Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Who to support? Algorithms for World Cup 2010

The 2010 FIFA World Cup starts on Friday, which means that football fans across the world have a difficult task this week: determining who to support.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to be a difficult task – contrarians aside, we support our national sides. But that’s not much help if your nation didn’t qualify… unless, like Ireland, you didn’t qualify in a way that gives you a team to root against throughout the tournament. And even if you have ties to one or more nations who’ll be competing, there are dozens of qualifying matches where you’ve got no direct rooting interest. Assuming you’re neither South African or Mexican, who do you pull for in the opener Friday afternoon?


A Wikipedia map of countries competing in the 2010 Cup. Countries in green will be competing. Countries in red failed to qualify. Laos and the Philippines, in purple, are members of FIFA, but did not compete in this year’s qualifiers. And Western Sahara and Greenland (along with smaller states like San Marino and the Vatican City) aren’t FIFA members.

Poking around on various football discussion boards and on friends’ blogs, I’ve seen several strategies proposed.

Strategic support If the goal of the World Cup is for your national team, – or the team you’re most passionate about – to win, the key is for the rest of the most talented nations to lose. If I’m supporting Ghana (and I am, as well as the US), I’m not just pulling for Ghana to get past Serbia and Australia, I’m supporting Algeria to get through in group C rather than England, in the hopes that I get an easier round of 16 match. Carry this method to its logical extent and you find yourself pulling for New Zealand and North Korea in the hopes for a cakewalk of a final. Not necessarily the prettiest of methods.

Support through spite An excellent strategy for supporters of nations who really should have made it into the tournament. I suspect many Irish fans will support any team playing France in any match… which is likely to give them someone to support through at least the quarterfinals. You can combine this method with strategic support and support teams most likely to defeat the team you most loathe… Still, is it really satisfying to support Germany in the hopes that they’ll smash the hated French/Italians/pick your nemesis?

Non-FIFA support If you support a Champions League club, there’s a good chance you can coast through the tournament supporting national teams that feature your club players. As such, many Bara fans are supporting Spain (a surprise to me, given Catalan nationalism) and Argentina, as a chance to support the sublime Messi. This strategy has obvious flaws, though, when players on your club side are on both sides of a WC match.

Aesthetic considerations Certain teams are just more fun to watch than others. Watching Dutch total football is more enjoyable, in my opinion, than Italian total gridlock. Add in the joy of watching certain players perform and you can add Argentina and Cameroon to aesthetically pleasing teams like Brazil and Spain. The risk of this method? Becoming one of those smug football fans who says, “Oh, I don’t care who wins – I just want to see the most beautiful game possible.” Yeah, right. The most beautiful game is the one in which the team I support unexpectedly trounces an aesthetically superior team.

Outside considerations I suspect this is the method most of us use to decide who to support in matches like Paraguay/Slovakia – are there outside associations with either nation that lead to a rooting interest? If you can’t come up with any associations with either Paraguay or Slovakia, MetroUK has a charming “neutrals” guide that offers largely irrelevant reasons you can use to support or oppose any of the 32 teams. And if you’re an NFL football fan with no connections to global football, there are at least two guides helpfully aligning World Cup teams with NFL teams. Of course, if you’re rooting for South Korea because some blogger thinks their speed and precision parallel the Green Bay Packers, you’ve probably got other problems.

Algorithmic support I’ve always admired systematic thinkers, so I have a certain respect for anyone who’s able to put together a set of rules that allow them to make a decision for who to support in any match. Next Left offers a simple version of an algorithmic strategy – support the teams whose nations have democratic left governments – but realizes that this leads to first round conflicts like Brazil versus Portugal. More sophisticated algorithms have multiple tiers – my friend Alaa once outlined a strategy that involved supporting his native Egypt, then Arab nations, then African nations, then supporting colonies over the colonizers. (Indeed, I’m writing this post in part in the hopes that I can provoke him to outline his full algorithm.)

As for me, I’m an algorithmic sort of guy, with flashes of nationalism and aesthetic concerns. So my football strategy looks something like this:

- Sub-Saharan African teams get my support, especially Ghana, recognizing that it’s looking like a tough tournament for the African sides.
- Developing world over developed.
- Pretty football over ugly – Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Netherlands over Italy, Germany, England.
- Places I’ve been to over those I’ve never visited, with quality of national cuisine as a tiebreaker.
- Bonus points for truly unlikely teams, including NZ and North Korea.
- I’ll root for the US until they face Ghana. At that point, I’ll probably support Ghana, if only so there’s some conflict when watching with US friends.

