Return to Mediocrity

As I know many of my followers/readers are not hardcore sports fans, let me give some perspective on Oct. 10th, 2017. Headlines across America might have read…

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Unfathomable? Impossible? Maybe those headlines give the American non-sports or general sports fan a glimpse of what has been going on with our United States Soccer Federation and our men’s national team the last fifteen years or more.

In November 2016 I wrote a post (A Litmus Test) about the USMNT fall and firing of one our winningest Head Coaches, Jürgen Klinsmann. In my post a year ago I pointed out what I thought were three central pillars that dictate a FIFA member’s national team success, mediocrity, or failure. If a national footballing federation like our USSF wants to find a dynasty-proven premier model to follow, it doesn’t have to look too hard at all. In fact, it is or should be a no-brainer.

Ever since the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, football, or futebol, or soccer as Americans call it, has by all records been the world’s greatest most popular, most watched sporting event in all of modern history. Around the entire globe crazed, obsessed fans can tell you in remarkable detail specific plays, passes, saves, and goals by who and where for any number of futebol matches! And the records, the stats, the teams, the players, the articles, and video-highlights are easily found anywhere. Here are the three greatest national futebolling dynasties, top to bottom, followed by consistent strong contenders. These include FIFA Federation dynasties, in parenthesis, which are just as competitive as World Cups:

  1. Brazil — 5 world championships and the only nation to have participated in all twenty World Cup tournaments (8 Federation Championships)
  2. Germany — 4 world championships (3 Federation Championships)
  3. Italy — 4 world championships (1 Federation Championship)
  4. Argentina — 2 world championships (14 Federation Championships)
  5. Uruguay — 2 world championships (15 Federation Championships)
  6. Spain — 1 world championship (3 Federation Championships)
  7. France — 1 world championship (2 Federation Championships)
  8. England — 1 world championship

If a new or burgeoning national futebol/soccer governing body — with an equal or better sports fan-base to grow — wants to see how Brazil, Germany, Italy and a host of several other dominating countries play the game at the highest levels, with weaker economies than the U.S., and do it year after year, tournament after tournament, producing world-class players and coaches generation after generation, above are 4-5 nations to mimic with everything it takes to be a juggernaut dynasty for 88-years and 88 more.

matt-besler-usa

A defeated Matt Besler post-game

Yet, one very tiny Caribbean nation eliminated the U.S. Mens National Soccer Team from its 8th consecutive FIFA World Cup tournament. More embarrassing than the loss Oct. 10th to tiny Trinidad & Tobago is the fact that CONCACAF is by far the easiest federation to qualify from to play in the quadrennial World Cup tournament out of all FIFA federations. Given the U.S. made it to the Quarter-finals in 2002, this begs the serious question, What direction has U.S. soccer headed in?

Having played at a very high-level of soccer myself most of my adult life — collegiately, professionally, and semi-pro — on the continents of Europe, South America, Africa, and of course North America, under several coaches and playing styles, with and against some excellent players and several world-class players, for an American I feel I have a well-based, fair standpoint (since 1975) to assess our nation’s soccer/futebol progress. However, this time I won’t. I am going to defer to someone who has much higher experience, much higher qualifications to tell America and the USSF like it is and won’t sugar-coat it. He repeats much of what I’ve been advocating and screaming since 1990.

One of Five American World-Class Soccer Players:  Claudio Reyna

Reyna-on-US-SoccerOf the handful of American boys that the rest of the futebolling world would label world-class, capable of playing several prolonged seasons in Europe’s elite leagues and teams in the starting-11, Claudio Reyna is a shoe-in. Real quick, he played from 1994-2008 at the highest levels with Bayer Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg, Rangers, Sunderland, and Manchester City before retiring with the New York Red Bulls. Had he not suffered so many leg injuries, most critics say Claudio would’ve held almost all American soccer records for a long time eclipsed only by Clint Dempsey or the rising Christian Pulisic. I feel what Claudio has to say about Oct. 10th and the state of U.S. soccer today carries a whole lot of weight. Here are his words from an interview with soccer website Goal.com:

REYNA:
“Our approach and our behavior to the sport here — to coaching, to everything, is just wrong. We’re far too arrogant. We’re far too obnoxious. We are egotistical, having never won anything or done anything, and that’s not the case around the world. You travel to Spain, Argentina, Germany and you run into coaches and sporting directors and there’s a humility about their work that doesn’t exist here, and that’s, for me seeing it, is to me a big concern.

