Lionel Messi of Argentina, who has a whopping transfer value of $317.6 million
Ian Walton—Getty Images
By Michael Casey
June 26, 2014

You’d think that having the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney on your country’s roster would seem to almost guarantee World Cup success. Think again.

Only three of the top eight teams in a new analysis of the most valuable national teams will reach this year’s Round of 16.

The list, compiled by The Football Observatory at the Swiss-based International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES), bases team value on a team’s individual players, ranking the top 100 men participating in the World Cup by transfer value. (The list provides a range of value for each player; here, we use the high end of that range.)

Transfer value represents what a club can expect to pay a player’s previous team to break his contract. As you’d expect, transfer value is very high for younger players like 22-year-old Neymar, while aging stars such as Arjen Robben or even David Beckham yield much lower figures.

Even CIES Football Observatory head Raffaele Poli is somewhat baffled by the number of high-value teams already out of contention for the Cup. “That is a big surprise, indeed. We are all astonished by these bad performances by some of the best players,” says Poli. “But then you have Messi, who scored twice yesterday (Wednesday), and Neymar also four times already. So it shows that not all the known footballers did perform badly.”

The biggest World Cup upset so far has centered on defending champion Spain, estimated by CIES to be the most valuable team at $668 million. The country boasts a host of stars in CIES’s top 100, including Diego Costa, Sergio Busquets, and Juan Mata. But it was routed by Netherlands in its opening game and never recovered.

England, a perennial underachiever in recent World Cups, disappointed again with a tepid display that saw it crash out after falling to Uruguay in its second match. The team, led by Wayne Rooney (valued at $58.6 million), includes 12 players in the top 100 and is considered the fourth most valuable team in the tournament, at $487 million. It didn’t make a whit of difference.

Then there is Italy. The four-time World Cup winner was led by star striker Mario Balotelli, whose transfer value of $55.9 million places him among the world’s top 25 players. Balotelli was not a factor in the team’s decisive 1-0 loss to Uruguay on Tuesday. Uruguay is ninth on the most valuable list—more than half of that amount comes from the transfer value of forward Luis Suárez (though Tuesday’s biting incident might put a damper on things).

To be sure, not all high-value players and teams have flopped. Germany, the second most valuable team at $540 million, is on pace to reach the knockout stage. Argentina, the third most valuable team, boasts the world’s most valuable footballer Lionel Messi, who alone garners a value of $317.6 million. That team has breezed through to the next stage. Meanwhile, tournament-favorite Brazil, which sits just below England on the CIES list and has been spurred on by four goals from $99.5 million Neymar, blew out Cameroon to advance.

Still, this year’s tournament has been about the underdogs.

Of course, any sports valuation has its drawbacks. The CIES method doesn’t account for teams like Costa Rica or the United States, neither of which include a single player in the top 100. Those teams have shown that success isn’t all about having big names on the roster. Costa Rica won out of a group that included England, Italy, and Uruguay, and the United States has a chance to advance out of a brutal group if it gets a draw on Thursday against Germany.

“The value of a team could be more than the sum of its parts,” says Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University in England. “The financial valuation of a team doesn’t account for the more intangible aspects of [team] culture and dynamic,” Chadwick wrote via e-mail.

The Football Observatory’s Poli agrees, acknowledging that the World Cup often rewards dark horses. Success, he notes, often depends on intangibles like the group in which a team is placed.

The CIES’s Football Observatory came up with the estimated transfer value of players based on age, length of contract remaining, position, performance at club level, the club’s performance overall, and the player’s international experience. The players chosen come from Europe’s top five leagues—which include almost all the world’s top players, but not anyone from, say, America’s MLS league—and was released in June to coincide with the player transfer period, which opens in July.

There are, of course, other lists that place a price tag on soccer players and franchises. Each has its own methodology. Fortune’s own, the 2014 Fortunate 50, came out last week and ranks players based on salary and endorsement deals for the current year only—those totals are typically lower than transfer value. Lionel Messi, who came in second behind Cristiano Ronaldo on our International 20 this year, has combined salary and endorsements worth $74.8 million; his transfer value is more than four times that figure.

See below the 10 most valuable World Cup teams based on their player values (in US$ millions).


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