World Cup fever in Malaysia

World Cup fever in Malaysia

Every four years, Malaysians undergo a month of sleep deprivation to follow the World Cup (although I remember watching matches after school during the 2002 World Cup, given the favorable time difference with Japan/South Korea). Even Malaysian politicians know the uniting power of the premier tournament of the world’s premier sport.

My past few posts have focused on analyzing the results of GE14, which Malaysia had been focused on for the past couple of months. The following graph from Google Trends shows the popularity of searches for GE14 vs. the World Cup for the 90 days prior to last week. Clearly, we’ve switched over from election season to football season.

Google searches for "world cup" vs. "ge14" from April to June 2018.

Google searches for "world cup" vs. "ge14" from April to June 2018.

Like the rest of you, I've been pretty focused on the World Cup since it began. This led me to wondering who Malaysians are following in Russia. I dug up some data to shed light on that.

Which teams are Malaysians interested in?

Assuming that Malaysians who are interested in a team are likelier to search for that team on Google, I found out that the most searched-for country in Malaysia was Germany. The following graph plots the relative peak popularity of searches for all 32 countries in the World Cup within the last month (these peaks typically occurred on the days of each team’s games).


Is there any systematic pattern that explains the patterns of support by Malaysians? Some regular favorites are very popular (e.g. Germany, Argentina, Spain) but some surprising teams are amongst the most popular. Mexico had the fourth highest peak popularity, but this occurred during its match with Germany, so teams are probably getting a popularity bump when they play famous opponents. Iceland had the seventh highest peak popularity – given their fabled story and success at Euro 2016, it’s unsurprising that they are gaining in popularity. Some old-school favorites like England are in the middle of the pack, though given their perennial disappointments in international tournaments, this might simply be due to Malaysia waking up to how overhyped they are.

Are Malaysians more likely to follow stronger teams? The following figure shows each team’s peak popularity and strength, which is quantified by a team’s pre-tournament Soccer Power Index (SPI). Generally, stronger teams are more closely followed by Malaysians (the correlation between SPI and peak popularity is 0.51, which is strong by social science standards). Based on the relationship between each team’s popularity and strength, I have categorized them into four classes.


Giants. The top-tier group of powerful teams that are also popular amongst Malaysians. These are teams that most people choose as their bets to go far in a tournament. However, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The end of the group stage will reveal which of these teams are the most disappointing (looking at you, Argentina).

Popular kids. Moderately strong teams that are more popular than you would expect based on their SPI. As mentioned above, this may be due to bumps in popularity from upsetting one of the Giants in a group stage match (e.g. Mexico). Russia may benefit from general searches about the tournament, since they’re the host nation. There could be multiple reasons Malaysians love Iceland and Japan.

Small-timers. Weaker teams that Malaysians don’t particularly care about.

Underappreciated. These are teams with above average SPI but below average popularity. If you’re a football hipster and want to support a team your friends are less likely to be supporting, I would choose from this class. In my opinion, Croatia is criminally underlooked given their win over Argentina.

Where are the fans?

How are searches for each of these countries different across Malaysia? The following figure displays the relative popularity of searches for each country (relative to Germany) within each state/territory in Malaysia. Unfortunately, there is some missing data (grey squares) due to errors in Google Trends. It’s hard to make sense of this figure without more sophisticated statistical methods that I don’t want to get into here, but there are a few things you can pick out visually.


First, Sarawak, Sabah and Perlis actually seem to be accounting for a large portion of searches (darker shades across those rows) – people there seem to be interested in many teams.

Second, in some states, people are disproportionately searching for only a handful of teams. It’s fun to imagine that there is a group of hardcore Panama fans in Negeri Sembilan, a neighborhood of Swiss-supporting folks in Terengganu, or a Kelantanese Iceland fan club.

Finally, no one seems to care about Sweden (the lightly shaded column for Sweden shows relatively few searches in all states in Malaysia). Maybe it’s because Zlatan Ibrahimovic has retired.

I long for the day when Malaysia qualifies for the World Cup and there is data on our national team to analyze. Until then, I’ll have to find some other team to cheer on (it’s Iceland for me, even though they're likely going home).

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