When you have a disappointment like last week, and we’ve had past disappointments as well, and we’ll have disappointments in the future, but what we need to understand that it’s for me behavioral. We have coaches who think they’re better than they are. Across the board, we just think we do things better than we really do. I mean in every way. Whether it’s broadcasting, or media, coaching, we’re just not as far along as we tell ourselves we are. We need a little honesty, and hopefully this brought it. I think it’s far too late. I think we’ve been asleep at the wheel for a little bit too long.”

For the key pivotal positions throughout the U.S. soccer culture, youth development, up to the USSF and USMNT since the 1970’s, anyone who is outside of soccer just doesn’t understand what Claudio is saying. Non-futebol leaders, administrators, coaches, presidents, corporate sponsors and fans (who ultimately pay for the product on the fields), bring with them this old guard USA mentality that America is the best at most everything!

REYNA:
“We have all these countries around the world we can learn from, and you go over there and you’re not going to see different training sessions. You’re going to see good games, and poor games, like in any league across the world.

But the one thing that we haven’t realized, I think, when we have our American soccer people go abroad to learn, I don’t think they see the behaviors of the people and how they coach in their day-to-day work. That’s the shake-up I hope people realize more than anything.

You go to a U-14 and U-15 coach in Spain, and they are 10 times more humble than a U-14 or U-15 coach in Connecticut, New Jersey or New York, who thinks they’re the next Pep Guardiola or Patrick Vieira.

Until we realize that — that we’re not as good as we think we are at all levels — then I think we’re going to continue being what we are, which is mediocre.”

Messi-Ronaldo

Spain’s La Liga dominates recent world-class club futebol

In my personal opinion and experience, Claudio is partly correct about European leagues and games. However, the reason the English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, and Brasileiro Série A are the top leagues in the world are because of the product they have on the field and sidelines. The best players on the planet play in these five leagues and paying fans with paying sponsors want to watch excellent entertaining futebol of the highest levels. Bad games are few and far between in these leagues between the bottom-dwelling clubs.

Why is the MLS, America’s pro league, consider 2nd or 3rd Division by world standards? Reyna believes that though soccer has grown in popularity in the U.S., the quality has not improved or kept up with that growth.

REYNA:
“What I think has happened in the past 10 years is we’re confusing investment, expansion, growth, (U.S. Development Academy), and all these other things with progress. All these things have sort of created a feeling that we’re progressing, but I call it expanding, growth and more fans.

From the general growth side it’s happening, but are we really progressing? When I look around at certain levels I don’t see progress happening.

I remember the great Johan Cruyff would say something about Dutch football, or Franz Beckenbauer in Germany, and when other big players and coaches spoke out and were honest, it shook things up and make people ask, ‘How are we teaching the game to our youth? How are we playing the game? What’s the competition like?

We don’t have those kind of serious discussions here. We just seem to talk, but never really make any significant changes.”

And I would add here that because of an old guard mindset of sports egotism, like we had about Olympic basketball for so long, Americans falsely thought we could just create our own pro-soccer league here with a lot of American players and a few old retiring European or S. American has-beens and soon advance into the World Cup’s Quarter or Semi-finals. That was the American mentality after the 1994 FIFA World Cup here in the U.S. when we upset Colombia and especially after our performance in the 2002 World Cup.

REYNA:
[The old guard] “are sitting together and thinking about strategies and how we’re going to get better. We need a little humility and modesty at the table. Unfortunately, we have a little too much ‘Mr. I Know Everything’, ‘Mr. Arrogance’, ‘Mr. Obnoxious’, ‘Mr. Loud’, and when those get together nothing happens.”

This is who I believe Claudio is calling out, the American generation in key pivotal positions who did not grow up playing little league soccer, school soccer, and college soccer. At best, that old guard might have had their kids playing, but not at top-quality European or S. American influenced academies with the same foreign coaches. When one wants to learn all the in’s and out’s of a intricate complicated sport, you go and learn from the best in the world. That is what S. Americans did for basketball in the NBA and that’s what the rest of the world did for baseball in the MLB. What has the old guard and USSF done? Can it improve or change as necessary?

What does Claudio think about our retiring 30-year olds, current mid-20 year olds, and teenage soccer generations?

REYNA:
“There’s good players at every age group. There’s some very good players in this country. As supporters of these players, whether it’s coaches, sporting directors, team presidents, we need to continue to push ourselves to make sure they have the best environment to develop because the talent is here. One thing I’ll never say is we don’t have good players, because we do.”

