Could an independent Yorkshire Win the World Cup?

Oooooh. Football. Image: Getty.

With less than a week until the start of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it’s worth remembering, that another World Cup – the 2018 ConIFA World Cup for stateless people, minorities, and regions unaffiliated with FIFA - is also taking place in London.

Though happening in the UK, neither of the local ConIFA members will be competing. The Ellan Vannin team from the Isle of Man withdrew midway; and the latest ConIFA member, Yorkshire, only gained membership earlier this year.

One of Yorkshire’s most obvious characteristics, is that it’s absolutely huge compared to most other UK counties. It also – probably – has the highest contemporary population of any of the historic British counties. Indeed, as recently as this February the region resisted attempts to split control of the region up, demanding a “One Yorkshire” devolution deal instead of the proposed control to regions surrounding four of it’s major cities – and in May, a vocal proponent of such a “One Yorkshire” devolution, Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barnsley, was elected as mayor of one of the Sheffield City region.

Given its size, ConIFA membership, and pushes for further devolution, I was wondering how Yorkshire would do as an independent full FIFA member. If it seceded as a whole from the rest of the UK could it field a team that could challenge internationally? Could any of the historic British counties?

Overall, there are 88 historic counties in Great Britain, plus the 6 counties of Northern Ireland (I couldn’t find shapefiles for the older subdivisions) which could be potential independent FIFA members.

Once I had these, I needed some way to rate potential players, and therefore teams. Luckily, the popular video game FIFA18 maintains up to date ratings of thousands of players across 36 different stats (e.g. dribbling, heading, pace etc.). After scraping an online database of players, I’m left with 18,058 players of various nationalities and abilities.

Using a simple regression model, I can use these abilities and the player’s listed preferred positions to predict what each players rating for each position, and use these position ratings to train a computer to pick optimal teams across a variety of formations. If we do this do for every nation that has at least 11 players in the database (10 outfield + 1 goalkeeper), the best 4 national teams that can be fielded are from Brazil, Germany, Spain, and Belgium.

To pick the teams for each county, though, I first had to find the birthplace of player. To simplify things a bit I only check players listed as English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, or Irish (due to the weirdness of the Irish FA) in my database of FIFA players. For each of these I ran a script to look the player up on wikipedia and scrape their birthplace. Once this was geocoded, I had a map of each British player and their birthplace, and therefore, the county of their birth.

Unsurprisingly, it basically shows a population density map of the UK, with more players born in the urban centres of London, Birmingham, the Lancashire cities and the West Yorkshire urban centres. After binning the players by county of birth, twenty historic counties have enough players to field a team.

On this chart, ‘FIFA_ability’ is the perceived ability of the optimal 11 players in a starting line up for that county, as judged by FIFA stats.

Perhaps a little surprisingly, the Lancashire team is rated slightly higher than the Yorkshire team – though looking at the sheer number of players they can select from it makes sense. Elsewhere, the home counties do well, as do Glasgow and Warwickshire (which contains much of contemporary Birmingham).

Looking at the selections the alogirthm chooses, it’s pretty clear some of these teams tend to be a bit flawed but overall make sense. The Yorkshire/Lancashire teams in particular are full of England international players and are lacking only an experienced top level goalkeeper.

In order to predict how these teams would do at a World Cup, I needed some form of quantifiable rating of a team;s ability. Luckily, ELO ratings in chess can do exactly that: the likelihood of any team A beating a team B is a direct function in the difference in their ELO rating.

Plotting the ELO ratings of each actual national team (an up to date calculation is maintained at ELOrating.net) against the ability of each national team as judged by FIFA18 shows a pretty clear linear trend. Using a regression model of this relationship, we can predict the ability of each hypothetical county national team.

When plotted, these ELO ratings show that some of the counties are definitely in the ball park of established world cup qualifiers – and so we might expected a post-super-devolution Britain to be sending multiple teams to the World Cup.

In fact, Yorkshire and Lancashire are predicted to be about as good as the national teams of Serbia and Sweden. Lagging a bit behind, Essex and Surrey – both of which take in large chunks of what is now London – could expect to be competititve with teams like Turkey and Morocco.

However, just finding out how good these teams would be wasn’t what I wanted to know. I wanted to see if an independent British county could win the World Cup.

To do this, I swapped each of these counties in for the national English team and ran 10000 simulations of the post-devolution 2018 World Cup, uusing the same draws and fixtures as the real tournament uses.

The bad news is, the real-life favourites tend to dominate the simulations. Brazil or Germany were predicted to win the tournament in almost half of all the simulations. On the graph, it;s just possible to make out the red bars of Yorkshire and Lancashire, both of which won 41 out of 10000 simulations (a 0.41 per cent chance of winning any random World Cup).

This seems pretty low – but is comparable to pretty respectable teams like Denmark (0.775 per cent), Senegal (0.217 per cent), and even higher than the Iceland team which knocked england out of Euro2016 (0.339 per cent). It’s way higher than the chances the simulation gives the Russian hosts (0.07 per cent).

Scaling down to just these pretty hopeless nations/counties really shows how little hope the independent British counties would have at an international tournament. However, the best four counties (Lancashire, Yorkshire, Essex, and Surrey) all have about a 0.2 per cent or higher chance, or 500-1 odds, at winning the 2018 World Cup were they to replace England at the last minute. This is an order of magnitude greater than the 5000-1 odds given to Leicester City at the start of 2015-2016 Premier League season, so there’s always a chance.

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The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.