Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

Is Soccer Really the Global Game?

Panini collectible sticker book saved from my childhood. Proof that Americans have been known to enjoy soccer in the past.

The worst loss in the history of US soccer it has been called. With the elimination of the woeful United States men’s national team from qualification for the World Cup in Russia in 2018 the small segment of the media that pays any attention at all to soccer in America has been dragging the team across the coals and the knives are out. It is obvious that they should have qualified; a mere tie would have been sufficient even if all the other bad scenarios occurred, which in the end did happen as both Panama and Honduras beat the two best teams in CONCACAF, Mexico and Costa Rica. In the event, the US team lost in front of a few hundred fans in a backwater stadium (pace Ato Boldon) in, to be honest, a backwater country. Sure Trinidad pulls its weight in music and track and even literature, and is a big player in the confines of the Caribbean, but let’s be honest here- we will never be confusing Trinidad with Argentina. As a soccer nation they are not bad considering their small size; they have actually been to the World Cup and they have had a few relatively well known players, including the ESPN commentator Shaka Hislop. But this edition of the national team was bad, really bad, with one win coming into the last game with the United States. They were done and dusted some time ago. So the loss was bad enough, but losing to the second string team in a game where a result was definitely required really is up there with the worst results ever. (Incidentally, this article is ONLY about men’s soccer; as anybody who has been paying attention knows, the US women’s national team is actually not too bad! The evolution of women’s soccer, though fascinating, involves an entirely different dynamic and cannot be addressed in this article.)

I ruminated for a while about how a country as big as the United States of America, the third largest country in the world by population (326,000,000 estimate October 2017, FIFA Rank #28) could lose to a tiny country like Trinidad and Tobago, population 1,350,000 (#150 in rank of countries by population), who played many second string players (and the first string team has a FIFA rank as of September 2017 of #99) in a game of absolutely no relevance whatsoever to Trinidad, as evidenced from the notable absence of supporters at the game. A tidal wave of money has poured over American soccer in recent decades, especially from the Swiss bank accounts of FIFA, which realizes full well that an interested US soccer fan base, the richest country in the world, means even more cash for the slush funds. We now have a decent league of our own, there are a few players with name recognition internationally and, in Christian Pulisic, the first bona fide international soccer star from the United States (Clint Dempsey was underrated but never had the prominence Pulisic has at only 19 as a major player in the Borussia Dortmund squad). And yet…

Ultimately I have concluded that, despite the progress and the relative success over the last few years, soccer in this country competes for the attention of kids with too many other sports, so it will always be hard to get the absolute best athletes; some are there, but not enough, and in a place like Argentina, it is a way out of the barrio, unlike here where other sports seem to be more successful at drawing from the population of kids who might be willing to sacrifice everything to make it big. Let’s face it; if you are from a middle class background and are on a soccer scholarship at Duke, you probably have other professional options lined up which pay more for less effort, like law or medicine.

Having said that, my long-standing argument has been that even if only 10% of the country was interested in soccer that still makes a country of 30-40 million plus soccer fans, which would be big enough to rank in the top fifty largest countries in the world. We should then be able to compete with the ‘big boys’ in theory. The Netherlands has been in the final three times with half that population (17 million) after all. As we shall see, my argument is theoretically sound but realistically flawed, as size only matters so far. There are clearly other factors which make a good soccer team, being situated in Europe or South America being the most important of these.

*****

Over the years I have had many, many conversations with Europeans about the ‘shocking absence’ of ‘football’ in my country. I have wearily pointed out over the years that there is, and has always been a soccer culture in this country filled with immigrants. I then regale them with stats and trivia about watching Arsenal’s shock title victory in 1989, minutiae about second division teams in Spain or Germany, Europa League preliminary qualification games, or anecdotes about watching Beckenbauer, Pele, and Chinaglia in the 70s playing at Boston University field versus the New England Teamen, and even having an autographed photo of Pele. After they get over their amazement that a mere American perhaps knows as much or more as they do about their own ‘football’ culture (as if I were a dog who suddenly quoted Shakespeare), they try to argue that “the ENTIRE world is crazy about soccer but not your country” to illustrate the point that the United States is parochial, even if I personally might not be, a back-handed compliment if ever there was one. Then, of course, there are dumb and insulting articles like this one by self-hating dumbasses who want to prove how Euro-cool they are.

