Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Cup Favorites

Regular readers visit this blog expecting to find thoughtful apologetics, evidence and reason demonstrating that the world we live in really is the one most accurately described by the Christian worldview. But the World Cup is currently taking place, and so what you'll get today is another (likewise thoughtful) post about soccer.

I've followed a good deal of the coverage (mostly on the radio, but some on the telly), and listened to a variety of wags discussing the favorites. Many named European teams like England, Spain, the Dutch and the Portuguese, Germany, and even France and Italy. Brazil and Argentina have been in the conversation, of course, but not usually given the nod as the favorites.

Nearing the end of the first stage (group play), France and Italy are headed home, Spain is still on the bubble, and Germany and England have barely made it to the next round. Of the European teams, only the Netherlands have won all three of their games, while Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have impressed, and Chile and Paraguay are also undefeated. So the talk has turned to the unexpected bad play of European nations and the unlooked-for success of teams from South America.

In all of this coverage, I have not heard a single expert mention the one historical fact with which I began my understanding of this year's World Cup...

The World Cup has been held 18 times previously, half of them in Europe and half of them outside of Europe. No European team has ever won the World Cup when it has been held outside of Europe. If held in South America, the Cup has invariably been won by a South American nation. If held in Mexico, the United States, Japan/South Korea, it has been a South American team and not one of the European powerhouses that has lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy*. And in my lifetime, or (let's put it this way instead) in the past five decades, the nation winning the Cup when held outside of Europe has been either Brazil or Argentina.

So, regardless of what kind of squad Spain or the Netherlands or Germany can put on the field in South Africa this year, it seems that history dictates that the conversation about the front-runner to win the Cup begin with Brazil and Argentina. And so far, the person picking these two as the favorites is looking pretty good.

Now, I realize that this situation will not last forever, that some year (perhaps even this) a European team will break through for the win on a foreign continent. After all, four teams will make it to the semifinals, and it is highly unlikely that Europe will be shut out of the final four. And anyone who follows the world's most popular sport will know that in a given game, anything can happen.

Nonetheless, what we can say at this point is that up until now, European nations have not travelled well, at least not well enough to lift the Cup. Add to that the strength of this year's teams from Brazil, Argentina, and even Uruguay--and the weaknesses of the best European teams (Spain's history of under-achieving, Germany's relative inexperience, the aging of England's stars)--and one should not be surprised to find a South American team celebrating the victory on July 11.

* What they're actually playing for now is called the FIFA World Cup Trophy. When, in 1970, Brazil became the first 3-time winners, they got to take the original trophy, the Jules Rimet, home for good. It was, however, stolen in 1983, and has never been recovered.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Barriers to U.S. Soccer Prowess

Today at the World Cup, the nation with the smallest population of those who qualified for the tournament is playing against the nation with the largest population. And yet the Slovenian team will undoubtedly give the United States a tough battle, and could win. What's more, more American kids play soccer than play any other sport. So why is it that the U.S. men's national team is not more competitive, or even dominant, in international soccer?

There are, of course, more answers to this question than I have time or space to enumerate, so I'll limit this post to mentioning a few that I find either interesting or under-appreciated. The approach I'll take is to consider the talent pool--those millions of American kids playing the sport--and how it dwindles, eventually to become no better than that of a small eastern European country.

1) The best American athletes, those with the athleticism that suggests the potential to play sport at the professional level, are (usually by the time they reach high school) shunted away from soccer and into football, basketball, or baseball, sports that not only receive more attention at the high school but which are much more lucrative at the professional level.

2) Ironically, while soccer is less lucrative at the American professional level, it has become primarily a rich-kid's sport at the youth level. Playing competitively with a club team requires that a child's family invest a good deal of money each season (and there are seasons year-round) for state and league costs, team fees, uniforms, coaching, and travel and hotel costs. One result of this is that many of those kids whose families care about no other sport (in my part of the country this would include especially second-generation Mexican immigrants) are closed out from that part of the talent pool that has the best chance of improving (through good coaching and good competition).

3) So the total potential talent pool has dwindled by the time it gets to college, having excluded most poor kids (including many for whom soccer is the only sport they want to play) and having lost many of the most athletic to the three more American sports. Nonetheless, there is still a good deal of excellent soccer being played at the college level. But at this point, the best college players have a decision to make. Do they opt to play in the MLS, the only domestic league, and one in which only the few elite players make the sort of money usually associated with professional sport? Or do they commit to spending their twenties and thirties in Europe, either playing in England or in a country on the continent where they speak a different language? Many of the best American college soccer players at this point decide instead to go to medical school or law school or to start a business or otherwise establish a career with the training they have obtained in college. This, of course, further dilutes the pool of talent available to the National Team.

4) At the professional level, the American men playing soccer are now spread over the world, some playing (or riding the bench) for first-division European clubs, others starring (or at least playing) for MLS teams. It is extremely difficult to assess the relative merits of players in these diverse situations. Everyone recognizes that the MLS is an inferior league, but is it comparable to the English second-tier league or their third? Does playing part-time for a first-division European team signify a better player than one who starts and even excels in the MLS? How one answers these questions has had a huge role in determining the make-up of the National Team, and whether the powers that be have generally answered them correctly is quite debatable.

5) And this is because assessing the best players in soccer is much more speculative and subjective than in most (if not all) other sports. In baseball, every individual can be assessed rather equally based on the percentage of times they have gotten a hit or been walked in a large volume of at-bats. Football try-outs involve extensive tests of speed, strength, and specific skills. Basketball, too, involves a whole set of skills and performance histories that can be assessed rather objectively, with little room for substituting subjective opinion. By contrast, the value of a given soccer player often has very little to do with easily-assessed parameters, and only a few players (like the goalkeeper and strikers) can be adequately assessed by their staistics (goals allowed or goals scored). So the final selection of the National Team involves very subjective decisions, and deserving players are invariably left off the team and players that are truly unable to compete at that high level end up playing key roles in the most important international tournament.

Again, there are many other things that could be discussed, but those are a few of the reasons that Slovenia can give the United States a game in the World Cup.

Final score: 2-2