The global distribution of sport

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FOOTBALL: The singles matches generate the most interest and the greatest prize money, which makes it primarily an individual sport. Photo: Shutterstock


FOOTBALL and tennis are as close to being global sports as any.

There have been top tennis players from all over the world and from numerous different countries. The singles matches generate the most interest and the greatest prize money, which makes it primarily an individual sport. Of the team sports, cricket is confined to English-speaking nations while rugby’s strongholds are in Europe, Oceania, South Africa and Argentina. For cultural reasons, women’s gymnastics has limited appeal in Saudi Arabia, while the climate precludes Trinidad as a venue for downhill skiing. Baseball is primarily of interest in North America and Japan whereas basketball is popular in North America and Australia. None of these sports has a global popularity comparable to football.

Although competitive football is played by so many countries, however, the highest level of success has been achieved in only two regions of the world.

The 21 World Cups to date have been won exclusively by Western Europe (12 times) and South America (9). The “tie-break” was finally broken as the Europeans went two points clear (11-9) in 2014. Until then neither region had led the race by more than one point. Moreover, only three “outsiders” have even reached the World Cup Final – all from Eastern Europe.
Is it a coincidence, then, that probably the eight greatest ever footballers are also from these two parts of the world? 

South America gave us Di Stefano, Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo and (currently) Messi – all from Argentina and Brazil. From Western Europe we had Cruyff, Zidane and (again currently) Cristiano Ronaldo – none from Italy, Spain or Germany. If there is an “outsider”, it is possibly Puskas – also from Eastern Europe.

As the World Cup has been hosted in many countries not known as football nations (such as South Africa, the USA and Japan), it has been anticipated for many years that an Eastern European, an African, a Central American or even an Asian country might one day prevail. The likes of Croatia, Senegal, Mexico and South Korea, however, continue waiting as the duopoly continues to this day.

In the fifties, the great Hungarian team lost only one match in seven years. This was the 1954 World Cup Final when they lost to West Germany, whom they had, a few weeks earlier, beaten 8-3 in a group match.

Only one of the eight World Cup winners (three from South America; five from Western Europe) has failed to reach a final “away from home”. This is England. The Netherlands, on the other hand, have reached three finals but were never winners.

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