While I agree that soccer (and it is NOT wrong to call it soccer, to those who think they are being clever to refer to it as football) is not the first sport that springs to mind for the average American, we do have a vibrant and long-standing soccer history, not European to be sure, but certainly not as bad as many ignorant and parochial Europeans typically assume (no we do not all wear cowboy hats, we do not all eat hamburgers for every meal, amazingly there are a few of us who can actually speak a word or two of your declining languages, and here’s a shocker, we did not invent Fascism! These are all things said to me seriously by people in Europe over the years). The fact that this game is getting any attention at all, even in Europe, is proof that we have made some progress. I remember the complete lack of interest when the team failed to make the World Cup in 1986.

However, A glance at the progress of the US team relative to the rest of the world reveals something even more interesting than the inside baseball (sorry to mix sports metaphors) of US team development. The so-called ‘global game’ is perhaps less global than the boosters would have you believe. In fact, I would argue that ‘football’ is the predominant sport solely in Europe and parts of Latin America. I will further argue that the desire to create the impression that soccer is the ‘global game‘ is a euro-centric and FIFA-centric effort to create a narrative that the world is soccer/football mad in order to keep the cash streams flowing in to the FIFA coffers in Zurich.

I use as my argument the actual results of nations across the globe in World Cup qualifying and in FIFA world rankings to suggest that, in contrast to the image of the big powerful United States ‘failing’ to meet the standards of the rest of the World, the US actually does better as a soccer nation than the vast majority of the world’s countries and as a population is actually not bad relative to the rest of the world. Failure to make the World Cup is a fate that befalls many nations; even the might Dutch minnows failed to make it to Russia 2018. However, the size of some countries who have an abysmal history in qualifying for major tournaments is quite remarkable.

For example, Not one of the five largest countries in the world will be present in Russia in 2018.  At least the United States men’s national team failed to qualify for only the first time in 30 years. Other large nations have generally fared much worse and this year’s qualifying rounds were no exception. The team from China (population 1.387 billion) came 5th in the Asian Football Confederation third round qualifying Group B out of six teams (Qatar, the putative hosts of the World Cup in 2022, came dead last in the group. That can’t be good). India (population 1.322 billion) came 5th in Group D of the second qualifying round with 1 win and 7 losses, failing by far to make it even to the final 12 teams in Asian qualifying! Indonesia (population 262 million) was disqualified for government interference before the games even began, but as it previously reached the World Cup only once, as the Dutch East Indies National Team in 1938 (losing 6-0 to Hungary in it’s only game) after Japan withdrew as the Asian qualifier as they were busy raping Nanking, it seems unlikely that Indonesia were on their way to Russia. In 2014 qualifying Indonesia lost all six of their group stage games, scoring 3 and conceding 26 goals. Pakistan (population 209 million) failed to make the second round after dropping to Yemen (a team from a country in the middle of a massive civil war) in a first round qualifying home and away round. Looking a little further down the Asian population charts, even Bangladesh (population 163 million), the 8th largest country in the world, came dead last in their second round qualifying group with zero wins, 1 draw, and 7 losses. Thus the five biggest countries in Asia and five of the eight largest countries in the world, collectively managed to field a team no better than 9th place in Asia! These five countries comprise 44% of the population of the entire planet and they collectively have 2 appearances in the World Cup, no wins in 4 games and no goals scored, ever. China made one appearance in 2002 in neighboring Korea, lost all three games without scoring, conceding 9 goals, and made the short trip home.

It gets worse in Asia. Good news first, as Japan, the 10th largest county in the world and the 6th largest Asian country qualified for the World Cup, but the next two largest Asian countries, the Philippines and Vietnam, both failed to get out of their second round group. Iran, the 9th largest country in Asia and 18th largest in the world qualified for the World Cup, but the 10th largest country in Asia, Thailand (and the 20th largest in the world) came dead last in their third round group, with two draws and six losses.

These are the FIFA world rankings for September 2017 of the above eight countries failing to qualify for the World Cup from Asia with their population rank in parentheses: China 96 (1), India 171 (2), Indonesia 159 (4), Pakistan 188 (5), Bangladesh 165 (8), Philippines 129 (12), Vietnam 133 (15), Thailand 144 (20). It is comical how bad the rankings are, especially relative to the population rank of these countries. Only China makes the top 100, and will probably drop out when October’s rankings come out from FIFA next week.