Gabriele Marcotti, a European sports journalist-columnist and self-protested “outsider” to U.S. soccer, wrote a good 7-point piece for ESPN FC earlier this month that I think pin-points some chronic and festering problems. Check it out. His first four points are excellent. Back to Claudio…

REYNA:
“There’s a lot of positives despite the disappointing result that we had last week. I think we’re all embarrassed. I’m embarrassed as a former player that I have to go around and have people make fun of us, and get texts from my friends in Europe who remind me we’ll be on [vacation] next summer. I can laugh, but it hurts. It definitely hurts.”

I am right there with your pain Claudio. It does indeed hurt, particularly when the USMNT and USSF have no legitimate excuses for missing the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The first head that should immediately roll is President Sunil Gulati. This decline and disaster has happened on his watch.

As a personal closing opinion and note, without question, all of the USMNT greatest futebol achievements, greatest futebol players, and greatest futebol moments have come with, by and during eras when American players had prolonged experience or were playing in top foreign leagues. After at least five decades of soccer, what does that suggest about our youth development programs and domestic Major League Soccer?

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USMNT Soccer: A Litmus Test

jurgen-klinsmannFormer USMNT manager Jürgen Klinsmann deserves very high honors and respect for his accomplishments for U.S. soccer after just 98 matches over 5-years and a winning percentage of 63.8%, barely second only to his new successor Bruce Arena at 65.8% after 130 games. Along with Bob Bradley, these 3 managers are PARTIALLY responsible for the USMNT best most historic World Cup stints and international play since the inaugural season of the MLS in 1996… a volatile subject amongst all USSF coaches, MLS club-owners, domestic players, and U.S. soccer fans. And as usual, that success or volatility boils down to prestige, egos, dollars, and ROI’s.

But why are USMNT managers only partially responsible for success, mediocrity, or failure? The answer is three-fold:

  1. player-pool quality
  2. the strength of domestic leagues both financially and on-the-field, and
  3. the expertise of the nation’s futebol-governing body

For those U.S. fans who don’t really understand world-class futebol and how consistent world-class status is achieved on the national team level, let’s examine all three above areas historically for a better litmus test of how far USMNT soccer has progressed since 1996 and with the rehire of Bruce Arena, and whether we the fans must wait another 20-years for any significant progress.

Sidenote: this is not an exhaustive analysis with all factors considered; just these 3 primary factors.

Player-pool Quality

tab-ramos-real-betisIn the modern-era of U.S. soccer, we have four quality performances on the international stage. The farthest the USMNT has gone in all World Cup competitions was the Quarter-finals in 2002. After qualifying play finished, the U.S. ranked 8th in the world going in. 2002 is the pinnacle, the current standard to surpass. The next best ranking & performance was in the 2010 WC into the Round-of-16 ranked 12th, then the 1994 WC Round-of-16 ranked 14th, and finally the 2014 WC Round-of-16 ranked 15th. Let’s examine those four USMNT rosters and where the team’s quality was based.

2002 USMNT WC Roster — There were 12 MLS-playing players and 11 playing abroad. The most influential, most valuable players were Brian McBride (Columbus Crew), Claudio Reyna (Sunderland), Brad Friedel (Blackburn Rovers), DaMarcus Beasley (Chicago Fire), Landon Donovan (San Jose), and John O’Brien (Ajax). All six players spent 3 or more seasons on European teams except Donovan who had shorter stints. Their foreign experience was key to the 2002 USMNT success.

brian-mcbride-fulham

Brian McBride

2010 USMNT WC Roster — There were 4 MLS-playing players and 19 playing abroad. The most influential, most valuable players were Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Tim Howard (Everton), DaMarcus Beasley (Rangers), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Michael Bradley (Mönchengladbach), Jozy Altidore (Hull City), and notable contributions from Carlos Bocanegra (Rennes) and Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96) in defense. Once again, the foreign experience was key to the 2010 USMNT success.

1994 USMNT WC Roster — There were 15 domestic-playing players and only 7 playing abroad. However, this is prior to the modern era of the MLS and USSF with most players contracted full-time to US Soccer, not to domestic pro league teams. The most influential, most valuable players were Tab Ramos (Real Betis), John Harkes (Derby County), Eric Wynalda (1.FC Saarbrücken), and Marcelo Balboa (San Diego State Univ). Notice once again, the quality foreign experience for international success.

eric-wynalda-saarbrucken

Eric Wynalda

2014 USMNT WC Roster — There were 10 MLS-playing players and 13 playing abroad. The most influential, most valuable players were Clint Dempsey again (Seattle) and Tim Howard (Everton), with notable contributions from Jermaine Jones (Beşiktaş), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), and Julian Greene (Bayern Munich). Foreign experience was again key for a surprising run out of Group G the “Group of Death”.