In other words, I see your arbitrary and raise you ludicrous and illogical. And yes, I’ll be supporting South Africa over Mexico, despite my love for bistec encebollada and distaste for sadza.

If you’re inclined, I’d love to hear how you’re strategizing about who to support, especially if you’d blogged about your personal algorithms. I’m hoping to write a piece for Global Voices on this strategy, so I’m especially interested if you’ve already posted something I can link to…


Nigerian-American blogger/photographer/author Teju Cole was responsible for one of my favorite portraits of the 2006 World Cup – he watched each match, selecting a different restaurant or bar in New York City or New Jersey affiliated with one of the competing sides. This year, he’s repeating the experiment along with blogger Siddhartha Mitter. If you’ve read Cole’s Every Day is For the Thief, you know the wit, insight and poetry you’re in for. I look forward to seeing “the Mundial” through his eyes, and to learning from him where I can find Paraguayan food in the greater New York area.

18 Responses to “Who to support? Algorithms for World Cup 2010”

  1. Alaa says:

    hehe so my algorithm goes like this (sorry too lazy to actually blog it)

    1- support egypt (failed to qualify)
    2- support arabic speaking african countries (algeria)
    3- support other arab countries (none qualified)
    4- support african countries with ties to Egypt (ghana)
    5- support nigeria (mostly cause the first world cup I really watched was 1994 and they where great then)
    6- support south africa (I hate bafaana football but residency brings it’s own obligations)
    7- rest of africa (no particular algorithm but not likely any will make it that far anyway)
    8- developing world (excluding football superpowers, supporting brazil feels like supporting the US)
    9- black horses (in every world cup there is a team that does surprisingly well or proves themselves to be the new team to watch out for, that’s a very fun team to support, however the US seems to be set for that role and I don’t support US for political reasons)
    10- the european team with highest number of players from non european origin
    11- by this stage the algorithm descends into total bigotry decision is mostly based on how brown or yellow the team is

    the pan islamic side of my identity should fit in somewhere around 7 but never gets a chance, I’d totally root for turkey or Iran.

    germany and USA are never supported, if they play each other I’ll probably watch cricket.

    messi is a singularity so my algorithm doesn’t apply when he is playing (or stops at step 5)

  2. Kinda funny to me that you put more stock in the algorithmic than aesthetic. Sounds like in the end, your core assumption is that we go with our gut…?

    Unfortunately for most in the U.S., any game where we can’t chant “U.S.A.!” probably lands us in the aesthetic camp after all thanks to a near complete football ignorance and a sad apathy for issues of world hegemony… I still harbor hopes of the World Cup stirring up some global awareness in the U.S., though. All those 5-year-olds playing across the U.S.’s soccer fields gotta grow up sometime, right?

  3. As an American, my rooting interests fall with fellow former colonees, especially when they’re playing the former colonizer (see: Angola vs. Portugal from 2006, not to mention USA vs. England this weekend!). In games where there are no former colonies playing, I cheer for the team that has the more attractive players, if only in hopes of being able to enjoy the “aesthetic” aspect of the game longer into the tournament.

  4. Am also in a dilema. Cameroon I think will work for me

  5. Ryan Sholin says:

    Here’s how I roll:

    1. USA! USA! USA! Mostly just because the deeper into the tournament the team goes, the more prominent soccer becomes in the US. And I like soccer, and I live here.

    2. Italia. Gridlock and all (some of us call it ‘playing defense,’ Ethan). This is due to my wife’s, um, Italian-ness. As it happened, I watched the 2006 Italy-USA match (which featured McBride’s nose bloodied by De Rossi) in a small cafe in a small town in Italy. I did a very poor job of concealing my priorities.

    3. Spain. Eh. I’m kind of wishy-washy about this one, but it also relates to my wife’s family origins. They’re fun to watch when they’re not choking in big games, and it gives me something to talk about with her abuelo.