It is not just the large population of the countries failing to qualify that makes the case for Asian football being largely irrelevant as a serious sport. The World Cup has been hosted only once in Asia, in 2002 when South Korea and Japan co-hosted. Unsurprisingly, these are consistently two of the best teams in Asia. Japan is currently ranked 40th in the FIFA World Rankings, and has been as high as #14, and has reached the round of 16 in the World Cup on two occasions (2002 and 2010). South Korea is ranked #51 by FIFA, and has been as high as #17, and became the first and only Asian team to reach the semifinals of the World Cup in 2002. These two are not small countries: Japan is 10th in the world with 127 million people, while South Korea is 27th with 51 million people. Iran, with 81 million people, is also a relatively successful team as Asian teams go, having reached the World Cup on four occasions, although they have failed to advance beyond the first round in every case. The fourth team to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 is Saudi Arabia, which is the 40th largest country in the world. Saudi Arabia has been to four previous World Cups, reaching the round of 16 in 1994, but failing to win a game in every other appearance.

So, in summary, Asia has produced one semifinalist in twenty editions of the World Cup, and that was on home soil in South Korea. Otherwise, the teams have mostly lost all their games and gone quietly home. Odds are not great for improved success in 2018, with only Iran, at #25, ranked in the top 32 teams, with Japan (#40) comprising all the Asian teams in the top 50. Overall, teams from Asia have a depressingly poor record in the World Cup, even more remarkable for a continent with 60% of the World’s population.

However, this is not merely an Asian problem. I could have used Africa as my main example as it shows a virtually identical pattern of lack of success. In fact, of the 15 largest countries in the entire world, all with 90 million or more people, comprising 64% of the population of the world, only one team has won the World Cup or even been in the final. Brazil (208 million people, #6 in the World, currently #2 in FIFA), of course, is that country and is also the most successful country in the history of the tournament, with five wins in 7 appearances in the final. Other large countries in the top 15 include Ethiopia (the second largest country in Africa, with 94 million people, #14 in the world), currently ranked 144th by FIFA with a total of zero appearances in the World Cup, as well as teams with better records in World Cup history such as Nigeria, Russia, Mexico, and Egypt, which are all ranked in the top 40 by FIFA, are all in the 2018 World Cup, and have all been ranked in the top ten at some point in the history of FIFA rankings. However, none has reached a final.

Russia, as the host, did not have to qualify, which they might well have failed to do as they have reached only three of the last six World Cups, and failed to get out of the group stage in all of them. As the Soviet Union, the team finished 4th in the 1966 World Cup, their best performance to date in the competition. Nigeria, the largest country by population in Africa and 7th largest country in the World, finished 9th in the 1994 World Cup, losing to a Roberto Baggio-led Italian team in Foxboro in a game they should have won (I was there and even the Italians in the crowd acknowledged that Nigeria was the superior team). Subsequently the team has turned in a series of disappointing performances, never reaching the quarterfinals, a feat accomplished only three times by African teams (Cameroon 1990, Senegal 2002, Ghana 2010). Mexico has hosted two World Cups, 1970 and 1986, and finished as quarter finalists in both competitions, their best performances to date. Egypt has been only twice to the World Cup (1934, 1990) never passing out of the first round, despite being seven time African Champions.

Thus, leaving Brazil aside, the other 14 countries in the world, all with more than 83 million people (in other words, all have at least 1% of the world’s total population), which together comprise over 60% of the population of the planet have collectively had zero appearances in World Cup finals, two semifinal and three quarterfinal appearances. 160 places in twenty World Cups in the quarterfinals and these 14 countries have been represented a mere four times at this level. In other words, 3% of all the teams in the quarterfinals or better at all the World Cups combined have come from 14 large countries representing more than 60% of the world’s people. I find it hard to accept that in the last eighty years not one country not called Brazil with at least 90 million people has managed to become a great or even a reasonably good soccer power and simultaneously believe that soccer is anything close to the ‘global game’. Furthermore, I have not even mentioned the large number of smaller African, Asian, Oceanic, Caribbean and Latin American countries that not only never thrived at the World Cup but have never even been to the World Cup.

On the bright side, the United States is one of the three large countries with both a semifinal (1930) and a quarterfinal appearance (2002, losing 1-0 to Germany in a good game). Mexico, twice while hosting, has done quite well for a non-European/South American team. So, to those who say the USA is no good at soccer, I admit in the realm of overall results that is true, but compared to the other large nations in the world’s top 15 countries they even now are probably the second best team behind Brazil and, at worst, the third, fourth, or fifth best team in this group (behind Brazil, Mexico, and maybe Nigeria, even possibly Japan, but the US team made the QF in the World Cup Japan hosted, while Japan did not and Nigeria has never made even the quarterfinals).

Which brings me to the main conclusion: Europe and South America are the true centers of soccer, and always have been since the sport took off in the early twentieth century. Uruguay (population 3.5 million!), Argentina, and Brazil are the only non-European teams to win the World Cup or even appear in the final. These also happen to be, along with Chile (which came 3rd when it hosted in 1962), the four countries in South America which have seen the most immigration from Europe.

