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February 19, 2019

Playing in extra time - lessons from the World Cup

Germany supporters celebrate their team's score during the FIFA World Cup 2014 Group G football match in Salvador Brazil Germany Vs Portugal, at a public viewing in Berlin's Eisern Union stadium on June 16, 2014. (AFP Photo/John MackDougall)
Germany supporters celebrate their team's score during the FIFA World Cup 2014 Group G football match in Salvador Brazil Germany Vs Portugal, at a public viewing in Berlin's Eisern Union stadium on June 16, 2014. (AFP Photo/John MackDougall)

The 2014 World Cup is now for historians. Many Kenyans cheered for Germany because the country makes prestigious, high-quality cars. They cheered because they happen to own or aspire to own one of these cars and therefore felt validated in some way in their choice of car. The lessons they drew from Germany winning the World Cup were unscientific.

Yet as is common among those who are too lazy or unschooled to think scientifically, there was just that little truth in their conclusions to stop them looking a little deeper into what went on during the competition.

The lessons are not just about football but more general about human development. UNDP defines human development as a process of enlarging people’s choices that enables them “to lead a long and healthy life, to acquire knowledge and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living".

Around the world human development is positively associated with living at the coast, being wealthy and negatively to political and economic insecurities. One way of measuring human development is life expectancy. The bible more than 2,000 years ago gave a good estimate of 70 years average with a bonus of 80 years if the person had strength.

Developed countries today have an average life expectancy of about 80 years. Developing countries 25 years less. The average for the world is about 66 years, but Kenya falls below the average mainly because we are relatively poor as a country but compound the problem by having very large regional differences in development. So what can the World Cup tell us about health in Kenya?

There are about 200 countries in the world today. Bhutan, Brunei, Guam and Mauritania did not enter the World Cup. The United Kingdom is represented by more than one team, and South Sudan joined Fifa after the qualification process started and therefore could not take part. In the end 207 teams participated in various continental qualifiers to reach the finals competition held in Brazil. The 2014 Fifa World Cup featured 32 teams playing first in round robin group stages, then two teams from each group progressed to play in the knock out phase culminating in the final.

A game of football is supposed to be played over 90 minutes. However in the knock out phase because there must be a winner on the day, there is a provision for 30 minutes extra time and finally penalties if there is no winner at that point.

The spectacular German victory over Brazil masks the fact that 50 per cent of the games played in the knockout phase were tied at the end of 90 minutes and went on to extra time. The final itself was the third final in a row in which extra time was played. To win the World Cup means playing three games of at least 120 minutes in just over a week. Football at the highest level is no longer a 90-minute game.

The German team that played in the finals knew this many years before the competition and prepared accordingly. In the group phase, the German team ran an average of 114 kilometres per game. In their quarter final game against France they ran 7.5 kilometres more than the French, that is the Germans had another three-quarters of a player in their team. Over 90 minutes you might be able to hold your own against 11.75 players but come extra time that extra fitness becomes the 12th player.

So even if the teams were equal, technically and tactically as the tournament progresses those teams that were super fit got better beating those teams that had a single superstar in the team.

Human development, especially when it comes to health, follows a similar path. Giving every Kenyan an equal opportunity to access health is the surer path to success than enabling a few to have ‘world class health’. Building a single hospital, concentrating resources in one area will not do the trick — it's better to have well equipped and staffed health centres everywhere.

But they cannot be exactly the same because the disease burden is different in different regions. In the case of the German football team, they no longer do the same fitness training drills for all the players.

Each player movements is monitored as they train so that on a day when the player does not seem to be performing at his best the coaches know that there is a problem early and it can be corrected. They did not have to wait for the player to breakdown on the pitch before they realise something was wrong.

Since 1990 many of our health indicators have failed to improve. We know why but refuse to recognise that we need to make the necessary investment to change. The good example from the World Cup was Cameroon; a surprise package 24 years ago, a dismal failure this year.

The only reason they still make it to the World Cup is that Kenya does not make it and given the way we do things we have little chance of making it without major changes in the way we do things. Luckily a few can still buy German cars.

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