Contrary to FIFA belief, politics and sport have always been intertwined. Rarely, if ever, however, have the social implications of a sporting event been as widely discussed as they have with the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
Both before, and now during, the off-field chatter just won’t go away, try as FIFA might to focus exclusively on football. Believe it or not, Gianni Infantino’s empathy, displayed in his faultless comparison of being ginger at school with being a migrant worker in Qatar, was not enough to hush the critics.
But with all the focus on Qatar itself, we figured we’d widen the lens, throw a little bit more fuel on the fire, and rank the competing countries by how they score in the Global Democracy Index. What could go wrong?
Before the full rankings, there’s a little bit of admin to get out the way. We will be using the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2021. Its overarching focus this year is China – a country that will not feature here – but the EIU’s annual reports are a truly remarkable resource, a brilliant collection of global data.
To rank the countries, the EIU calculates a total score out of 10, with each nation assessed by five different categories: ‘Electoral process and pluralism’; ‘Functioning of government’; ‘Political participation’; ‘Political culture’; and ‘Civil liberties’. From here, nations are classified into four groups. An 8.0 or above equals ‘Full democracy’. Countries scoring between 6.0 and 7.99 are called ‘Flawed democracies’, while any country between 4.0 and 5.99 loses the word democracy altogether, classified instead as a ‘Hybrid regime’. Any country with a score below 4.0 is deemed ‘Authoritarian’.
The 2021 list reveals that globally, countries are trending away from democracy. Only 45.7 per cent of the world’s population now live in a democracy of any form, compared to 49.4 per cent in 2020, while only 21 countries are regarded as ‘fully democratic’, compared to 23 the year before.
Of course not every country in the world is playing in Qatar, so let’s also mention some of the best and worst before the World Cup rankings. Last year saw Afghanistan and Myanmar fall below North Korea to take the bottom two spots, violent regime change in each country enabling Kim Jong-Un to climb off the bottom of the table, despite North Korea’s score staying at just 1.08 out of 10.
Interestingly, Qatar itself was one of the ten most improved countries on the list – likely buoyed by increased international scrutiny on its governmental practice. However, the sum improvement across the top ten of 3.50 points is massively overshadowed by the total decrease amongst the ten worst performing nations, who fell by a total of 10.21 points.
Meanwhile, Norway retains its spot at the top of list, comfortably ahead of New Zealand in second place. Neither country will be at this year’s World Cup. The Kiwis are good at enough sports already, and not even the world-class pair of Erling Haaland and Martin Ødegaard could help Norway qualify for football’s biggest stage just yet. Of the other non-World Cup playing teams, the rest of Scandinavia dominates the top ten, but a quick mention for Ireland, who come an impressive seventh with Taiwan in eighth.
Okay, enough of that. Find the full list of World Cup countries ranked by their Global Democracy Index below.
32. Iran – 1.95, Authoritarian
Bringing up the rear, it’s the Islamic Republic of Iran. They finish tied for 154th in the GDI rankings, though the recent wave of protests engulfing the nation, and more importantly the regime’s violent crackdown in response, mean 154th actually now seems very generous.
Iran international and Brentford player Saman Ghoddos told The Times last week: “It’s difficult to think about football when all this is going on with the people. We are trying to play for the families, the sisters, the brothers, for all of us. I don’t want to mix politics with football but football is coming to the side right now, because people are losing their lives fighting for freedom. Clearly a change needs to come and it’s already been going on for so long. We all want to change. No one is happy about it, everybody wants to see a change.”
Though Qatar’s own politics will dominate the news, it is the Iranian football team who might have the most at stake at this year’s tournament. With the blessing of head coach Carlos Quieroz, the team staged a silent protest as their campaign kicked off against England on Monday afternoon. They chose not to sing the national anthem, standing arm-in-arm in silence, the onus again on players to respond.
31. Saudi Arabia – 2.08, Authoritarian
As an absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia was never going to do very well in a democracy competition. Led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country performs poorly in the ‘electoral process and pluralism’ category, but scores higher for ‘functioning of government’ and ‘political culture’ than most of its regional rivals.
