Ta’s Timeout: Why some nations are better at soccer than others and how the U.S. can follow in their footsteps

Icons of two human figures wearing shirts with the flag of Brazil on them and holding a flag of Brazil and World Cup trophies. There is a banner above them reading "Winners! 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002" with a picture of a soccer ball
Graphic by Donnie TC Denome

It’s been over a year since the last FIFA Men’s World Cup tournament, which means that all over the world, teams are preparing to qualify for 2022. 

But despite this preparation, the same group of teams tends to win the tournament. Since the first World Cup in 1930, there have been 21 FIFA World Cup tournaments, nine of which have been won by a South American nation and 12 of which have been won by a European nation. 

Soccer skill generally doesn’t correlate with countries’ size, even though larger countries have a larger pool of potential footballers to choose from.

The world’s five most populous nations are China, India, the U.S., Indonesia and Pakistan, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of these five, only the U.S. has consistently qualified for the final tournament, but even they missed out on the tournament in 2018 and are never realistic challengers when they do qualify. 

Their only real tournament showing — apart from the first ever World Cup tournament — was in 2002, when the Americans were eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Of the other four nations, only China has appeared at the World Cup, also in the 2002 tournament, but proceeded to lose all their group stage matches and scored zero goals.

While soccer has a following in these countries, various factors including prioritization of other sports, lack of accessibility and weak youth development programs have prevented them from success at the international level. 

For example, the U.S. has historically prioritized other sports such as American football, basketball and baseball. These three have consistently been America’s favorite spectator sports, according to a Gallup poll on sports viewership. 

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In terms of culture, soccer has never truly captured the hearts of Americans, who tend to gravitate toward sports that are more action-packed and high-scoring.

Additionally, soccer is definitely not as accessible in the U.S. as it is in other countries. To get the best chance of making it professionally, families must be willing to pay thousands of dollars for their children to play club soccer, and even then, the youth development programs in America are pale in comparison to the ones in Europe.

These programs can be prohibitively expensive for many people and can block promising players from pursuing their passion at a professional level.

In women’s soccer, however, the narrative changes completely. American women have been extremely dominant in soccer, winning half the tournaments that have taken place. 

Women’s soccer is well ahead of men’s soccer in America, and according to NBC News, it has a lot to do with Title IX — the law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs and activities.  

“Soccer isn’t terribly expensive, so as schools and sports programs transitioned over the years to comply with Title IX, soccer was an easy sport to let girls in on,” Karen Blumenthal, author of “Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX,” said in an interview with NBC News.

But a large population definitely doesn’t hurt when it comes to success in soccer. The sixth most populated country — Brazil — has won the most FIFA World Cups.

Soccer is a way of life for the Brazilian people, and as a result, it’s become highly accessible for the youth. 

All over the nation, players start pickup games on makeshift fields where the biggest Brazilian names of today got their starts, according to Business Insider.  

Because the game is so accessible and prioritized in Brazil, the next Pelé or Neymar is much more likely to be found among the large population. 

As a result, kids all over the country are competing to earn a chance to play for the national team. This fierce competition, coupled with the winning spirit left behind by Brazilian legends, is the perfect source of motivation for young footballers to grow into future superstars.

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On the other end of the spectrum, Iceland has a population of only 360,000, but managed to qualify for the 2016 European Championships. The team went as far as the quarterfinals and made it to the World Cup two years later in 2018.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, the Iceland men’s national team’s head coach Heimir Hallgrímsson, said it’s easy to implement changes around a small country.

The connection between the coaches is quite good,” Hallgrímsson said. “When a new thing comes, it quickly spreads around.”

And while Iceland doesn’t have a large pool of players to choose from, the talented footballers they do have have been playing together since they were young, allowing them to build a strong sense of togetherness.

All facilities are paid for with taxpayer money, and young players share the same facilities as the top-level players,” according to Maxim Magazine. “Indoor fields mean players can train year-round, which is crucial in a country with a winter as long and dark as Iceland’s.”

Cases such as Iceland’s highlight that small nations do have the potential to succeed in international football with a proper system to develop young athletes. There’s no reason why the U.S. can’t follow the footsteps of Iceland, especially with its greater resources and larger talent pool. 

The talent is there, and the U.S. needs to look beyond its inaccessible academies to find the hidden superstars who are sacrificing their love of the game because they can’t afford to pay for expensive academies. 

 

Danny Ta PO ’22 is a math major from Ontario, California. In his free time, he enjoys being frustrated by the inconsistency of his favorite soccer team, Manchester United.

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