A Nicaraguan Renaissance

Football often throws up stories that cannot be quantified by statistics alone. Nicaragua is a fine example of this. Welcome to IBWM, Elliot Turner

The Anglo-Saxon lens strays to numbers, statistics, and math as a means to explain and paint the universe in broad brushstrokes. A child can hardly wet his bed without a psychologist blaming the parents, a sociologist blaming his racial & economic status, and a politician blaming the prior administration. Yet when we gaze at the forest, we overlook the trees. When we stare at a line, we forget the dots. In 2009, Nicaragua defeated Central American rival Guatemala to qualify for the North American Championships (Gold Cup). It was a gorgeous moment of pure ecstasy - exemplifying the power of momentum to defeat numerical meta-narratives. Yet also, paradoxically, explain them.

I begin with a summary of Soccernomics, the starting point & baseline for our examination of the values and limits of statistics. I will extrapolate (and contest) some theses from this book and apply them to the Central American context. Please keep in mind, this is a blogpost, so the statistical analysis will be "quaint" and "easily debatable." This is not a peer reviewed academic paper. Nevertheless, let's start the fun.

Every two-to-three years, the top national teams from North America, the Caribbean, and Central America contest a regional championship tournament, known as the Gold Cup and akin in format to the European Championships or Copa America. While regional powers Mexico and the United States view admission as guaranteed and often send subpar teams, for middle-to-small countries the entrance ticket is a reward in itself. And given the fierce rivalries among the neighboring countries, including the famous Honduras-El Salvador soccer war, qualification is closely followed and contested.

With that background, let's see what statistics should say about this hotbed of classification. In Chapter 13 of Soccernomics, the authors analyze the link between economic development and sporting success. The chapter title "The Curse of Poverty", foreshadows the author's conclusion: a country needs at least a $15,000 per person average income to win anything. Yet the authors acknowledge that Brazil, a five time World Champion, does not meet that income-per-capita. This stunning anomaly receives little attention - surely Champion of the World is "something"? Surely this throws a wrench in the neat and tidy formula.

And, of course, the definition of success and poverty are both relative. What if "mere qualification" is a success of historic proportions? What if the game is between two teams that fall bellow their magic income floor, as is almost always the case in games between Central American teams? Why would one Central American team with comparable income defeat another? How would soccernomicists explain Nicaragua's victory over Guatemala? Or would they dismiss it as either an anomaly or statistically insignificant? Or both?

Explain the "insignificance" to the hundreds of Nicaraguans that stood outside the August Sandino airport to welcome their team to a heroes' reception. The Nicas had battled the altitude and hostile fans in so-called neutral "Tegucigalpa" to cling to a one goal lead. They defended for their lives, and when the second goal came, shouts, cries, and fireworks echoed throughout Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.

Chance? Fate? Luck? Momentum? All of these played a role. But both the bird's eye statistical view and a glance from the ground level show perhaps the same ever-present factor: shifting sporting culture.

In the same chapter on "poverty", the authors of Soccernomics posited a very plausible explanation for the success of lower income players: the "10,000 hour rule." Malcolm Gladwell, in the book "Outliers: The Story of Success", posited that expertise could only be acquired after dong something for 10,000 hours. The Soccernomicists then applied this to poor players, speculating that these individuals were freed from parental discipline and middle class educational aspirations, and thus could play lots and lots of soccer.

Of course, the anthropologist asks the economist: why did the kids want to play soccer? His friends? Well then, why did they want to play soccer? I can't answer this chicken & egg question for Nicaragua, but I can personally attest to witnessing a shift in sporting cultures. Before the twenty first century, Nicaragua was a baseball town. Yet when I moved to Managua in 2007, a change was afoot. Basketball courts in public parks had unusual metal structures around the rim posts: soccer goals. The spread of cable TV had introduced La Liga to the population, and a grinning dynamic Brazilian had won their hearts.

I was in my do-gooder young twenties and had agreed to an internship for Casa Alianza Nicaragua, a nonprofit that provides a shelter and education to streetkids. I left a few years before their youth team qualified for the Street Children World Cup this past summer, but even during my tenure the kids clamored for soccer during recess and played their hearts out at the juegos relampago olimpicos. Did I cynically take down a streetchild as he attempted an audacious bicycle kick? Maybe. But I taught him an important lesson about overcoming adversity. And his team still beat the staff 6-2.

Outside the safe confines of Casa Alianza, I traveled by foot to the shadiest parts of Managua. We worked to build relationships with drug-addicted and abused children, focusing heavily on the Barrio Santo Domingo, where individuals reside in the shells of buildings ravaged by the last major terremoto. And what was our recruitment weapon of choice? Not a baseball. Not an American football. But a soccer ball. Usually I would kick a ball around and try to build rapport with the kids, although we had plenty of balls stolen.

Soccer has always been the sport of choice for the poor: all you need is a ball object and your imagination for posts. Yet the sport had a strong grip on the Nicaraguan middle class as well. Many of the high schoolers would come by my apartment, especially on weekends after a Barca or Real game, inviting me to a pickup game or rebote rebote. In the years before the defeat over Guatemala, I saw firsthand how soccer had supplanted baseball in the hearts and minds of the Nicaraguan sporting youth. I have little doubt that several of them reached the 10,000 hour plateau and many more will.

So we go back to square one. Nicaragua beat Guatemala to qualify for the Gold Cup for the first time. Economists stretch an argument to claim that lots of poor kids play and reach the "10,000 hour" rule. Anthropologists ask why the sea change in sporting culture, and only those of us who love the sport can explain the magic of its allure. On that hot muggy night in Tegucigalpa, when the Nicaraguans defended for their life and Managua held its breath, their was magic in the air. Numerical analysis can paint a picture of the past, but is no substitute for the moment.

And sometimes the moment better explains the maths.

Elliott blogs about soccer at Futfanatico.com