Though at 152nd in the world (they’re only two places ahead of Iran), Saudi Arabia doesn’t appear to be mired by any particularly current political controversies, and so long as journalists steer clear of Turkey, the kingdom seems set for an inoffensive competition, in which they bow out in the group stage.*
30. Cameroon – 2.56, Authoritarian
Paul Biya, the oldest head of state in the world, has just celebrated 40 years in charge of Cameroon. In theory he keeps winning elections by large margins, but, well, yeah…
In recent years, as Biya’s premiership has turned from protracted to generation-spanning, Cameroon has fallen lower and lower in GDI score. It fell by another 0.21 between 2020 and 2021, now ranking 143rd in the world. Though the world class talents of Samuel Eto’o and Alexander Song have now retired, a semi-final loss to Egypt on penalties at AFCON earlier this year indicates Cameroon could still be a tricky opponent in Qatar.
29. Qatar – 3.65, Authoritarian
Which brings us conveniently on to our generous hosts. The gulf kingdom is another absolute monarchy and despite improving by 0.41 between 2020 and 2021, it still only scores 3.65 out 10.
Qatar’s human rights record – particularly regarding migrant worker deaths, women’s rights and same-sex relationships – have all been widely discussed, and it remains somewhat unclear just how the Islamic nation is reacting to having the eyes of the world examining its every move. The expectation is clearly that it’s their land, their law, but how stringently this will be enforced is unknown. Add alcohol, sex and the roaming eyes, ears and feet of fans and journalists alike, it ensures the scrutiny of Qatar is only just getting started.
Still, with a score of 3.65, Qatar performs better than the Middle East and North African (MENA) regional average of 3.41.
28. Morocco – 5.04, Hybrid Regime
Since announcing its transition to a constitutional monarchy in 2011, Morocco had been trending steadily upward in its GDI ranking, however over the last couple of years, its score has plateaued, and in fact fallen somewhat.
Classified as a ‘hybrid regime’ by the EIU and finishing 95th globally, Morocco still ranks third in MENA behind only Israel and Tunisia, though that is as much a testament to the region as it is the Moroccan government. Israel is the lone democracy, even then ‘flawed’, and the World Cup competing pair of Tunisia and Morocco are the lone ‘hybrid regimes’. Every one of the other 17 nations in the Middle East and North Africa are now officially ‘Authoritarian’ – including the three Middle Eastern countries above.
27. Senegal – 5.53, Hybrid Regime
The west-African nation has a decent footballing pedigree in this century alone. They’re the current AFCON champions, home to the legendary duo of Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé in yesteryear, now led by Sadio Mané. Their footballing success, however, seems to have coincided with a slight downturn in democracy, as Senegal’s GDI score has fallen year on year since 2016.
Their success in this year’s World Cup also looks bleak. Their talisman Mané is out after picking up an injury for Bayern Munich two weeks ago (a game that I was incidentally at) and their campaign got off to a pedestrian start in a dull, 2-0 loss to an underwhelming performance from the Netherlands.
26. Mexico – 5.57, Hybrid Regime
Part of a broader downward trend in Latin America, Mexico’s score has fallen quite dramatically since peaking in 2013, to now leave the central American nation ranked 86th in the world and 17th in the Latin American region. This decline is highlighted by the fact the country has been relegated from ‘flawed democracy’, and is now categorised as a ‘hybrid regime’.
Given the electoral steps Mexico’s leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has taken recently, it seems Mexico’s democracy score could be set to fall further. In 2021, he announced he would seek wholesale reform of the country’s electoral authorities, accusing them of bias against his government and being “at the service of anti-democracy”. With a 2024 election edging closer, Mexico’s democratic process is likely to become even more contentious.
25. Ecuador – 5.71, Hybrid Regime
The team who kicked the World Cup off with a victory, Ecuador sadly won’t win this particular contest. It’s a very similar story to Mexico above: a Latin American country with a falling score, who now find themselves labelled as a regime, rather than a flawed democracy.
