Are the most successful teams at Euro 2020 getting an assist from an unlikely source â€” democracy? And could the tournament flops have struggled so much because theyâ€™re run by autocrats?
These are not questions for every fan but they might be on the minds of those with a penchant for both politics and football. (You know, the kind of people reading this article. Or the kind of person writing it.)
So we at POLITICO set out to see if we could find any link between political systems and the performance of teams at the tournament.
Before data nerds start waving red cards, letâ€™s be clear: This is not a scientific study. Itâ€™s just a bit of fun. Remember fun? The thing we had before the pandemic? The thing football is meant to be about?
So letâ€™s do what modern footballers do â€” play on and let VAR tell us later that we were offside.
In our quest for answers, we plotted the goal difference for each country in Euro 2020 after the group stage against its score in the Economist Intelligence Unitâ€™s Democracy Index.
On the pitch below, countries nearest the top right have the best goal difference and democracy scores. Those in the left-back position have the worst goal difference and are ranked least democratic.
And what do you know? Two of the three teams with the worst goal difference â€” Russia and Turkey â€” also have the worst democracy ratings. Meanwhile, countries with a high democracy score almost all have a positive goal difference.
You can probably hear the stats fans in the stands booing and shouting their favorite abusive chants: Correlation is not causation! Small sample size!
Theyâ€™re right! And thatâ€™s not all. For a start, some of the teams had tougher opponents than others in their groups, so weâ€™re not comparing like with like when it comes to goal difference.
And there are, of course, numerous ingredients that go into making a good football team â€” like finding 11 people who are really good at football and organizing them well.
But some studies have suggested broader factors do play a role in sporting success â€” like the strength of a countryâ€™s economy. Unsurprisingly, rich countries tend to do better at the Olympics.
And a previous look at democracy scores and football rankings found a â€œstatistically significant correlationâ€ between the two, with more democratic nations performing better on the pitch.
The author of that data dive was careful to say that this doesnâ€™t mean one thing causes the other. You can find statistical alignment between all sorts of things that are clearly unrelated.
But if youâ€™re looking for a team to back in the knockout stages of Euro 2020 and think democracy might make a difference, how about a dalliance with Denmark?
Theyâ€™re not among the favorites but they have the second-highest democracy score. And, fittingly for a story about a non-scientific study, thereâ€™s another good reason to support them: sentimentality.