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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What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.