Even in Europe, only five teams have won: Germany (#16 in population, winners 4 times), Italy (#23 in population, 3 time winners), France (#21 in population), England (United Kingdom is #22 in population, see below), and Spain (#30 in population), each with one title. Four more teams have reached the finals and lost and all four (Netherlands three times, Czechoslovakia twice, Hungary twice, and Sweden once) are European sides. Apparently size matters in Europe, as the five winners are the five large Western European nations (England, confusingly, is a separate team from United Kingdom, which, in a foreshadowing of likely future political events, does not exist in soccer as there is a Welsh, a Scottish, and a Northern Ireland team as well- and one of these (Northern Ireland) might qualify for Russia while Scotland and Wales might have qualified as well had they won their final games).

Eastern Europe has not fared quite as well, probably because Poland, which has been a decent team in the past (semifinals in 1974 and 1982), is the only country in what was once the Soviet bloc with more than thirty million inhabitants (excluding Russia, discussed above). The former Yugoslavia did well (semifinals in 1962, QF in 1990) and even had a quarterfinalist in 1998 with one of it’s ‘rump countries’, Croatia. Other teams including Czechoslovakia (finalists in 1934 and 1962), Hungary (finalist in 1938 and 1954), Bulgaria (semifinalist 1994), Romania (quarterfinalist 1994), and Ukraine (quarterfinalist 2006) have all reached at least the quarterfinals. Even Turkey, a marginally European country, has reached the semifinals (2002).

Other small European countries have done well in the World Cup, particularly the Netherlands (#66 in population, with 17 million people), which has been in the finals three times (1974,1978, and 2010). Belgium, Portugal, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, and Ireland have all been at least to the quarterfinals. All these countries are smaller even than the Netherlands, all with fewer than 12 million inhabitants.

Another European side, the team from Iceland, quite possibly the most irritating (and creepy) team ever to qualify for the World Cup, will make their debut next year in Russia, continuing their successful run of form at the European Championships last year. They are also, at 343,000 inhabitants (#173 in population, #22 in FIFA ranking), far and away the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup. European teams far outperform their population ranks in soccer; although only larger European countries have won the World Cup, most of the other reasonably sized countries have had a burst of success at some point in their history, unlike the vast majority of countries in the rest of the world. In fact, every country in Europe with more than 1 million inhabitants with the sole exception of Greece, Finland, Albania, and Norway, has made it to at least the World Cup Quarterfinals at some point in their history. Russia (as the Soviet Union), Germany, Turkey (see above), France, Italy, England (I know…), Spain, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Yugoslavia (today the smaller countries of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Kosovo), Portugal, Sweden, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, and Ireland have ALL reached at least the quarterfinals in at least one World Cup.

Belarus (9.5 million) and the other tiny former Soviet Republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and a few others that are not even marginally European) are the exceptions, but all were part of the Soviet Union in 1966, so technically I am still right. In fact, after all the above countries, Malta (430,000) and Luxembourg (591,000), Iceland is the next largest country in Europe and it is going to Russia in 2018. Basically Malta and Luxembourg are losers for not being able to get to the World Cup as European teams, and they are smaller than the city of Boston, while India (again, in case you have forgotten, population 1,332,490,000) has NEVER qualified for a World Cup tournament.

*****

I want to return to the original discussion about whether the World Cup is the world’s game. Eight teams have won one of the twenty editions of the World Cup and all but one (Uruguay) number among the 35 or so countries with 40 million or more people. Another four European nations, all with fewer than twenty million inhabitants, has reached the final, and most of the teams in Europe of any size have reached the quarterfinal at least once. In America, Paraguay, Colombia, Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Peru, and Chile have all reached at least the quarterfinals. Africa has sent three teams in total to the quarterfinals, and Asia has sent only one, South Korea (two if you count Turkey as Asia, which FIFA does not, as it is in UEFA qualifying and its teams also play in the European Champion’s League).

Among the twenty largest nations in the world, only two Germany and Brazil, have won the World Cup, or even reached the Finals. These twenty nations account for about 70% of the population of the world. Only Russia, USA, Mexico, and Turkey have reached even the quarterfinals. If the tournament results of the teams outside of Brazil and Germany among the world’s twenty largest nations were combined, the results would still be worse than the results of Netherlands, or Sweden, or Hungary, or Czechoslovakia, or Belgium, or Poland, and would be roughly comparable to the results of any of another half dozen more small countries in Europe. Iceland has a better World Cup record than India, as does virtually any European country larger than Iceland.