Interestingly, the fall in 2021 for Latin America is the largest ever drop in GDI for a single region since the EIU’s records began in 2006. This was largely due to a series of increasingly polarised elections across the region in 2021, as was the case with Ecuador, as the centre of politics continues to steadily erode there. It was conservative Guillermo Lasso who eventually prevailed in Ecuador’s referendum last year.
24. Tunisia – 5.99, Hybrid Regime
One of nine countries to be demoted in this year’s ranking, Tunisia is another state to officially now find itself a ‘hybrid regime’.
Still, the north African nation’s fall has been particularly sharp. To put it in perspective, only Afghanistan and Myanmar – the two lowest scoring countries in the world – saw their scores decrease by more than Tunisia, who fell 21 places in the global rankings.
I suppose the obvious question is why? A power grab last summer, after a devastating wave of Covid-19, is the easiest answer, but pre-existing economic conditions and rife corruption also contributed heavily. Since president Kais Saied seized power on 25 July 2021, he has suspended parliament indefinitely, sacked the existing government, appointed his own government and binned much of the Tunisian constitution.
After the 2010 Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia, western hopes that the nation would transition to democracy were high, but, as with many countries in the region, that has not been the case. Tunisia’s protests did result in the formation of a democratic government, but it has not lasted.
23. Serbia – 6.36, Flawed Democracy
The first European country on this list, though Serbia actually scores quite well by the regional standard of Eastern Europe.
Their score has broadly stayed the same over the last decade, and while the nation’s no.9, Alexander Mitrovic, would be my pick for a future talismanic strongman, for now he will lead only the Serbian forward line.
= 21. Croatia – 6.50, Flawed Democracy
We have our first tie! Croatia and Ghana! Unlike the next tie (as you will soon see) I can’t group this pair together. I’ve decided to list Croatia first only because here it can border Serbia, as it does in real life.
Though still a flawed democracy, the 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia – like many countries so far – is trending in the anti-democratic direction. Every year since 2006 its score has decreased or stayed the same, with ‘political culture’ and ‘civil liberties’ being the areas where the Croatian score is particularly hampered.
= 21. Ghana – 6.50, Flawed Democracy
It doesn’t get much note in the EIU 2021 report, but Ghana’s score seems very impressive to me. It may only rank 56th in the world, and sixth in the Sub-Saharan region, but upon closer inspection Ghana’s 6.50 score seems to be one the GDI’s real outliers.
Let’s start by looking at the five countries above them in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mauritius and Cabo Verde are both island states with lucrative tourism industries, while Botswana, South Africa and Namibia are so far away they may as well be a different region entirely. Compared to the countries around them in west Africa, only the above Senegal is within 1.0 of Ghana. Of its neighbours, both Togo and Burkina Faso are ‘Authoritarian’ and Côte d’Ivoire is over 2.25 lower than Ghana as a ‘Hybrid regime’.
While the impressive numbers keep coming with Ghana’s 8.13 score for ‘Electoral process and pluralism’, the downside is the country’s recent trend. Their GDI rating peaked in 2015, but has steadily declined since. With the 2020 election disputed and another scheduled for 2024, it will be tricky for Ghana to maintain its impressive governmental record.
The land of the legendary Michael Essien was so cruelly robbed of a spot in the World Cup semi-finals by Luis Suarez’s hand. They’ll do well to come that close again this year, but a healthy, in form Thomas Partey is a boost for their chances.
20. Poland – 6.80, Flawed Democracy
After trending upwards since 2017, Poland’s score fell slightly in 2021. The cause was a September 2021 state of emergency, in response to the illegal border crossings from Belarus, in an anti-EU act from Putin and Lukashenko. Harsh on Poland, perhaps, but they seem to have been primarily scored down due to the enforced exclusion zone to contain migrants, in which they restricted access to journalists and humanitarian NGOs.
19. Argentina – 6.81, Flawed Democracy
An even 50th in the world and narrowly pipped by neighbouring Brazil, it’s one of the World Cup favourites, Argentina. I’m classifying them as favourites despite that rather shocking result to Saudi Arabia, but really any team starting Nicolas Otamendi in 2022 deserves to lose in my opinion.