In 2006 the USMNT received its highest ever ranking (#4 FIFA, #2 Elo) leading up to the 2006 WC in Germany. Of that roster there were 11 MLS-playing players and 12 playing abroad. Influential key players of that team were Claudio Reyna (Man City), Kasey Keller (Mönchengladbach), and Brian McBride (Fulham)….again quality foreign experience.

Strength of Domestic Leagues
claudio-reyna-man-city

Claudio Reyna

A good indicator of how strong your domestic league ranks is by its teams and players international performances. For example, how your league performs in your federation Champions League over a long time-period both on the club & national team levels. The two competitions for CONCACAF are Champions Cup/League and the Gold Cup. Let’s examine how MLS teams, American lower league teams, and our USMNT have measured up to other CONCACAF nations and their domestic leagues, and then CONCACAF Winners compared to other FIFA federations in World Club competitions.

Champions Cup/League
Of the 12 member nations of CONCACAF, Mexico’s Liga MX teams far & away out performed any other member nation with 32 winners and 16 runner-ups since the tournament started in 1962. Distant second and third place nations are Costa Rica and El Salvador respectively; the U.S. MLS teams are barely on record. In the modern era of Champions League (2008), Mexican Liga MX teams dominate completely. The closest MLS teams? Real Salt Lake and Montreal runner-ups, in 2011 and 2015 only.

FIFA World Club Champions
Of all the six world futebol federations, UEFA dominates as winners with CONMEBOL a respectable 2nd, and CAF a distant 3rd. CONCACAF clubs have never made it to the final. Brazil and Spain are the top nations.

Gold Cup
It must be noted that the Gold Cup tournament consists of national teams with many players in European leagues as well as domestic leagues; the U.S. is no exception in the modern era.

clint-dempsey-fulham

Clint Dempsey

Mexico again edges out the USMNT in this tournament with 10 winners, 2 runner-ups, 4 third-places, and 1 fourth-place. Costa Rica and the U.S. follow with 11 and 13 top four finishes respectively. Hence, an argument can be reasonably waged that the USMNT’s Gold Cup successes come IN PART (or more) to its international experience as it did with the four World Cups of 1994, 2002, 2010, and 2014…. the last three coinciding with Gold Cup championships.

High-Quality Players in the MLS
It is a long-standing fact that Europe’s Top 5 leagues are consistently at the world’s top because of world-class marquee players, club managers, and the extravagant salaries for both. It is no different for America’s NBA or MLB…. the best basketball & baseball players in the world are truly “marquee” if they play for 3-or-more seasons in the NBA and MLB during their prime-playing years. In Europe the best leagues are arguably Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, and Germany’s Bundesliga and they attract the world’s elite-class players and managers. Period. As an important contribution, domestic-born players in Spain, England, and Germany — as well as France, Italy, Turkey and a handful of other countries — greatly benefit over their formative playing years by playing with and against the best in the world! And those “world’s best” are typically in their PRIME playing years age 22 to 28. How has or does America’s MLS stack up with Europe’s Top leagues attracting “marquee” players in their prime years, their best years? Only one question is needed to determine how the MLS stacks up to Europe’s top leagues:

Since the MLS’s 1996 inaugural season, how many elite marquee world-class foreign players (i.e. the top 200-300 all-time in the world since 1996) have played or are playing in the MLS during their prime years of age 22 to 28?

The following players are another indication and comparison of how weak, mediocre, or strong the MLS has rated over the extant 20-year period. How many appearances these foreign players have made for their national team is also included giving more credence to their “world-class” status:

  1. Jaime Moreno (Bolivia) aged 22 entering MLS with 75 national team appearances
  2. Marco Etcheverry (Bolivia) aged 26 entering MLS with 71 national team appearances
  3. Giovani dos Santos (Mexico) aged 26 entering MLS currently with 116 national team appearances
marco-etcheverry

Marco Etcheverry

Of these 3 players, only Etcheverry and dos Santos had/have prior top-flight European league playing experience entering the MLS. That’s ONLY THREE PLAYERS of the last 20 MLS seasons in their prime playing years!!! Not good for our American MLS boys getting high-level world-class exposure which wins and consistently performs well in major world tournaments. Jürgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena (our top 2 managers of all-time) understand this critical dynamic for our USMNT. Our national team’s performance record and our domestic players from the MLS on our USMNT — with no lengthy European or S. American exposure — are and have been the biggest hindrance these last 20-years, not the managers.

