The authors, Roberto Gasquez and Vicente Royuela, econometrically test whether FIFA rankings of national teams can be used as an indicator of national development, to complement existing measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita or the World Bank's Human Development Index (HDI).
The paper refers to several studies that have tested for an effect of sport on development, which the authors argue have concentrated on the impact of sporting infrastructure on local or regional economies and have found equivocal results. Also, the authors review literature that indicates higher national income is a good indicator of sporting success. This paper justifies a potential relationship between sport and economic growth through sport's effects on health and educational attainment. However, these benefits may be seen where there is increased participation in sport and the authors don't satisfactorily make the case why better international performance (manifested in FIFA ranking) should affect health and education levels. The authors suggest there is a positive effect from international football success on productivity through increases in happiness and positive intangible effects, such as community spirit, self-confidence, pride, solidarity etc. The authors also suggest that greater migration of professional footballers from poorer countries to richer ones due to the globalisation of football may help development in the poorer countries, perhaps through remittances. The theoretical bases for football as an indictor of development is underwhelming. While certainly better international football performances can increase happiness and national prestige, it is unclear why these would be long-term effects and it is unclear why better African footballers in European leagues (for example) would improve economic conditions in Africa for anyone other than the footballer himself and his family.
The empirical analysis in the paper however clearly finds a strong association between FIFA ranking and GDP per capita and HDI. The relationship is particularly notable for developing countries. The authors accept that determining causality is not straightforward, but that a "significant association does exist" (page 840) and that football performance may be mirroring national institutions that strongly affect development.
The most important aspect of the paper, providing valuable insight for researchers of economic development, is that football performance may be a useful proxy measure of development. This is particularly where the availability of data is not as good as might be hoped ie developing countries.
Just more evidence of the bounty to social science researchers from football data.