Germany, Argentina, and What Really Makes a World Cup Team

If America wants to become a true soccer superpower, its sports landscape will have to change. One place to start: college.
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Only a country that puts soccer first is likely to produce a player like Argentina's Lionel Messi. (Reuters)

No one could be too surprised that the 2014 World Cup comes down to Germany and Argentina. Germany was ranked No. 2 by the FIFA pre-tournament, and Argentina No. 5. These two nations have won five of the last 14 titles, and four of the last nine. Maybe you picked the Brazilians to win it all; not a bad choice, since they’ve won five cups, more than any other country.

In any case, the composition of the final match perfectly illustrates an oft-forgotten fact about the World Cup: It’s not really the world’s cup. A better title would be “The West European/South American Cup,” since the eight countries who have won the World Cup have been from those two continents.

And soccer, really, is not “the world’s game.” Though it has the highest global participation rate of any sport, there are quite a few countries where it is not the most popular game. Those include eight of the world’s 10 most populous countries. On the whole, people in China, India, the U.S., and Indonesia—the top four in population—play soccer but have other sports they prefer. Only in No. 5 Brazil and No. 7 Nigeria does soccer have a clear edge.

Americans who hope to see the U.S. compete one day at soccer’s highest level would do well to keep all of this in mind. Our talent pool is immense, but to change soccer’s status here would mean changing the entire sports landscape. All the countries who have ever won a World Cup have at least one thing in common: Soccer has no real competitor for athletic talent.

 * * *

Is the U.S. ever going to win the World Cup? Is soccer ever going to become one of the most popular sports in the U.S.?

Are those two different questions, or are they the same question looked at from different perspectives?

For years, soccer enthusiasts have said that if the U.S. were to finally win the Big One, it might vault the game into the league of—or perhaps even ahead of—pro football, baseball, and basketball. But that’s not how soccer became supreme in any other country. There were years of painstaking building of teams and leagues before a national squad could be assembled that was good enough to challenge at World Cup level. (For a brief history, I recommend National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist.)

America, of course, has the physical talent to compete with anyone. In the most famous test of national athletic ability, the summer Olympics, U.S.A. is supreme. In the 2012 games, we took home 104 medals, 46 gold (the closest competitor was China, 38 gold of 88 medals). So we can produce the athletes; we just very rarely turn the athletes into soccer players.

Think of the possibilities if some of the great talents in American team sports had turned to soccer when they were young. Jim Brown was the greatest running back in NFL history—and so versatile that he was also an All-American at lacrosse. At 6-2 and 230 pounds, he may have been too bulked-up for soccer. But had he chosen soccer instead of American football, he probably would have been a good 20 to 25 pounds lighter.

Most of the top soccer squads weigh in at about 170-175 pounds a man—that’s the average for the Argentine team, German team, and even U.S. team this year. But a soccer team can embrace numerous body types, and surely no one who remembers Jim Brown weaving through enemy defenses would question his ability to keep up with men 30 or 40 pounds lighter.

The most distinguished American soccer player in this year’s tourney, goalie Tim Howard, is 6-3 and 210 pounds; that’s just about the same size as Jerry Rice, who, a couple of years ago, was named the greatest football player of all time in an NFL Films poll. Imagine a goalie with the combination of Rice’s reflexes and incredible hands.

Want to consider Michael Jordan or LeBron James for goalie? I’d like to see them give it a shot. Do you think Willie Mays was the physical equal of Pele? I don’t see why not. The great Argentine attacking midfielder, Diego Maradona, was listed on rosters at about 5-7 and 172. That’s pretty much how Joe Morgan measured up, and Morgan was strong enough to hit 400-foot home runs and fast enough to steal hundreds of bases. I’d give him a soccer tryout.

But how can these athletes—especially the ones with great throwing arms and vertical leap—walk away from established American sports where they can make millions of dollars a year? MLS’s new contract with Fox/ESPN for $600 million over eight years is a step up, but it’s dwarfed by the TV deals with the NFL, NBA, and MLB. (For that matter, it’s teensy compared to the NHL, which in 2011 inked a 10-year deal with NBC Sports for $200 million a year.)

Given those numbers, it’s going to take soccer decades to even approach the popularity of other major sports in this country. Yes, youth soccer has been a major force in America for a while now. But as Jeffrey Toobin put it a few years ago in the New Yorker, “Soccer in the suburbs serves mostly as a bridge between Barney and Nintendo; it’s a pleasant diversion, not a means of developing brutes like Jan Koller [star forward of the Czechoslovakian team] to say nothing of the magicians who stock the Brazilian team.” Or like the juggernaut machine the Germans have fielded again for this World Cup, or like the artful and kinetic Argentines.

If our goal is to win the World Cup, there might be a better strategy than butting heads with the big guys or obsessing over the bumblebee leagues: Turn the focus onto collegiate soccer.

There are nearly 1,000 men’s college soccer programs in the United States, both Division I and Division II, and nearly 10,000 men playing at those levels. Instead of spending so much time, money, and resources creating a pro league and building teams from a multitude of sources, why not focus on an established structure with a huge talent pool?

That’s the way pro football and basketball did it. For decades, the greatest NFL and NBA stars were already household names by the time they left college. It could theoretically be the same with college soccer, which already have a ready-made set of natural rivalries and thus the potential for a huge national audiences. (Bear Bryant used to say that “Alabama and Auburn fans would show up is the two school played tiddily winks.” I bet more would show up for soccer.)

Did you know that Notre Dame beat Maryland last December for the College Cup? I didn’t until I looked it up. If soccer really is going to take hold in this country, the NCAA, MLS, and the national sports media—meaning all those writers and commentators who say they’ve been won over to soccer—need to hype the collegiate championship.

If not, chances are the World Cup will remain the a truly competitive contest for only some parts of the world—and just a passing fascination here.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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