Financial Status of MLS
In a CNN report dated March 2015, the MLS “lost as much as $250-million in its first 5 years” and dwindling attendances after the inaugural season. However, the league’s expansion from 10 teams initially to 20 teams today is a bright spot on an otherwise slow difficult climb toward any world powerhouse stature. The product-quality on the field and in-stadium attendance has improved slightly in 20-years. A new 8-year televised media package with ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision will bring about $90-million in revenue, which helps. There are approximately 70-million soccer fans in the U.S. and many of them are the under-30 demographic. Of the viewing audiences and game attendees, about 30% (more in the southwest and Florida) are Latino and that number increases every year. The “breakthrough” to competing with the top American sports for a bigger more fervent fan-base, and hence large corporate sponsors, is as close as it has ever been recently.

dossantos-gio

Giovani dos Santos

But the reality for the league and owners is that they have been losing money once all the ledger books are closed. And the more serious American soccer/futebol fan today demands the best on-field product possible. That is reflected by a huge influx of American television coverage and TV networks investing in the top three leagues of the world: EPL, La Liga, and the Bundesliga the last 5+ years. Even England’s 2nd Division league, the EFL Championship, is now televised in the U.S. on beIN Sports. Therefore, the serious, knowledgeable American soccer fan is here and has been since at least 1994 if not sooner! This begs the question…

Could the MLS have done better in 20-years? Yes, much better. Player development has been one area (future product or R&D if you will) the league has ignored horribly for the sake of immediate revenues & profits. It must improve quickly if the MLS is going to last another 20-years, starting with MORE top world-class players here in their prime years for 3 or more seasons! Three players only over 20-years will not cut it.

Playing Expertise of USSF

The Board of Directors for the USSF have seen near non-existent soccer playing experience since 1990. Presidents Alan Rothenberg, Robert Contiguglia, and Sunil Gulati have never played high-level soccer at anytime in their lives. The offices of Executive Vice President, Treasurer, Chairman Adult & Youth Council, or Chairman Professional Council have never possessed officers with any high-level playing experience since 1990. Why? Why none at all?

However, USSF “Athlete Representatives” serving as consultants have seen a handful of past international playing experience represented at the federation in Chicago, like John Harkes and Peter Vermes. Unfortunately, USSF Athlete Representatives have only very minor influence for USMNT’s key staffing positions. Perhaps this must change as much as national team managers?

Nevertheless, as Douglas Logan stated, first MLS Commissioner from 1995-1999…

“Starting a league is a generational proposition, and can’t be measured in 4- or 8-year horizons. Now we’re closing in on 20 years. We’re going into a second generation, and we’re picking up fans who weren’t even born when the league was born.”

Was Jürgen Klinsmann’s tenure “generational” in nature? Was it measured by “generationS” of players and performances, or merely (unfairly?) in 4- or 8-year horizons? Remarks by USSF President Sunil Gulati in the wake of Klinsmann’s termination, reflect not a move upward in world soccer prestige and competitiveness for the U.S., but a still present stagnating mentality of status quo that has plagued our USMNT since 1954…

“While we remain confident that we have quality players to help us advance to Russia 2018, the form and growth of the team up to this point left us convinced that we need to go in a different direction. With the next qualifying match in late March, we have several months to refocus the group and determine the best way forward to ensure a successful journey to qualify for our eighth-consecutive World Cup.”

Not to surpass previous accomplishments says the President, but merely “qualifying for our eighth-consecutive World Cup.What!? We qualified for the 1990 World Cup! Twenty-eight years later we should by now be serious contenders for consistent World Cup Quarter-final appearances with 2-3 generations developed, many playing in Europe. If the USSF’s and MLS’s attitude doesn’t embody mediocrity, I don’t know what does. Klinsmann wasn’t the sole problem Gulati and American soccer fans. The bigger problems are the three above!

Final USMNT litmus test? Sadly, same ole business as usual it seems.   😥

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Uniting the World

Most coveted trophy in all of sports

There is an irrational sports mentality in America that the National Football League (NFL), or National Basketball Association (NBA), or Major League Baseball (MLB), and their televised “world championships” are the biggest spectacle in sporting events in the world.  This is strictly an American invention, however.  It does not exist anywhere except within the lower 48-states.  The reality is this:  the NFL, NBA, and MLB pale and pale greatly when put next to FIFA’s World Cup tournament and championship every four years.  But certainly don’t take my word for it.  Let’s look at these numbers.
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A London, UK-based media company called Initiative, Futures sport + entertainment, a firm that publishes reports and research on all and any sporting events, states “Soccer’s domination of global TV viewing is now complete.”  According to Initiative, in 2009 the NFL’s Super Bowl XLIII was knocked off its most-viewed-event-in-the-world perch.  This television topple has been coming since at least 2002, and immeasurably and arguably well before 2000.

