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The Role of IQ in French Footballing Success
A speculative theory built on Basque brilliance...
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Written by Ichimoku Sanjin & Matt Archer.
Yesterday, France came within a whisker of becoming the first side to win back-to-back World Cups in what we might call the Modern Era of professional football (or “soccer”, for the sacrilegious among you). Why were they so successful? At this level of international sport, the teams are so evenly balanced that it often comes down to pure dumb luck. Pundits will then layer all kinds of post-hoc justifications atop this randomness in a desperate attempt to fill the air between ad breaks. They delude themselves and their viewers into thinking correlations equal causation. Listening to the pundits aggressively debate meaningless minutia is unlikely to unlock the secrets of French success.
Oddly, people like Noam Chomsky, who probably don’t watch sports or spend much time around average sub-120 IQ folks, seem to think that when ordinary people phone up sports radio shows with “the most exotic information” and “understanding about all kinds of arcane issues”, they are somehow demonstrating an intelligence that is transferable to the type of geopolitical analysis Chomsky himself offers…if only they weren’t so stymied by the powers that be.
As Bo Winegard pointed out on the ISF podcast, this is truly preposterous. First, because — to quote Osho — ‘the people are retarded’: they aren’t actually offering intelligent insights, but a veritable smorgasbord of fallacies (for example). Second, there’s little reason to believe that someone talking somewhat insightfully about sports indicates they have anything like the intellectual hardware to decipher the complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict, say.
Another one of Chomsky’s bizarre explanations is that people work so hard and are so tired, that they just want to kick their feet up at the end of the day “in front of the tube”, they don’t want to embark on a research project. A much more parsimonious explanation is that, no matter how much free time they have and no matter the amount of propaganda (“manufacturing of consent”) they are subjected to, most people do not have the intellectual capacity (and the subsequent interests that come with a high IQ) to do what Chomsky does.
But back to France. When thinking about why this team has been so successful, we want to try to avoid the type of unfalsifiable nonsense pundits are paid millions to dispense. We also want to avoid causal factors that do likely add value but are very similar for all teams, like training infrastructure or diet. So what explains this decade of French dominance? The croissants? The amuse-bouche? A rousing (and surprisingly bloody) national anthem? No. IQ. Not the players’, but the manager’s: Didier Deschamps.
We half-joke, of course. But we thought there might be a little something to the idea. At the very least, it’s a good excuse to talk about the remarkable genetics of the Basque people. But first, a little background.
Didier Deschamps is a former captain of the 1998 World Cup winning squad. He is also one of only three men to win the World Cup (2018) both as a player and a coach. Under Deschamps, the French team won 64.5% of the games in the last decade, a higher rate than any other coach in its history. As a Bayonnais from the Basque province of France, Deschamps inherited a footballing culture that focused on collective exertion and spontaneity. The Basque influence was clearly visible in France's playing style throughout the tournament. Deschamps took the remarkable talent of individual superstars, like Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, and turned them into a unified group.
The Basque Country is an autonomous community located in the western Pyrenees mountains in Northern Spain and parts of France. It is known for its unique culture and language, called Euskara. The Basque people are a distinct ethnic group with a long and proud history. Although not widely known, the people living in this small region possess one of the highest IQs in Europe and even globally. Population genetic studies have shown that the French and Spanish Basques form a relatively homogeneous group, distinct from neighbouring populations thanks to millennia of relative isolation (Flores-Bello et al., 2021). They retain a substantial “paleo-Iberian” genetic substratum because they were shielded from later migrations in historic times (e.g. Romans, North Africans, Germanics).
A recent study that evaluated diverse ethnic groups on the frequencies of genetic variants connected to IQ and educational attainment revealed the Basques had the highest score in Europe, as well as among the highest worldwide. The Basques come third, after the Japanese and the Han, but are higher than all the other European and non-European groups.
Ichimoku Sanjin calculated the polygenic scores for educational attainment by using the same methodology as the linked study above. This entails counting the number of alleles connected to improved education and cognition carried by individuals in each population and then computing the average across people for each population. Sanjin updated their results using a new, larger GWAS of educational attainment and managed to replicate the overall pattern, with the Basque coming out on top. The results are displayed in the chart below:
The polygenic scores predict only a fraction of an individual’s cognitive ability (around 15%) and the likelihood of graduating from college. However, there are large differences between populations, accounting for about 50% of the individual variance in polygenic scores, particularly when continental populations are considered (Piffer, 2021). Admittedly, the differences between European populations are small, but even a small difference in the means can dramatically increase the share of people that make it into the genius range.
This is because individuals are spread out over a wide range, meaning that even a small difference in the middle can have a major impact on the extreme ends of the data set. For example, if the average salary for a certain job is $50,000, then a small difference of $1,000 in the middle can mean a difference of $5,000 at the extremes. As another example, if the average height of a group of people is 5'5", then a small difference of 1" in the middle can mean a difference of 5" at the extremes.
This likely explains why the Basque Autonomous Community is the most economically productive region of Spain, with a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (adjusted to purchasing power parity, PPP) being 22% higher than that of the European Union and 30% higher than Spain's average in 2016 at €34,400. Moreover, the unemployment rate is the lowest in Spain, at around 8% whereas in the other provinces it ranges from 8 to 34%. Numerous studies have shown a positive effect of cognitive ability on GDP and a negative correlation with the unemployment rate at the national and regional levels (Francis and Kirkegaard, 2022; Lynn and Vanhanen, 2006).
This region also excels in the kitchen. According to the chef Ferran Adrià, San Sebastián ‘in terms of the average quality of the food, in terms of what you can get at any place you happen to walk into, maybe it is—probably it is, yes—the best in the world’.
Of course, knowing Didier Deschamps’ genetic ancestry cannot tell us much about his IQ. However, a good coach must be able to develop strategies and tactics that will give their team an advantage on the field. They must be able to read the game and make quick decisions that will help the team win. They must also be able to motivate their players and provide them with the necessary support and guidance to reach their goals. Good coaches also need to be able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their players and be able to build a team that can work together effectively. All of these abilities are correlated with general intelligence.
Perhaps the French’s near-victory and the decade of brilliance under Deschamps is yet another example of the positive manifold of intelligence. From footballing excellence and economic strength to culinary delights, intelligence always pays dividends. Now we just need to falsify our theory. So, if you’re reading this Monsieur Deschamps, let’s get you down to the Paris Mensa branch. Your IQ test is waiting.
Ichimoku Sanjin is an evolutionary anthropologist. He has worked in population genetics for the last ten years and has carried out research in chronobiology, evolutionary psychology, creativity, and behavioural genetics. He has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Intelligence, Creativity Research Journal, and Thinking Skills and Creativity. He once published poetry but now prefers the language of R.
Matthew Archer is the founding editor of Ideas Sleep Furiously. He writes much about giftedness & stupidity, and whatever takes his fancy.
André Flores-Bello et al, Genetic origins, singularity, and heterogeneity of Basques, Current Biology (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.010
Kirkegaard, E. & Francis, G. (2022). National Intelligence and Economic growth: A Bayesian Update. The Mankind Quarterly, 63. http://dx.doi.org/10.46469/mq.2022.63.1.2
Lynn, R. and Vanhanen, V. (2006). IQ and Global Inequality. Washington Summit Publishers: Augusta, GA. ISBN 1-59368-025-2
Piffer, D. (2021). Divergent selection on height and cognitive ability: evidence from Fst and polygenic scores. OpenPsych. https://doi.org/10.26775/op.2021.04.03