Where Do World Cup Goals Come From?


Not Canada. That’s the short answer. Should be obvious from the map.

But that’s earth, color-coded by World Cup goals dating back to the competition’s first edition in 1930 (it’s current through the semi-finals of the 2014 edition and there’s a larger version with some interactivity here—mouseover to get the country and its total goals). It looks cool but it also highlights the problems in trying to cram different historical, political and technological forces into something that would pass for accurate.

Most obviously the world is different today than it was in 1930. Which is to say nothing more than some sovereign states that existed then no longer exist now, as well as vice versa. So who gets the records for a country that’s not even on the map?

In the instance of a country that was absorbed into another, it seems pretty straight forward—just add the totals together.

The data here originated from Wikipedia. In its list “Germany” inherited the totals of West Germany* and East Germany’s records were kept in tact. But the data used to construct the globe has current, accurate political boundaries. There is no East Germany anymore.

It seems reasonable to add East Germany’s totals to Germany (which is what I did). But what if the latter had qualified for every tournament, such that adding the two countries’ appearances resulted in a number greater than 20 (there have been 20 World Cups)? A country with more appearances at the World Cup than there have actually been World Cups would be odd. Fortunately Germany didn’t bother to attend the first World Cup (only 13 countries did, probably explains why it’s the US’s best finish ever), then because of the whole ‘We’d Like to Own all of Earth’ war they were ineligible for the 1950 one as well. It doesn’t resolve the issue so much as leave it to where nobody probably would notice.

The bigger problem is what to do with countries that Balkanized like, you know, the Balkans.

Actually a better example is the Soviet Union, which competed in the World Cup nine times between 1958 and 1990. All of their stats get credited to Russia.

I’ll freely admit to not knowing if there are ISO guidelines for assigning the historical records of non-existent nation-states, but it seems like this a relic of the Ameri-centric Cold War-era practice of using the terms “Russia” and “Soviet Union” almost interchangeably, even though they weren’t the same thing. So from habit or maybe that Russia is the largest geographic landmass left over from the Soviet Union and it contains the same seat of government some Wikipedia user decided Russia the rightful historical heir of its former Communist empire’s soccer records.

But that displays a serious lack of knowledge about those Soviet squads. The best USSR teams were those managed by Valeriy Lobanovski, who was Ukrainian. He was also the manager at Dinamo Kyiv from 1975 to 1990 when his charges won eight domestic league titles and two UEFA Cup Winners Cups. And his Soviet sides were heavily stocked with decorated players from his dominant Dinamo Kyiv teams. Given that Russia and Ukraine are on the verge of war to determine what is actually the Ukraine and what isn’t, doesn’t it seem a little ignorant to assign the accomplishments of Ukrainians to Russia? Maybe someone should ask Oleg Protasov which country he’d prefer his 30-ish international goals be attributed to.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has made three appearances at the World Cup. They’ve never made it out of their group once. The Ukraine has only been once, but it advanced to the knock-outs. Yet by the map, Russia looks like it’s on the fringe of being a world power, while the Ukraine plays with the likes of Cuba, North Korea and New Zealand.

Maybe a greater sin is that, on the map, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all lumped into one country as the United Kingdom. This is not a Wikipedia problem. This is a technology problem (and a me problem). There is some excellent work being done by developers and coders to create libraries and files that make these maps not only fairly easy to create, but do so requiring only tiny resources. Somewhere along the line, and maybe for the sake of sparing a few bytes, someone decided that the UK didn’t need to have internal borders.

I’m sure the Scots will have no problem with that.

There is actually a separate file for just the British Isles, but trying to splice it into the code used for the whole globe was a bridge to far for my technical skills. Sorry, I’ll create a separate map with the UK countries divvied up and post it here eventually (I’m big into self-preservation). If nothing else it gives me the chance to ask a question I’ve never gotten a good answer to: Why do England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compete as separate entities for soccer and rugby, etc, but when the Olympics roll around, they are all together under one flag for Great Britain? Anyone?

Anyway, that’s the World of Goals (which sounds excellent if you read it in your head with an Alan Partridge voice). Even something so seemingly straightforward as “Which countries scored World Cup goals?”—it’s just counting—is still part art and still part science. And probably still has the capacity to flame ethnic tensions.


* West Germany inherited the records of pre-war Germany, who had, for the 1938 World Cup, annexed Austria, whose team had already qualified before ceasing to exist for a while. The German team was partly comprised of some then-vastly-superior Austrian players. Fortunately for the sake of record keeping, the only goal scored by Germany that tournament was by a German. Despite FIFA’s bloviating, politics and sports really are inseparable.

Has one comment to “Where Do World Cup Goals Come From?”

You can leave a reply or Trackback this post.
  1. Do/can you account for goals scored by dual nationals? E.g. how many Brazilian or German citizens have scored goals in the World Cup. Certainly the numbers would go up for both countries, but so would Poland’s (Klose and Podolski).

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published.