Math that explains Malta’s footballing woes: smallness and corruption

MCAST educator says algorithm of FIFA rankings, corruption index, and population sizes, can suggest how clean sporting culture influences performance

Can Malta’s national football team achieve the kind of greatness that other ‘minnows’ like Iceland have claimed for themselves?

One MCAST academic believes a statistical model he has devised, could explain the crucial factors that determine a football team’s FIFA rankings. The ingredients are population size, ‘smallness’, but also corruption perceptions in that same country.

According to Dr Matthew Muscat Inglott’s data model, systemic corruption can have a statistically significant effect on performance in international football, more specifically in small states

In a paper published in the MCAST Journal of Applied Research & Practice, Muscat Inglott’s complex data model matches small nations’ FIFA rankings, and their position in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index (CPI).

FIFA rankings are based on points from wins and losses played home or away, and also factor the ‘importance’ of a match.

The CPI is a measure of perceived public sector corruption, drawn from various data sources, including surveys and public data from agencies like the World Bank and World Economic Forum: a higher CPI score denotes a cleaner country in terms of corruption. But the CPI is not without its critics, who question the validity of secondary data sources and its ‘Westernised’ bias towards developed countries.

In this comparison of 24 ‘small’ states from FIFA, Malta emerges in 11th place when ranked by its FIFA points – 1,107 – and with a CPI score of 54.

In comparison, top-placed Iceland (population 372,000) – arguably the most successful small state having qualified for World Cup in 2018 – had 1,617 FIFA points as well as a high, or ‘clean’ CPI score of 74. Right below Iceland came Equatorial Guinea (population 1.5 million) with 1,280 FIFA points, but the African country had a bottom CPI score of 17.

Indeed, European countries were more likely to have both higher FIFA points and CPI scores than countries in other regions.

In his data model, Muscat Inglott argues that with a CPI score of 54, Malta – following the pattern of other similar countries – should be enjoying greater success on the football field. By plugging in Malta’s population of 516,000 in his data model, the predicted tally would be 1,347 points.

When he weighs down the data with a factor that represents ‘smallness’, the tally suddenly falls back to around 1,040 points – a number close to the current reality.

This equation is what convinces Muscat Inglott that his model can provide a statistical prediction for success on the football field, “just like Netflix makes predictions on what you might want to watch next.”

“To eventually achieve a prediction that is close to reality, means the factors in the model are the most important factors at play – we can say they ‘explain’ a significant amount of variation in the outcome being predicted,” Muscat Inglott told MaltaToday, who thinks his model explains the effect of being a small nation, population size, and corruption perceptions, lowers sports performance.

In fact, Muscat Inglott asks how Malta can score better on the field, without genuine efforts to reduce systemic corruption. For larger countries still perform better as populations increase, in spite of the adverse effects of corruption on performance.

“Conversely, we can say that the smaller the country is in terms of population, the more corruption tends to have a negative effect on their performance. This lends additional support to the central thesis that corruption has a more destructive effect on performance specifically in smaller countries.”

Muscat Inglott believes that small nations tend to be particularly susceptible to the negative effects of corruption on international sports performance. “These findings strongly support the claim that corruption plays a greater role in determining international sporting success in the case of small, as opposed to bigger countries not classified as small states. They also provide impetus for further research aimed at understanding what such unique factors might be.”

But he adds that more research is needed in other sports to explore the more generalised claim that systemic corruption has a more harmful effect on international sports performance in small states.

“Trust is considered to be a key ingredient in authentic leadership in sports organisations and it is a fair assumption that where trust and transparency are lacking, athletes may underperform,” Muscat Inglott says, referring to transparent decision-making or resource-allocation, accountability  to athletes, democratic access to decision-making, equity and fair treatment of all.

“There is a degree of permeability between sports organisations and the broader community, and some debate about the direction causality likely flows in terms of the spread of systemic corruption... in this sense, anti-corruption initiatives appear desirable at all levels.”