What Does the World Cup Reveal about Global Trade?

Like many Americans, I’ve temporarily turned into a fervent soccerfootball fan this month, suddenly capable of savoring the thrills of a 0-0 draw like the one played yesterday between underdog Mexico and host Brazil. (And yawning at the relative artlessness of the 1-1 draw between Russia and South Korea.)

But I can’t entirely suspend my eggheadedness. Even as my son and I got irrationally patriotic watching the U.S. pull out a 2-1 victory over Ghana on Monday evening, the part of me that entered college intending to major in international relations dispassionately wondered whether two such dissimilar countries have much of a commercial relationship.

Fortunately, FiveThirtyEight sportswriter Neil Paine is as nerdy as me, and pointed out after the match that Ghana sends us about $400 million each worth of oil and chocolate.

Thanks to MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity, it’s pretty easy to track and visualize such bilateral trade relationships.

A visualization of Ghanaian exports to the USA for 2011
Visualizing Ghanaian exports to the United States for 2011 – Creative Commons (Observatory of Economic Complexity)

So, curious what the World Cup revealed about our globalized economy, I looked at the eight opening round groups to see how much (and what) the four nations within each group traded with the each other.

Now, a lot of this is, at best, trivial. Did you know, for example, that Côte d’Ivoire sends a mere $20,000 worth of exports to Colombia, the country it’s playing on Thursday? (Or that the three leading Ivorian exports to Colombia are vegetables, human and animal blood, and brochures?!? It’s a little creepy, but I’d love to know more about that second category — it’s the USA’s second biggest export to Germany, according to OEC.)

That group (C) seems the least interconnected, with the most significant commercial relationship within it (Colombia sends 0.95% of its exports to Japan — #1: coffee) not quite cracking the following list.

Behold, all cases from the 2014 World Cup in which one country sends at least 1% of its exports (2011) to one of the competitors in its group:

Exporting Country Importing Country Share of Country’s Exports #1 Export
Portugal Germany 10.98% Cars
Germany USA 7.04% Cars
Ghana USA 6.13% Crude oil
Switzerland France 5.55% Medicine
Italy *England 4.72% Medicine
USA Germany 4.58% Cars
Portugal USA 4.17% Refined petroleum
Chile Netherlands 3.77% Copper
*England Italy 3.33% Cars
Spain Netherlands 3.10% Cars
Algeria †Belgium 2.96% Crude oil
France Switzerland 2.92% Jewelry
Netherlands Spain 2.86% Refined petroleum
Russia South Korea 2.45% Crude oil
Chile Spain 2.21% Copper
South Korea Russia 2.10% Cars
Russia †Belgium 2.00% Refined petroleum
Uruguay *England 1.65% Beef
Ghana Germany 1.64% Cocoa
Brazil Mexico 1.59% Cars and trucks
Mexico Brazil 1.45% Cars
Costa Rica *England 1.43% Bananas
†Belgium Russia 1.40% Medicine
Honduras France 1.33% Coffee
Argentina Iran 1.30% Soybeans
Ecuador France 1.27% Crustaceans
Chile Australia 1.16% Copper

(OEC reports the entire United Kingdom, not *England — it could be that Scots just love Costa Rican fruit… And it also lumps †Belgium into a trade zone with Luxembourg.)

Aside from a couple of fascinating anomalies (the Swiss buy over $1.4 billion worth of French jewelry? Iran goes halfway around the world to buy something like $740 million worth of Argentine soy products?), three obvious observations suggest themselves:

Hyundai Accent in Belarus
Hyundai Accent parked in Minsk – Creative Commons (Intexrepz)

1. For all the interest in alternative fuel sources and means of transportation, it’s kind of bracing to realize that just over half of these relationships feature prominently automobiles or their energy source.

2. Perhaps there are other reasons that what the OEC categorizes as “packaged medicaments” show up so often in relationships among the G-8 countries on the list, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the graying of the baby boom…

3. The remaining relationships all consist of countries in the Global South sending cheap raw materials or foodstuffs to wealthier economies in the “North.”(Australia throws off the geography a bit.)

For the record, here’s how nine of those relationships work in reverse:

Exporting Country Importing Country Share of Country’s Exports #1 Export
Spain Chile 0.43% Aircraft
†Belgium Algeria 0.29% Concentrated milk
Australia Chile 0.19% Coal briquettes
USA Ghana 0.10% Cars
Netherlands Chile 0.08% Aircraft
France Ecuador 0.05% Aircraft
*England Uruguay 0.04% Electrical transformers
*England Costa Rica 0.04% Cars
Germany Ghana 0.03% Cars and trucks

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