Let’s start with the size of leagues or associations by the number of teams and their fans.  These will strictly be men’s sports.

 

Number of Teams and Confederations

In the NFL there are 32 teams that play for the Super Bowl Championship.  In the NBA there are 30 teams that play for the NBA Championship.  In MLB there are also 30 teams that play for the World Series Championship.  These three American professional sports have a total of 92 teams playing for three different championships.  Now let us examine FIFA, or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association.

fifa_logoFor just over three years, 226 national teams all over the world (as of 2014) compete for inclusion into the opening group-play in the FIFA World Cup tournament held every four years.  That is over 7-times larger than the NFL and nearly 8-times larger than the NBA and MLB association and league respectively.  But this comparison isn’t quite accurate; it doesn’t portray the true size of professional soccer players and their pro teams in each of those 226 FIFA nations.

FIFA is comprised of six (6) futebol, or soccer associations, represented by individual continents.  The CAF (Confederation of African Football) comprises 54 national teams, each of those nations with professional leagues of teams/clubs totaling approximately 408 teams within those 54 nations; each team with an approximate roster of 22-25 players.  Additionally, the 408 teams are merely the Top professional teams in the continent’s Top Leagues.  There are typically lower 2nd and 3rd division leagues, or more, on each continent.

The next continental association, in alphabetical order, is the AFC (Asian Football Association) comprising 47 national teams.  Within the 47 member nations, there are approximately 248 clubs/teams playing in AFC’s Top professional leagues; again, with approximately 22-25 players per roster.  Once again, there are typically lower 2nd and 3rd division leagues as well.

UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) is the marquee FIFA association in the world, as well as the richest.  It comprises one of the two elite Top footballing associations of the world with 54 member nations.  Inside of the 54 nations consists approximately 871 Top professional teams/clubs with typically 4 to 5 lower divisions.  And remember from here on out, each club’s roster consists of a minimum 22-25 players!

It is worth noting that with each of these national teams and each of these local or regional club-teams within each nation comes a passionate loyal following of fans five to fifteen times larger than the club’s roster!  I dare you to try and do that math.

The next FIFA association continent is CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) with 45 member nations.  The United States is a member of this association.  Within these 45 nations are approximately 155 teams/clubs playing in their Top professional leagues.  And from here on out remember there are typically a minimum of 2 to 3 or more lower divisions.

Next is the OFC (Oceania Football Confederation) comprising 16 member nations with approximately 30 teams/clubs competing in Top professional leagues within these 16 nations.

CONMEBOL (Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol), or commonly the South American Football Confederation, consists of 10 member nations.  This confederation is the world’s second elite association next to UEFA.  It has a staggering 1,931 teams/clubs competing in each nation’s Top professional leagues.

 

Rungrado_May_Day_StadiumAll in all, and if you were not tracking the total number of club teams within each nation in their Top professional leagues (i.e. not including all lower divisions), the approximate total of teams/clubs fielding players who dream about an individual chance to participate in the world’s ultimate sporting spectacle in their lifetime… conservatively it is approximately 3,643 teams/clubs dwindled down to 226 national teams, over a 3-year period, to play together for just two months, every four years.  If we multiply those 3,643 teams with their faithful fans, say 5-times the 25-man roster of the club (91, 075 pro players) multiplied by the average soccer stadium capacity of 40,000 spectators, that bare-bone minimum fan-base equals almost 146-million live spectators.  But this is a very conservative figure.  According to FIFA.com “Facts and Figures”, an estimated 715.1 million fans watched on TV the 2006 World Cup Championship final in Germany; 3.18 million attended the 64 matches of the tournament.  And these figures do not include various viewing-venues across the host nation.

The real scale of this sport during the World Cup tournament – not just by persons inside the stadiums but on television, viewing-venues, and now over the internet – is near incomprehensible in size, popularity, and economic revenues.  And it is taking place again this June 2014.

 

The Economics of World Soccer

In this day and age of sports, soccer is king of mega business:  a global industry with a wide spectrum of television contracts and lucrative merchandising deals which generate hundreds of billions of dollars annually.  A number of clubs around the world now rank among the highest earning wealthiest sports teams on Earth.  However, as quickly as revenues roll-in, they are paid right back out to multi-million dollar player contracts, signing fees and bonuses.