Anyway, politics, democracy, Latin America. It’s a similar story as above for Argentina. A 0.14 drop in 2021 after a drop in 2020 as well, Argentina is following the same trend as the rest of Latin America.
At least they beat Saudi Arabia on this ranking.
18. Brazil – 6.86, Flawed Democracy
Having Jair Bolsonaro in office was not great for Brazil’s GDI score; having Jair Bolsonaro on his way out of office might prove even worse. In 2021, he was already planting the seeds of doubt in the country’s electoral system, and since losing to Lula just a matter of weeks ago, Bolsonaro supporters have made their dissatisfaction known.
Last year Bolsonaro’s Brazil lost GDI points due to the leader demanding the resignation of two members of the Supreme Court following their investigation into allegations that pro-Bolsonaro groups were spreading “fake news”, though it’s worth me highlighting that Brazil’s score actually rose in 2020 under Bolsonaro, and anyone parking Brazil’s issues entirely at his feet is being over-simplistic.
17. Belgium – 7.51, Flawed Democracy
A surprising one, for me. Belgium somehow just exudes small-northern-European-country utopia vibes, like so many of the world’s top ten. Instead, Belgium finishes 36th globally and not even in the top half of the World Cup qualifying countries. Remarkably, of the ‘Western Europe’ region, Belgium ranks 19th out of 21, ahead only of Cyprus and Turkey…neither countries I would readily associate with Western Europe.
The reason Belgium is where it is, however, is predominantly because of its ‘political participation’ score of just 5.0. That disenfranchisement is highlighted by the fact that 72 per cent of Belgians believe the nation’s politics needs “completely reformed or required major change”. That’s the seventh highest rate in the world.
16. Portugal – 7.82, Flawed Democracy
Cristiano Ronaldo has not yet made a move into politics, despite already airing his grievances to Piers Morgan. I can’t imagine he’d be a very good politician, so good thing he’s still focused entirely on football – international football at least.
Portugal has floated around the 8.0 mark since the EIU’s ranking began in 2006, but has now reached a six-year low at 7.82. Another nation dwelling towards the bottom of the Western Europe regional ranks, let’s see if a final World Cup graced by Cristiano can provide Portugal with a victory. Other than the main man, they’ve got a pretty impressive supporting cast to try and make it happen.
15. USA – 7.85, Flawed Democracy
Believe it or not, the US’s mediocre score is not all about the 2020 election and the Donald Trump-led claims it was stolen. In fact, the United States’ score has either decreased or stayed the same every year since 2006.
That said, 2021 saw a 0.11 fall in America’s score, and that does mark the largest single year decline for the US since the 2006 mark. I’m not quite sure how the recent midterms will affect the score – they seem to have passed without major theories of election fraud – but one imagines that the massively increased reach of the Supreme Court will hamper the score, particularly under the ‘Civil Liberties’ category. Further, with Trump officially running again in 2024, the temperature of the US’s political climate seems destined to rise, both within the GOP and the divided Democrats.
It’s a murky and significant moment in American politics. I reckon that’s about the only thing everyone would broadly agree on.
14. Spain – 7.94, Flawed Democracy
Spain fell from ‘full’ to a ‘flawed’ democracy in 2021 for the first time since the rankings began. Not even the Catalan independence crisis of 2017 was enough to see Spain fall below the 8.0 mark, but a reduction in judicial independence saw a 0.18 decrease in Spain’s GDI score and they’re now at 7.94. The body that oversees Spain’s judicial system is intended to guarantee its independence but was forced to turn to a caretaker system after the term of office expired in 2018.
In terms of a rebound, just last month the head of Spain’s Supreme Court resigned. I’m not remotely qualified to calculate these ratings, but I imagine that won’t help the country climb back up. Rising regional nationalism won’t help a united Spain’s score either. Oh, and neither will the fact that 86 per cent of the population are seeking “complete reform or major change”. Only Italy has a higher rate, and, well, since the 2021 EIU report, Giorgia Meloni got elected.
