Chapter 9 of Kuper & Szymanski’s brilliant Soccernomics (Chapter 10 in Why England Lose) seeks to establish which country loves football the most. The aptly named “The Country That Loves Soccer Most” begins by introducing us to FIFA’s “Big Count” survey. The Big Count has been conducted twice (2000 and 2006) in an attempt to find out how many people actively participate in the sport.
According to FIFA there are “Two hundred and 65 million male and female players in addition to five million referees and officials make a grand total of 270 million people - or four per cent of the world's population - who are actively involved in the game of football”.
Kuper & Szymanski note “a tiny representative sample” is used to establish some of the ‘facts’, such as the number of unregistered players, leading one to question the accuracy of some of the data. FIFA acknowledge this and argue “it was hard for the associations to estimate the number of unregistered occasional players because, by definition, no reliable details were available in this regard”. However the “study was also scientifically monitored by a leading social studies organisation”. That said the survey is mammoth and the task of collecting the data an unenviable one.
Soccernomics presents some of the findings. For obvious population reasons, China, USA and India have the most registered players (all in excess of 20,000,000). This is largely irrelevant and only becomes meaningful once we control for population size. Kuper & Szymanski kindly do this and find that Costa Rica (27%) have the greatest number of players (registered and occasional) per capita. The Central American country is followed by Germany (20%) and the Faroe Islands (17%).
Slovakia has the most registered players per capita (7.92%), followed by Germany (7.82%) and Austria (7.01%). Ireland has the 9th highest number of registered players per capita in the world according to the survey with 5.5% of the population (252,844 people) listed.
Let’s consider some data not addressed in Soccernomics.
Football's Coming Home
England has by far the most football clubs. The ‘home of football’ is followed by the country probably most synonymous with football – Brazil. Germany, France and Spain unsurprisingly make up the top five. Ireland is remarkable 14th on this list despite being only the 123rd most populated FIFA association member.
The Gaels Are On Top
Examining the number of clubs per capita* we can attempt to determine which country loves to play organised soccer the most. It turns out us Gaels come out on top. Scotland and Ireland are followed by three Nothern European neighbours, making this part of the world the most saturated in terms of clubs per person.
Scotland or Zambia
You also have the best chance of getting a game in Scotland, with a club in existence for every 17 registered players. Regular substitutes should next consider a move to Zambia or Uruguay! This data is highly questionably however. The survey reports some 692,317 registered players in the Ukraine yet only 70 clubs. That’s nearly 10,000 players per club. Try getting a game there!
The Austrian's Like to Referee
Lastly, it appears the Austrians and Swiss like to take charge the most. 4.62% of Austrians are registered as officials, with 3.17% of Swiss.
We Gaels don’t seem to enjoy refereeing. An examination of the ratio of referees to clubs finds that Scotland has the 3rd lowest ratio (1.58) while Ireland has the second lowest ratio (1.26) in the world. Only Afghanistan has a lower ratio, with more clubs (225) than registered officials (145)! Maybe this is becasue both Scotland and Ireland spend hundreds of years under the influence of external authorities and have no appetite for control, or maybe more simply, it's because we love to play the game.
*Includes associations with populations of greater than one million people.