U.S. national team needs a full reboot if it is going to bridge the soccer gap
A cynic might say there isn't much point in the U.S. men's national team flying to Russia next year, even if it qualifies. (It still has to beat Panama and Trinidad & Tobago this month to get there automatically.) But this weakness isn't just an American problem. Almost the entire world outside little Western Europe has been relegated to also-ran status in soccer. Why?
I admit that I'd expected the rest of the world to eventually catch up. When Stefan Szymanski and I first published our book "Soccernomics" in 2009, we said that large countries like the U.S., Japan and China would eventually copy Western Europe's best practices and outstrip the region. It hasn't happened yet. In fact, Western Europe -- with only about 400 million inhabitants, just 5 percent of the world's total -- has won an unprecedented three consecutive World Cups. Even more impressively, at those tournaments the region secured eight of the nine podium places (i.e. first, second and third). The rest of the world has only one team that can just about keep up: Lionel Messi's Argentina. And next summer the Europeans will have a tournament in their own continent.
Western Europe excels at soccer for the same basic reason that it was, for centuries, the world's richest region. Its secret is what the historian Norman Davies calls its "user-friendly climate." Western Europe is mild and rainy. Because of that, the land is fertile. This allows hundreds of millions of people to live crammed together in a small area, and that geography has always helped them exchange ideas.
From the World Cup in Germany, you could have flown 2½ hours to any one of about 20 countries containing roughly 300 million people in total. That is the densest network on Earth. The U.S. has nothing like that.
If you want to be a good soccer country, you need to be near other good soccer countries. Only South American and Western European teams have ever won the World Cup; Tom Byer, an American who advises China's education ministry on soccer, notes that every winning country borders another winning country. (For this purpose he counts England and France, separated by 20 miles and a lot of seawater, as bordering each other).
But the Western European neighborhood is uniquely creative. Kids in this region absorb the best soccer thinking from the first day they kick a ball. Cosmopolitan coaches like Arrigo Sacchi, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola (who calls himself an "ideas thief") have been spreading tactical ideas around the region for more than a century.
The Champions League in particular is a dense network of talent and ideas. There's always much debate about the superiority of one soccer model over another -- the Bundesliga vs. the Premier League, or the Spanish Liga vs. Italy's Serie A -- but the real point is the intensity of competition inside Europe, both on the field and in the boardroom. That forces the big clubs to keep trying to improve.
The teams in the Champions League can draw talent from anywhere in the world. Nonetheless, an overwhelming majority of their players are from Western Europe. With the world's best players and coaches packed together, the world's best soccer is constantly being refined there.
Meanwhile, for decades, most of the world beyond Europe and Latin America barely played soccer. In the 1990s, TV began to spread soccer to new countries and they started trying to catch up. At first, they progressed quickly. The easiest qualities to acquire in soccer are fitness and defensive organization, and countries like the U.S. learned to stop better teams from scoring much. They achieved competence, but then they stagnated. The final step to excellence, which entails producing creative and intelligent players who can improvise, is often the hardest one.
Based on data put together by Szymanski, we know how the "new" continents have performed against established Europe and South America since 1950. What we see is that all emerging continents initially improve, but then the African nations (as well as north and central America) stall. Africa peaked in about 1990.
The U.S., surely the most ambitious of the emerging countries, has particular reason to worry. Here is the men's national team's win percentage, decade by decade (counting a tie as half a win):
From the 1970s, the U.S. got more interested in soccer. The North American Soccer League took off, and the national team began playing more often. Results improved in the 1980s (when the U.S. started playing more against South American nations) and stayed stable in the 1990s when the country returned to World Cups. American soccer was coming out of isolation.
In the 2000s the U.S.'s win percentage jumped to 65 percent, double what it was before 1960. Admittedly that statistic flattered, as they were playing less often against teams from Europe and South America. In the decade through 2010, and for the first time since the 1970s, the U.S. played the majority of its games against north and central American teams. If you stay in a weak neighborhood, you won't learn best practices, and since 2010, the team has declined a bit. It has never regained its peak FIFA ranking of eighth place in 2005.
The U.S. has more inhabitants than any Western European country and can absorb the best European soccer on TV every night, yet it doesn't produce world-class talent. But the same applies to almost every new or emerging soccer continent.
Even Africa, often touted as a great talent source, actually isn't. Look at their best players of recent years: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Riyad Mahrez and Andre Ayew were all born in France to African parents. Before them, Didier Drogba moved to France at age 5 and learned his soccer there. The vast bulk of the past two African nations to excel at a World Cup, Senegal in 2002 and Algeria in 2014, were French-born. That's because if you want to have any hope of acquiring the know-how to become a star player, you probably need to be living either in Western Europe or in southern South America before you start primary school.
For any great American hope now emerging in Virginia or California, that's chilling news. The U.S. game needs to study
Western Europe and relaunch.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.