The World Cup in Brazil is now barely six months (!) away and like many around the world I am eagerly considering my Yank’s chances to win—not as unlikely as some might imagine—and, more realistically, the chances my second team, Argentina, has to finally catapult Lionel Messi unquestionably into the stratosphere of the all-time greats1 with a third—and hopefully completely controversy free2—victory. Beyond that, I like to consider which Latin American powers are the most impressive in their World Cup performances, and which ones are most disappointing. On the surface, this seems obvious: clearly Brazil, with its five World Cup titles is the most impressive and perhaps Peru or Mexico is the most disappointing. As far as the former goes, I don’t know if I agree and would argue that Mexico is definitely the most disappointing, once you consider population, passion for the sport and economic development.
Perhaps labelling Mexico is the most disappointing country among the Latin American powers—which I’ll somewhat arbitrarily define as the large, non-baseball-loving countries in the region—smacks a little of bias, since I am an American and they are our biggest rival. But consider this: Mexico is the second largest country in the region, the fourth richest (in per capital GDP at purchasing power parity, according to the World Bank) and was either the richest or second-richest country in the region in 1980, 1990 and 2000. One can assume that elite athletic ability is distributed roughly evenly across populations (i.e. if one person in a million, on average, could be a world class player, then a country with 1 million people would have ~1 of those people and one with 100 million would have ~100) then a country’s success in a given sport is essentially a function of its population, the propensity of an athletic person to play a given sport and its ability develop those athletes as a result of affluence and competence (in their analysis in Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski include several other variables, but in the case of Latin America, they largely cancel each other out so I won’t use them). Apart from Venezuela (where baseball reigns supreme), all of the large Latin America countries are roughly equally soccer-mad so top athletes probably all play soccer at roughly the same rate as well, simplifying things to a function of population, affluence and ability to develop players.
When you look at Mexico’s historical performances through this lens, it really looks unimpressive compared to Brazil and Argentina—who have are considered superpowers and have won seven World Cups—but also to lesser powers like Chile, Colombia or Ecuador, and especially compared to tiny Uruguay. Among these countries, only Brazil is more populous (currently about 195 million compared to 118 million), but its GDP per capita has consistently been less than 80 percent of Mexico’s. Yet Mexico has never made the semifinals at a World Cup while Brazil has won five times. Argentina, while slightly richer, has a much smaller population, yet has produced two of the greatest players of all time and won two World Cups. Most embarrassingly for Mexico, Uruguay, which has a population of just under 3.4 million people—which would make it the 4th largest metropolis in Mexico and is just 17 percent the population of greater Mexico City—has won two3 World Cups and the Copa America four times. Even Chile, which has not be traditionally considered a power, has less than a fifth Mexico’s population and only became more affluent than Mexico in the past decade has achieved similar World Cup results, despite having fewer opportunities thanks to its much more confederation. Mexico should be a major power, considering its size, relative affluence and its love of the game, yet smaller, poor countries have consistently outperformed it historically, and the United States, where soccer is, at best, the fifth most popular sport, has arguable surpassed it.
Many of the same things that make Mexico so disappointing, make Brazil less impressive than might appear at first blush. For instance, while Argentina has consistently been about 30 percent richer on a per capita basis than Brazil, it has, since 1970, never had a population that was even 25 percent that of Brazil’s, yet in that same period, Brazil has won three World Cups and Argentina has won two. Obviously, three World Cups is amazingly impressive, but it also speaks to both the relative inability of Brazil to develop its vast reserves of talent compared to smaller but richer countries as well as the vagaries of single elimination tournaments. That Brazil won the Copa America five times since 1983 and finished second three other times mitigates this to a large degree, but in that same period, tiny Uruguay has won four times and finished second twice. The point is not that Brazil isn’t fantastic—obviously it is—but that it really could be much more dominant than it has been.
In the end, as much as I would love to call Argentina the most impressive Latin American soccer power, it’s difficult to ignore the incredible achievements of the Uruguayans. Despite being far and away the smallest country in South America, it has remained consistently competitive in a region considered only slightly less deep than Europe and has had tangible success in the World Cup, including a fourth place finish in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Moreover its success casts into stark relief Mexico’s really disappointing results, which despite its giant population and significant resources relative to other countries in the region, has failed to ever even sniff the type of success Uruguay has achieved.
1 That said, the argument that Messi’s legacy would somehow be tainted if he never wins a World Cup is ludicrous. When Pele and Maradona were winning their World Cup’s the level of competition was vastly inferior to what it is today. The very best teams were dramatically better than the next tier of teams and, outside of a handful of powers, just weren’t that good compared to even middling sides today. That’s not to detract from their greatness in the least. But it is unfair to Messi to say he must win a World Cup to be considered their equal when it is, objectively, much more difficult to win the World Cup now, even with the world’s best player, than it was even 20 years ago.
2 That Argentina won in part due to Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal against England still only makes it Argentina’s second most questionable World Cup victory. That’s even though that goal should not have counted and he should have been red carded. That is because the Argentine junta in power in 1978 is rumored to have employed all manner of shady tactics to help ensure a popularity-boosting victory in the home World Cup, including possibly bribing the Peruvian side to intentionally lose the final group match 6-0—the margin of victory Argentina needed to advance—and employing intimidation tactics against the refs and Dutch players in the lead up to the final.
3 I don’t really like to count World Cups played before 1950 as being equivalent to those played since because of stories like this.