One of the most common explanations for why we cannot compete on the international stage is that our ‘best’ athletes don’t play soccer. If only our football or basketball or baseball or track athletes played the game!
That is a fallacy in my view. Here’s why:
First, soccer is not a sport where large size, strength, bulk, and speed make for elite players. Do those skinny 5′ 7″ to 5′ 9″ superstars in the above photo look like football and basketball players? Soccer is as much artistic as it is athletic.
The better soccer players have a range of skills and technical ability, quickness, great ball control and touch, and a vision for player movements and space. Soccer players have to creatively solve the many hundreds of micro-problems they encounter during a game, which goes well beyond just speed and bulk.
Second, unusually large or tall athletes that tend to be successful in football or basketball or track don’t necessarily have the right physical attributes for soccer. For example, most of them would not be quick, agile, and light-footed enough.
Many of them would be able to muscle smaller players off the ball (if they can get close enough), or shield the ball, or outrun many/most soccer players in a straight-line sprint, but those are not meaningful predictors of success in soccer, especially for quality soccer.
To be clear, if soccer became the number one sport in our country then one would expect the pool of raw talent available to soccer to improve/expand too, of course. And it would most likely help us move up the rankings, but for as long as we focus on the athletic attributes that we celebrate in football and basketball and track, we will not be able to compete internationally against soccer powerhouses.
Might there be a way to roughly estimate the best we could achieve by focusing primarily on athletic attributes we’re familiar with from football and basketball and track?
A good comparison might be the English national team. It is generally accepted that English players are physical, athletic, fast, but lacking in technique, skill, creativity, quickness, and a deeper tactical understanding of the game.
England has similar athletic raw material as here in our country and soccer is by far the number one sport. Most of the ‘big guys’ start playing soccer when they are young.
The result is that England won the World Cup in 1966 as hosts, but their best performance since has only been a semi-final appearance in 1990.
England has never won the European Championships – their best performances being semi-final appearances at the 1968 and 1996 Championships, the latter of which they hosted.
At the most recent World Cup (2014) England was eliminated at the group stage for the first time since the 1958 World Cup, and the first time at a major tournament since Euro 2000. England’s points total of one from three matches was its worst ever in the World Cup, obtaining one point from drawing against Costa Rica in their last match.
Another good, primarily athletically focused, underperforming soccer comparison might be Russia. It is generally considered to be one of the top ‘athletically talented’ countries and also has a deep soccer tradition.
But Russia has achieved little at the international level – reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008 marks the only time that they passed the group stages of a major tournament these last ~25 years. Their best finish at the World Cup was fourth in 1966. At the European Championships they finished second three times (1964, 1972, 1988) when athleticism and brute force played a much bigger role in soccer.
Germany tends to have more athletic players also, but they’ve invested heavily in the artistic/technical aspects of player development these last twenty years. And even elite German soccer players are, by and large, not like our football and basketball players.
In other words, if soccer becomes the number one sport here and can draw on a larger pool of athletic ‘raw material’ (and everything else stays the same) then the best we can expect to achieve is arguably the English success record (which is better than the US record, but I’m assuming we want to aim for the top).
So to join the best in the world we have to look beyond our typical U.S. view of athleticism and add the many non-athletic elements that make for truly world-class soccer in countries like Spain, Germany, Argentina, and Brasil.
All this is good news in my view. We can become World Champions without having to wait for soccer to overtake football and/or basketball in popularity. Waiting for ‘our best athletes to play soccer’ is a fallacy.
Athletes especially suitable for football and basketball are not necessarily especially suitable for soccer, and vice versa. All sports can co-exist without materially cannibalising each other.
We have enough diverse athletic ‘raw material’ of different shapes and sizes to be internationally competitive in all sports. We just need to focus on the right player attributes for each sport.
It’s all there. We just have to do it right.