GSSS-2014-top-12ESPN Magazine recently reported (April 2014) the Top 25 highest-paid athletes in the world – their endorsements are not included.  Of the Top 5, three are soccer players:  Cristiano Ronaldo ($50.2M) of Real Madrid FC, Lionel Messi ($50.1M) FC Barcelona, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic ($35M) of Paris Saint-Germain.  According to Sportingintelligence’s Global Sports Salaries Survey (April 2014), Manchester City FC of the English Premier League, is the world’s best paid team paying out an average salary of $172,508 per week to its first-team players.  Of the world’s Top 5 highest-paying sports teams, Spanish La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona round out fourth and fifth at $161,373 per week and $158,397 per week respectively.  The average professional athlete contract is 5-years.  In this latest edition of the Global Sports Salaries Survey (GSSS), it provides a list of 100 teams paying out the most money per average first-team player over five years:

The eye-watering sums on offer in elite European football [i.e. Barcelona FC] and in the major sports leagues in America effectively mean that a single five-year deal should provide enough money to setup a player for life.  Real Madrid have the next highest five-year total:  $41M per player on average, followed by the Yankees ($39.7M), then Manchester City ($35M), and Chelsea FC ($34.3M).

The last table-graphic shown in the GSSS article (below image) is particularly enlightening for American sports fans.  It shows that of the Top 20 five-year earnings for first-team players of all major sports around the world, HALF of them (10) are soccer teams/clubs.  Of the remaining 10 sports, only five are NBA teams and four are MLB teams.  National Football League teams do not make the list at all until No. 93:  the Dallas Cowboys.

GSSS-2014-made-for-lifeThe primary reason soccer tops most team and player-salary lists is that almost ALL POSITIONS on the playing field are important (probably critical) for the organization to be successful and profitable.  Soccer is, as well as basketball and hockey, are true team sports.  In the sports of MLB and the NFL, that is not the case.  The pitcher or pitching staff and quarterback are the critical positions influencing or controlling most dynamics of the game.  Those players earn monumentally more money than their other teammates.  It is also the reason why the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL are 20 places higher than the first NFL team, the Cowboys.

Do these numbers explain why soccer unites more of the world than any other sport on the planet?  What about the emotion, the passion of its fans?

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The Fans

What does it mean when one asks the question, “What is the most popular sport in the world?”  Does it mean the sport most-watched, most-played, or perhaps the wealthiest based on revenue?  Yes to all three.  I have done the research and spent the time answering this question, and if you choose to search for the answer as well, you will find the majority of polls and surveys will all say the same thing:  soccer.

Why is soccer the king of all sports on the planet and has been for many decades?  The passion of its fans is certainly one reason.  If you’ve never been to a major soccer game in Europe or South America, among singing dancing fans, you are missing out on a life-time experience like no other.  Want a taste?

The wonderful atmosphere of top-flight soccer matches are finally growing in the United States.  When the U.S. Men’s National Team qualified for the World Cup in Brazil this summer, listen and watch how 40,000+ fans in Seattle, WA – some of the most excitable fans in the nation – celebrated the 3-year achievement:

But simply being amongst a mass of dancing singing humanity is only part of the experience.  Understanding what the world’s greatest players do on the field with that ball, as an 11-man team, explains why it is called and known all around the globe as “the beautiful game.”  Soccer is a worldwide language; the most popular language spoken in a multitude of dialects.  As a naïve outsider and at first glance, an American might think the world’s passion for soccer is overly simple, unimpressive.  One might write it off as a dull 90-minute game with an average score-line of 0-to-0 or 2-to-1 most games.  But that impression would be from a grossly uninformed unimaginative closed-mind.

The Players

Yes, the world’s love of the game is indeed simple:  the action is non-stop; the 22 players improvise tactics in the middle of a flowing game performing spectacular feats of athleticism and skills.  But the passion goes much deeper for more complex reasons.  The great Brazilian star Pelé describes the game as being so infused in many countries that over time the sport is not just a pastime, but has morphed into a reflection of national character.  With the diversity of global geographies and cultures come distinctive playing-styles.  These national styles have produced some of the most riveting, most brilliant moments in soccer history!  Take a look at these six clips, considered by many footballing fans as the greatest World Cup moments and goals:

World Cup Final 1970 – Brazil’s Carlos Alberto’s goal

World Cup Group-play 1970 – England’s Gordon Banks’ save vs. Pelé

World Cup 1982 – The heavily favored-to-win squad of Brazil:  “Ballet with the Ball – A Love Story

World Cup Qualifier 2001 – England’s goal frenzy vs. Germany

World Cup 2006 – The Tournament’s Best

World Cup 2010 – Top 10 Goals

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One of the most exquisite skills a world-class soccer player can master is the art of dribbling.  The game’s biggest stars have signature tricks and moves to beat their opponent.  In real time it is a blur, gone in one or two seconds.  But the amount of training and practice required to use them in the game is mind-boggling.  Watch these élite players from around the world showcase their best tricks and define why this game of soccer is so worshiped around the globe.