    4. Any opponent of France or Germany.

    5. Hey, then I just default to the underdog, with an emphasis on the developing world.

  6. tomas krag says:

    my strategy is a lot simpler than all that’ partially because i see no reason for either strategic or aesthetic support. The combined aesthetic pleasure derived from watching e.g. argentina v. north korea is exactly the same whether i supprt argentina or north korea.

    here goes:

    1. root for denmark (although they tend to bore me to tears)
    2. root against neighbouring countries, in this case germany, but sweden would also qualify if they could qualify
    3. root for ghana. the only country i’ve lived in besides denmark
    4. root for any country where i have relatively close family (basically brazil)
    5. root for any country where i have relatively close friends (not sure any qualified this time round)
    6. root for the underdog (i’m a sucker for underdogs)

  7. Henok says:

    wow Ethan it cool to have some algorithms when it come in supporting football teams. I have not follow that much football for the past four years but I am looking forward for World Cup.

    Even though I am not a big fun of South Africa national team, I still support South African this time since they are a host.

    Netherlands is my team I have been supporting them since I was a kid..I like their short playing styles hopeful this year they will be a wining team then merely stylistic team.

    I never like Germany national team playing style they are the exact opposite of Netherlands but they are winner. I will support Ghana in that group.

  8. Nii says:

    Ethan teteng? It gets more complicated when as a Ghanaian i’m surrounded by a bunch of English men who equate supporting any other team other than England as treason. At work i support England (partly to prevent any Arizona style ideas from coming to fruition over here), however, as soon as i get out of the office door i start day dreaming about my beloved Ghana, until ofcourse someone reminds me of the missing stalwart – Essien and the recent 4-1 drubbing Gh recieved at the hands of the pathetic orange clad Dutch. This recent memory gets me scratching my head and looking a bit more closely at Ivory Coast until ofcourse i get back to work the next morning then the whole bloody process starts again! Maybe i should just pick North Korea to prove to those who bother to notice how stubborn, rebelious and how set in my ways i am :)

  9. Lova says:

    This is probably common to many football fans but the rule of thumb for me is to root for the underdogs and despite all the progress made by African football, an African team is always going to be an underdog. Given how world cup winners so far has been limited to 8 countries in 80 years, any team from a winless continent gets my full support.

  10. elliott colla says:

    Bandung Rules are crude but effective and defensible. Here they are:

    Always root for:

    1. Former colonies when they play against their colonizers.
    2. Non-European teams when they play against European teams.
    3. Teams from the Global South when playing against the North.
    4. Southern European teams when playing against Northern European teams.
    5. South and Central American teams when playing North American or European teams.
    6. Integrated European teams (like France) when playing against non-integrated European teams (like Italy).

    Always root against:

    1. The USA.
    2. England.

    The problem is that these rules are completely confounded by the first round match between USA and England.

  11. phehh says:

    Ciao, i like attacking nations like Brasil, Mexico, Spain and Holland. The quarterfinal Netherlands vs Brasil is a big prospect for me as a football lover. The teams that i hope that don’t succeed are Italy(boring) germany(not attrective) and Argentina, a coke user as a coach. I like an afrcan team to reach far in the tournament for the support they bring with their team. Another reason too favor Holland and Spain is that those teams deserve woldcup glory

  12. Andy says:

    Music. For me it’s all about the music. My tops this year will be Nigeria (Afrobeat!), Ghana (Highlife!), The Netherlands (seminal garage-rock band The Outsiders!), and Brazil (liberal viewpoints toward a borrowing-heavy musical culture!).

    It gets tough when you don’t know the music too well, but it also leads to some good exploration. (I’m delving into Algerian Rai music at the moment.)

  13. Alaa says:

    Andy if I went with music then Algeria gets the cup

  14. Lova says:

    For people with an interest in development, this website has an elaborate algorithm on what team to cheer for during the cup:

    http://whoshouldicheerfor.com/how-we-did-it/

    excerpt:

    “We think rich countries should meet their commitments to spend 0.7 per cent of their national income on aid. So the more a rich country gives in aid the better they do.
    In contrast, the more money spent on the military, the worse a country scores.”

  15. canablach says:

    Support NZ, whatever. No algorithm here and no connections.
    I’m right now working on a witchcraft that will have the other 31 teams confounded and befuddled (and sick) when playing the Kiwis. They will so go on producing the greatest sport related upset. EVER!

  16. Siepert77 says:

    may i suggest you watch germany’s match right NAO? the most beautiful football to be played in this tournament so far.

  17. Oh, one more amendment to my algorithm: cheer against the racist teams. Makes for a tough decision if/when Italy plays Serbia.

  18. Camilo says:

    I liked your article, I was looking for an algorithm that could yield to the champions, unfortunately I found this..let’s see if google has it ready for the next world cup

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