  Which seems somehow appropriate, though also disappointing: I hate to have to guess based on stereotypes (which, of course, are a type of cognitive schema).

Even without complete data for North Korea, however, Group G stands out amongst this World Cup’s groups for its relative poverty and under-development.  It has the lowest average GDP per capita of the World Cup groups by half, at an average of around $9000 per year (with Brazil at around $10500, North Korea around $1800, Côte d’Ivoire around $1670, and Portugal around $21900).  And while North Korea is not ranked on the United Nations Human Development Index, Côte d’Ivoire is by this measure the ‘least developed’ country in the tournament with a world ranking of 163rd out of 182 nations (it has a higher per capita income than Ghana, but a lower life expectancy).  With Brazil at 75th on the HDI and Portugal at 34th, Group G is the only World Cup group without a single country among the world’s 25 ‘most developed.’

Ultimately, though, focusing on those negatives for such an interesting set of teams and nations just doesn’t seem right.  So I went searching for the statistics where these countries come out on top.  Brazil, for example, ranks high on several religious statistics: it is the country with the most Catholics and most Seventh-day Adventists in the world, the second most Jehovah’s Witnesses (behind the USA), and the soccer world’s most high-profile evangelical: Kaká.  Of course, the ancestry for many Brazilian beliefs lie in the old colonial master Portugal—which has nowhere near the population of Brazil, but does have the fourth highest percentage of Catholics of any country.  I even learned to my great surprise that North Korea has a few thousand hardy Catholics—good for 158th in the world.

Obviously, however, the North Korean’s particular distinction here is raising the communist banner (while North Korea is technically governed by a “a creative application of Marxism-Leninism” called Juche, it is usually classified along with China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam as one of the five remaining officially communist countries).  Finally, when the best I could come up with for Côte d’Ivoire was that it is by far the world’s top exporter of cocoa, I couldn’t resist the alliteration: I’m labeling Group G the Group of Congregations, Communists, and Cocoa.

Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?

There is a guy who’s gotten some local press in my current hometown for promising to move for a year to live in whichever country wins the World Cup.  He claims that the most common question evoked by this promise is: what happens if North Korea wins?  So he has done some prep work:

My best bet for getting in will probably be on the trip sponsored by the KFA (Korean Friendship Association) on August 12th through the 19th of this year. This trip is for US passport holders only and is for a maximum of 20 people. First come first served…So my plan if North Korea wins is to book this trip, get there, slip my handlers, hide out for a few weeks via an underground network of local western sympathizers that I’m sure just has to exist, and eventually integrate myself seamlessly into DPRK society until my year of residency is complete. Good Luck North Korea. I got this.

I almost want North Korea to advance just to see this happen.  I also have to admit that I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen of striker Jong Tae Se and am fascinated by the fact that he would pledge allegiance to the “Great Leader” despite being raised in Japan.  The whole Kim Jong-il issue, however, is a bit too much to abide.  Though it will be interesting to see how his regime would spin a first round loss as a victory for “the spirit of self-reliance,” anything else would be too easy to propagandize.  North Korea is out.

While the leaders of Côte d’Ivoire are probably not opposed to a bit of propagandizing themselves, I agree with those who see Didier Drogba and the Ivorians as Africa’s best chance in this tournament.  Sure the appointment of Sven-Göran Eriksson seems bizarre and unfortunate, but we all know Drogba is the real leader of this team.  And any footballer who has inspired his own dance craze and musical genre (Drogbacité) while using his platform to his part towards unifying a war-torn country would have to be considered one of the good guys: Côte d’Ivoire is in. [Editor's note: Andrew obviously wrote this before news came this morning of Drogba's injury, that may rule him out of the tournament]

I’ve obviously tipped my hand earlier in regard to Brazil: I just can’t forgive the Seleção for maiming Tab Ramos in 1994.  I also have decidedly mixed feelings about the politics of their pre-World Cup friendlies.  By scheduling Zimbabwe and Tanzania for a few million dollars worth of appearance fees, Brazil would seem to be simultaneously supporting one of the world’s great tyrants in Robert Mugabe and draining resources from the game in two of the world’s poorest countries.  But at the same time, they are one of the few teams in the tournament actually offering a chance to the rest of Africa to catch a glimpse of world class football.

Finally, based on the contest between the former-colonizer and the formerly-colonized my temptation is to sympathize with the formerly-colonized: Brazil over Portugal.  But that was so long ago—with Brazil gaining independence in 1822, and proceeding to maintain an ‘empire’ of its own—that it hardly counts.  I also kind of like the fact that Portugal has an American coach (ok, he’s just the goalkeeper coach, and I’m actually no fan of head coach Carlos Queiroz, but still…).

So based on my completely subjective formula of soccer history and global politics, if there were any justice in the world Côte d’Ivoire and Portugal would advance.  But, as Leonardo’s 1994 elbow makes clear, there is rarely any justice in the world.

Group G – Some Stats

FIFA rank Betting odds on winning the Cup Population GDP per capita Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index Life expectancy Rank out of 170 nations on total number of Catholics A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)
Brazil 1 5 192 mil. 10500 75 72.4 1 15
North Korea 106 2000 24 mil. 1800 N/A 67.3 158 19
Cote d’Ivoire 27 30 21 mil. 1670 163 48.3 55 4
Portugal 3 28 10.6 mil. 21900 34 78.1 21 20
- FIFA rank is based on the “FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking” updated April 28th, 2010
- Betting odds on winning the World Cup are from the “win-market” best odds as of May 12th on the Guardian web-site.
- Population is rounded from estimates drawing on various sources in Wikipedia.
- GDP per capita is in US dollars and based on 2008 list by the International Monetary Fund “derived from purchasing power parity (PPP) calculations.”
- The Human Development Index rank is from the United Nations Development Program combining 2007 data on “Life Expectancy, Education, Standard of living and GDP.”
- Life expectancy in years is based on the 2009 list from the CIA World Factbook for “overall life expectancy at birth.”
– Ranking out of 170 nations on total number of Catholics is from NationMaster.com.
- The 1-32 ranking of how much the World Cup matters is my own totally subjective sense of how much the country as a whole cares about how the team performs in South Africa; it is intended entirely in fun.

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