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The Nations

IC_jujuIn 1992 in the country of Ivory Coast in West Africa, the Ivorians were so determined to have their national team win the African Nations Cup that the government’s sports minister enlisted a battalion of fétisheurs – juju men – to place on the team a supernatural advantage against rival Ghana.  When the minister later broke promises of payment to the fétisheurs, they in turn placed a hex on the Ivorian team, which then went on a ten-year spell of losing results.  When the defense minister desperately sought to make amends with the witch doctors, offering cases of liquor and large money bags, the hex was lifted.  Almost immediately the team did a 180 and qualified for the 2006 World Cup.

In Spain, where soccer is so dramatic it is often described as theater, a Spanish novelist writes his obsession with the beautiful game this way:

Once you’ve fallen into the game, there is no getting out… [stats] will tell you almost nothing about the game itself.  The player who actually wins the game may be the one who moves into space at the opposite side of the field, drawing a defender, forcing a new configuration upon the defense and making virtually inevitable a goal that was before impossible, but no one – not even he – may be aware of this.  It’s all narrative, and thus subjective:  Each game is a story, a sequence of ambivalent metaphors, a personal revelation couched in the idiom of the faith.  No game I know of is so dependent upon such flowing intangibles as “pattern” and “rhythm” and “vision” and “understanding.”  Which may all be illusions.  And at the same time it is a very simple game:  like dreams, almost childlike.

z_bobanIn today’s Croatia, soccer is a form of group therapy which bore a new nation.  A match between Zagreb’s Dinamo and Belgrade’s Red Star in 1990 marked the beginning of Croatia’s war for independence.  After the opening whistle at kickoff, fans from both teams clashed in the stadium stands, as well as onto the field.  A Serb-dominated police force began beating Croatian spectators while allowing Serbian fans to run freely.  This ignited the already boiling-over tensions in what was then Yugoslavia.  Upon witnessing a Serb-policeman wail on a fallen Dinamo fan, midfielder Zvonimir Boban rushed and karate-kicked the officer (image above left), and later became a Croatian national hero of their independence movement.  In one of the biggest upsets in World Cup lore, Croatia beat powerhouse Germany in the 1998 World Cup Quarterfinals and then went on to win third place by beating an equally stacked Netherlands 2 – 1.  After the match, Croatians flooded the town squares and streets in adulation and song.  On television, many reporters interviewed grown men who couldn’t stop bawling.  Courtney Angela Brkic, a Croatian author, stated that “not since the declaration of independence, had so much unified celebration been seen.  Now no one could deny Croatia its place on the map.

brazil-soccer-fansIn Brazil, the only nation to have won the World Cup five times and the only national team to have appeared in all World Cup tournaments since its start in 1930, soccer is an ideology and state religion.  Nowhere in the world does a nation try so hard to play the game so beautifully as Brazilians.  And that is why Brazilian players are so loved around the world by so many fans and top leagues.  The Brazilian national team has never been ranked world-wide below No. 10, a record untouched by any other soccer nations.  Their fans do the Samba non-stop for ninety plus minutes as their players do indescribable tricks and feats between all ten of their team’s players.  It is why Brazil, on any continent, is always the beloved overdog of every World Cup.  They are the only favorite that is always a favorite.

This June 2014

If you cannot make it to games in Brazil this summer, the next best thing is to find a local pub or bar with an international flavor and history that will be televising the tournament.  I guarantee the place will be raucous and rocking with national team fans.  I always try to find a Brazilian restaurant-bar; the atmosphere is utterly electric, colorful, and beautiful.  I will most certainly support my U.S. National Team, but unfortunately their odds of advancing out of the early group stage are minimal against the exceptional likes of Portugal, Ghana, and Germany.  Nevertheless, the spectacle of the game will be phenomenal and the skills and creativity of the world’s best players on the world stage will be unparalleled.  Be a part of it.  Be united with the rest of the world for two memorable incredible months!

U.S. Soccer:  We Are Going to Brazil

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