For all these issues, Spain was not unique in declining among Western European countries – their score was just on the ‘Full democracy’ precipice to begin with.
13. France – 7.99, Flawed Democracy
France, perhaps surprisingly, is classified as a ‘flawed democracy’, if only by 0.01. It’s enough for them to finish in unlucky 13th on this list, which is equivalent to 22nd globally. That said, their score stayed the exact same year on year even with mass anti-Covid protests.
Despite a stable score, there are some concerning numbers for France’s future stability. To start with, nearly three quarters believe that political overhaul is needed. More ominous still is that 17 per cent of French people apparently believe that military rule could benefit the country. The same portion of people in Italy and the USA agree, I should mention.
12. Costa Rica – 8.07, Full Democracy
An outlier in Central America, and 12th on this list, it’s Costa Rica. Somehow the immortal Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell are still gracing the football pitch for the Costa Ricans, but it’s unlikely they can lead a World Cup run as they did in 2014. At least they’ve got a thriving ‘Full democracy’ in which to cheer their team on.
Of the Latin American region, only Costa Rica and another nation soon to be named are classified as ‘full democracies’. A seemingly smooth general election earlier in 2022 means it’s likely Costa Rica will stay there.
= 10. England & Wales – 8.10, Full Democracy
Now, I could have some fun and differentiate the two, but that seems destined to open a whole can of worms that I’m neither qualified nor bothered to pick through. There’s only one ranking from the EIU and it’s for the UK as a whole. That’s what we’re sticking to.
While the United Kingdom fell by a hefty 0.44 in 2021, I imagine the events of 2022 will hurt the UK’s score even more by the time next year’s rankings arrive.
Anyway, for now, we’re still a full democracy, just about. Six leaders in 12 years, including three since the last general election, and two unelected in 2022 alone make that a harder case to argue, but Sunak seems destined to last months – or maybe even a year! – which is a degree of stability. Still, with only 0.10 points to play with, you’ve got to think the UK will be classified as a ‘flawed democracy’ this time next year. Deservedly so.
We’ll see how the renewed SNP calls for Scottish independence factor into next year’s score as well. Sturgeon may not have got her court ruling, but that won’t stop her just yet.
9. Japan – 8.15, Full Democracy
A poor score for ‘political participation’ is what hampers Japan on this list, though they still perform well. A low birth rate (the third lowest in the world) and an ageing population (over a quarter of Japan’s population is 65 or older) both pose future political and economic issues for Japan, but their GDI score has climbed to a 14 year high. This score is made more impressive despite seeming to lose points for the strict restrictions enforced in order to let the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics go ahead, albeit a year late.
At the time of writing…what a goal! What a first touch and finish! What a second half performance. Hansi Flick’s face! Well played Japan.
8. South Korea – 8.16, Full Democracy
I suppose the southern nation is less infamous of the two countries on the Korean peninsula, but South Korea doesn’t just score well compared to its neighbour – they are one of the top 20 most democratic countries in the world (16th to be precise).
By the EIU’s score, it is really only the ‘political participation’ and ‘political culture’ categories where they don’t score well, but, most problematic for South Korea, is their birth rate. It is the lowest in the world. Another stat that does not bode particularly well is 84 per cent – the portion of the South Korean population that believes their nation’s political system needs major overhaul. Only Italy, and the aforementioned Spain and USA, have higher percentages demanding change.
7. Germany – 8.67, Full Democracy
The highest scoring of the G7 countries, and the highest scoring of, you’d have to say, the genuine contenders for this year’s world cup title (despite that Japan result), it’s Germany. The four-time world champions don’t seem quite as formidable as they have in years gone by, but a knock-out tie against Germany is never going to be easy.
Anyway, enough football for this strictly democratic ranking.
Germany formed a three party coalition in the wake of the September 2021 elections, which was enough to see their score stay the same from 2020. With Olaf Scholz taking over from their omnipresent Angela Merkel only last December, 2022 has been his first year at the helm, but Germany seems a steady GDI ship regardless – their score has fluctuated by a total of just 0.04 since 2014. Whether the energy crisis will destabilise their GDI score as well as their bills remains to be seen.