Soccer is NOT the world’s game: a good argument could be made for cricket, which actually is played and adored by people in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), as well as in South Africa, Kenya, the Caribbean, Australia, and New Zealand. Baseball is popular in Venezuela, which has never qualified for the World Cup, as well as in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, not to mention the United States and Canada (a country with an absolutely appalling record in World Cup qualifying, despite being the 38th largest country in the world and a wealthy one at that). Pick a sport: badminton in Indonesia or the Philippines or China, Judo, handball, field hockey, volleyball, basketball. In truth there really is no world sport, merely many sports which wax and wane in influence and popularity depending on  where they are played.

I contend that FIFA, which in truth is merely UEFA, the European branch of soccer bureaucracy, plus some guys with cash from the Middle East and a few corrupt and appalling ‘politicians’ from various countries who scurry around like rats to collect the crumbs dropped from the FIFA banquet table (I am looking at you Jack Warner! You can gloat all you want but you are still a scumbag who will shortly have a lot of explaining to do when you meet your maker!), is merely a euro-centric world view dressed up in ‘global’ clothes but retaining a strong whiff of imperialism that assumes that whatever is big in Europe must be the most important thing in the world. I enjoy soccer, I like and appreciate Europe, but I am aware enough of geopolitical developments of the last fifty years to realize that the grip of Europe on the reins of power have been slipping for some time and that soccer is one of the last footholds of the old European world order. This I fear is at the heart of the project to make soccer the ‘global game’ and is comes with the Anti-American baggage that gives it a slight air of ‘global ‘street cred’. My own personal theory is that the whole ‘global game’ marketing scheme was cooked up in the late 1980s when the honchos at FIFA realized that Michael Jordan was becoming a household name in what used to be called the ‘Third World’ and began to panic that basketball was on the verge of becoming the cool sport. But that argument must be saved for another day.

Europeans are dreaming if they think that ‘football’ will make the rest of the world like them better or continue to make them politically and culturally relevant. I can guarantee you that more people in tiny villages in Lesotho or Bhutan or Tonga or Kerala or in the Amazon rainforest know the name Barack Obama than the combined total of people who can name ANY European leader, and he does not even play soccer. Chinese politicians wear western suits and Xi Jinping himself professes to want to improve soccer in China, but that does not make him a Europhile. And, despite the push, soccer in China is not even as good as soccer in Iceland, the population of which is a rounding error in Chinese demographic circles. Football/soccer as European soft power is a nice try but Hollywood still has ten times the cultural influence than Messi and Ronaldo combined.

World Cup 94 Ticket. This one was for Italy-Spain; can’t find my Italy-Nigeria Ticket but it’s around here somewhere.

In one respect, however, it is the world game, as it watched by many people the world over, including and especially in China. I submit that, as the vast majority of the planet’s population has never had a team even qualify for the World Cup, that this ‘interest’ in soccer is for another reason completely. This reason can be seen on the shirt sponsor’s of eight of the twenty teams in the Premier League of England, widely regarded as the most important league in soccer in terms of viewership and world-wide reach. Almost half the teams in the Premier League are sponsored by betting operations, and it is not hard to reach the conclusion that the real interest, as in much of sports viewing these days, is betting on the games. Money seems to be the main driver of the perceived interest in soccer from top to bottom.

*****

Finally, to return to the question of the poverty of US soccer culture, ignoring the morons who think soccer is a foreign sport or the clods outside America who think we do not know what a soccer ball is because we all have CTE from playing ‘fake’ (American) football, I wondered if there was such a thing as a ranking of the performance of teams at the World Cup over time. There is, the FIFA All-time World Cup Rankings ™. The results are pretty interesting: The United States is 23rd, behind the usual suspects. The non-European teams ahead of the United States are all ‘Latin-American’: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Chile, and, surprisingly at #22, Paraguay. The only countries in the top twenty largest countries in the world ranked ahead of the United States are Brazil (1), Russia (11), Mexico (13), and Germany (2). Nigeria is ranked #32, and Japan is ranked #35. South Korea is the top team from Asia at #25, While Nigeria is the top African team. China is ranked #74 and India has no ranking because it has never been to the World Cup. It is farcical and even insulting to call soccer the ‘global game’ and just as dumb to say America is the outlier in the World. If anything, we are in the sweet spot of being fairly decent but not being completely overwhelmed by soccer mania, right about where we have been on the global stage for the last century, straddling the line between respecting our European heritage but not being completely stifled by it. To borrow and simultaneously invert the old English phrase: ‘that is cricket!’

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