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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A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.