6. Uruguay – 8.85, Full Democracy
Ding, ding, ding – it’s the first country with a perfect 10.0 score for ‘Electoral process and pluralism’ and it’s not one you might have guessed. The GDI score may not be the only surprising thing about Uruguay, who have the same number of world cups as England, Spain and the Netherlands combined. (Two, by the way.)
Uruguay are one of the big movers on this list, climbing by an impressive 0.24. Given what has gone on across the rest of South America, it’s probably the biggest trend-bucker of any country in the 2021 EIU report, World Cup qualification or otherwise.
In 2006, Uruguay was still classified as a ‘flawed democracy’, but is now up to 13th in the world, comfortably over the 8.0 mark, and mixing it with the big boys of global democracy. We’ll see if they’ll be able to do the same on the football pitch, their team perhaps not quite as deadly on paper as it was in the last two tournaments, but with quality players in key positions – and a thriving governmental system at home, of course – don’t write Uruguay off from making a little run.
5. Canada – 8.87, Full Democracy
Justin Trudeau may have received a very public bollocking from the world’s foremost dictator last week, but his Canada still scores well in democracy. That is despite a relatively steep fall-off between 2020 and 2021, taking Canada to its lowest GDI score since records began.
The world’s second largest country by land mass may not have played at a World Cup since 1986, but with an impressive crop of talent, including Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies fit again, the Maple Leaves might be able to do something in Qatar. If not, they’ve got a stellar record for democracy to fall back on.
4. Netherlands – 8.88, Full Democracy
You see, this is why I thought Belgium would do well. I know Belgium and the Netherlands are different countries with different cultures and governments and countless other differences that mean I can’t lazily lump them together, but to think they’d have 25 global spaces between them is shocking, to me at least.
When the EIU launched these scores in 2006, the Netherlands scored a whopping 9.66. Their score fell below 9.0 shortly after, in just 2008, and since then it has been there or thereabouts, which is good enough for 11th in the global rankings this time around.
Their score fell again marginally in 2021 though, it seems largely due to the 299 days it took for the four coalition parties to renew their agreement after elections last month. There were also widespread protests over the country’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
= 2. Switzerland – 8.90, Full Democracy
It’s a tie for second place and it’s the first countries at this World Cup list to crack the global top ten. We’re sorting these two by alphabetical order because I can’t think of a better way.
Switzerland is one of the few countries to see its score rise in 2021. In Western Europe, they were one of only three nations where this happened, alongside Finland and Greece.
The landlocked nation scores impressively across the board, but it is their ‘political culture’ score of 9.38 that is most impressive. Only Sweden and world champions Norway score higher than the Swiss in this particular category.
Captain Granit Xhaka is finally replicating his world-class international displays at club level, which bodes well for the Swiss chances of getting out the group.
= 2. Australia – 8.90, Full Democracy
Another nation with a perfect 10 for ‘Electoral process and pluralism’, Australia shares the silver medal at this version of the World Cup. Globally, Switzerland and Australia share ninth, but it’s still not good enough for the latter to be the number one nation in its region, which is New Zealand.
The Australian score fell below 9.0 for the first time on record in 2020, presumably due to the country’s strict Covid-19 protocols, which continued into 2021, however the country still scores high in ‘civil liberties’.
1. Denmark – 9.09, Full Democracy
And the winner is…the only Scandinavian country who qualified for the World Cup!
Led by Leicester City legend Kasper Schmeichel on the pitch, Mette Frederiksen is Denmark’s governmental leader, and she can preside over a better functioning democracy than every other country on this list. Iceland, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand and Norway are the only countries above in the global ranking, which just goes to show that a high-functioning government is clearly not conducive to a successful football team. I know which I’d rather have. I’m joking.
Anyway, this accolade was not enough to stop Denmark being held to a dull 0-0 draw with the less fancied Tunisia. In fact, were it not for the elastic limbs of Schmeichel it could have been worse.
And there we have it. Time to watch some more football.