One can learn a lot about people from what they want to look up on wikipedia. Today I had the opportunity of entertaining one of the students here who is working for part of the break, and who is fascinated by Italy, symbolism, and soccer (as are most people in the world outside of the United States). In previous conversations we have looked up the symbolism of dragons and eagles and genealogy. Today though the interest was on soccer qualifying for the World Cup and Olympics as well as developed nations.
It’s clear when you look at World Cup Qualifying that not all areas of the world are created equal. Europe gets 13 spots, South America gets 5.5 (including host Brazil), Africa gets 5, Asia gets 4.5, North America gets 3.5 and Oceania gets 0.5 . In a sport like this there are few interlopers. The same few teams are predicted to win time and time again, whether we are talking about European powers like Germany, England, France, Spain, or Italy, or South American powers like Brazil and Argentina. A token handful of smaller powers shows up merely to be vanquished in the group stages. Hopefully middle-rank powers (like the United States), try to claw or scrape a way into the quarterfinals to show themselves as up and coming powers before losing to some inevitable champion. Life’s not fair, and soccer generally doesn’t try to pretend otherwise, unlike many sports. But still people watch to cheer on their teams.
Life isn’t created equal when it comes to economies as well. The Human Development Index considers there to be four “worlds” of nations. Developed nations are at very high levels of development (first world nations). Developing nations (second, third, and fourth world nations) have high, medium, or low levels of development. The results speak mostly for themselves . Thailand and Ghana both rank as third world countries . Moldova is the only third-world country in Europe; Haiti is the only fourth world country in North and South America (even Bolivia comes in as a third world country). Libya (!) is the only second world country in Africa (unless one counts the Seychelles or Mauritus as part of Africa), while most of Sub-Saharan Africa languishes in the fourth world, and South Sudan, Western Sahara, Somalia, and Somaliland (along with Greenland, North Korea, Taiwan–which would rank as a first world country if it were ranked, and a few Caribbean and Pacific States) aren’t ranked at all.
People are always looking for rankings to justify themselves in the eyes of other people. Rankings are a classic subjective scale. What elements are included with what weights in the rankings? How much does reputation count? Which statistics are the most important? There is always subjectivity in any such rankings, whether we are ranking sports teams or countries or people. A power ranking, which is popular among some, ranks recent performance to a large degree and shows a high degree of volatility, while the rankings used for tennis and golf and NASCAR are fairly static, requiring sustained excellence to reach the top of the rankings and strongly punishing poor performance. Which is better or worse? It depends on what you are looking for? No method is perfect, as even head-to-head competition has its limitations (injuries, timing, home court advantage, and so on). And so we argue on endlessly.
It is intriguing to me that the student chose precisely those two very competitive elements to examine. It says something about his thought process, and a competitive nature driven to seek excellence and to know where one stands in the eyes of the world. It is hard to gain respect, and the road is slippery. Status is hard to gain, and almost as hard to maintain, and everyone wants it and is willing to go to various steps to gain it. The rungs of the ladder are slippery, and competition is fierce. And when you gain the top levels, you find the standards keep shifting as well. Such is the life, though.