Friday, June 15, 2018

Waste not, want not

Iceland is in the World Cup.

The Netherlands are out.

The Czechs are out.

The US is out (no great surprise, though we had made our way in the last several times).

Italy is out.

But Iceland is in.

A country of 334,000 people has played its way into a berth in the World Cup.

An article in this week’s Respekt talked about the background of this surprising success.*

“20 years ago, Iceland used the money from television broadcast rights from international soccer associations for the launch of a massive system of educating trainers. The island now has the densest network of trained soccer coaches in the world.”

“Children as young as 8 or 9 are being coached exclusively by highly trained coaches who support creativity and the development of young boys’ potential.” [This sentence gives the impression that girls aren’t playing soccer much; I don’t know if that’s true, or just an unfortunate phrasing.] “Loud-mouthed hot-heads who assign squats as a punishment for less talented kids or those who make mistakes have disappeared from the coaches’ benches, as have self-taught daddies.”

In other words, they built from the bottom.

And not just figuratively in terms of training up their trainers.

Much of the year, the local weather is unfavorable for soccer, so “At the beginning of the millennium, the Icelandic Soccer Union, clubs, and national and local governments joined forces for the construction of sports facilities. 11 halls sprouted around the country, with playing fields that match the parameters of regular stadiums.”

That’s 11 full-size indoor soccer fields, in a country of 334,000. In area, the country is the size of Kentucky, but the population is that of the Rockford, IL metropolitan statistical area.

Note what tey didn’t do. The money was allocated during a time when a lot of questionable things were being funded, before the financial collapse of 2008. But “in the area of sports, the money didn’t flow into a super-modern national stadium, but into the previously mentioned playing fields built for regular players in many parts of the country.”

It seems like an apt metaphor for the two basic ways of spending public money. Build for the middle and the bottom, and the group as a whole will succeed. Build for the top stratum, and a few people will get rich while most everyone else gets to subsist on the reflected glow.

I first became aware of Iceland at Indiana University in the 1980’s, when I realized there was a surprisingly large number of students from this tiny country at this top-flight music school. Then there was an Icelander in my economics program at the University of Washington.(Sure, he was the only one, but if we compared the number of Icelandic students and Chinese students in the department, and then compared the populations of Iceland and China, Iceland was massively over-represented.)

How does a country with the population of Greater Rockford churn out so many musicians, academics—and soccer players?

If I had to characterize the American approach to developing excellence, it’s that we try to suss out who’s good at something, then pour lots of resources into them. At the same time, we write off vast swathes of our population as hopeless. With 325 million people, we can “afford” to be careless with our people, letting some large number—20%? 30%?—fester in conditions of poor health, bad nutrition, and thoroughly inadequate education. We could leave half of our population in darkness, and we’d still have 160 million healthy, well-educated people among which to seek our path-breaking scientists, our artistic geniuses, our sports idols, our business leaders. We can waste half our population, and still be working with a bigger pool of potential talent than all but seven of the world’s countries.

Iceland has 0.1% as many people as we do. They can’t waste anybody.

And on a very impressionistic basis, it looks like they don’t.

I know who I’m rooting for in the World Cup.

* “Hú! Fotbalové tajemství nejmenší země, která se kdy probojovala na mistrovství světa” (the soccer secrets of the smallest country that has ever fought its way into the World Cup)

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