I was talking with a friend of mine, who is very knowledgeable about the history of soccer in this country, about how to make the USMNT one of the best in the World. I told him that “Look at Belgium; they must have done “something” over the years so that they are now ranked number one in FIFA rankings. We should do “something” also for the USMNT to be one of the best.” I did not elaborate on what “something” should be. My friend – quite correctly – said: “How can you compare Belgium with the USA? The USA is as big as Europe. Whatever they have done most probably is not adaptable in the USA for a multitude of reasons.”
There are many differences between soccer in the USA and Belgium; some of them are measurable differences and some are intangible ones like soccer culture, history etc. Let us have a look at them.
Belgium has competed in 13 World Cups starting in 1930 and their best performances 3rd in 2018, 4th in 1986 and 6th in 2014. Actually in their first World Cup appearance the USMNT beat them 3-0. The USMNT competed in 10 times in the World Cups starting in 1930. Their best performance was in 1930, 3rd place. The USMNT more recently was in the round of 16 three times and once in the quarter-final in 2002 World Cup.
One can say that until the last two World Cups their performances in the World Cup were comparable.
Let us have a look at the FIFA rankings:
Belgium is currently ranked 1st and their average ranking since 1993 is the 29th in the World.
The USMNT is currently ranked 21st and the average ranking is also 21st in the World.
It is clear that Belgium or let us be specific Belgium FA has done “something” starting in 2009 – when they had their worst ranking 66th – that eventually made the Belgium MNT to be ranked number 1 in 2019 – namely 10 years later.
Unfortunately you do not see that kind of an upward trend over the years with the USMNT but rather ups and downs.
One has to also look at some other measurable factors regarding two countries and their respective federations.
|Area (sq. miles)||3,796,742||11,849|
|Registered Players (app.)||4,000,000||425,000|
|Budget of FA 2018 (M USD)||124||77|
|Reg. Player /Pop. Percent||1.22%||3.73%|
|Budget / Reg. Play. (USD)||$31||$181|
These numbers show that the USA is 30 times bigger in population than Belgium and 320 times bigger in area. Belgium is approximately the size of Hawaii.
Both the size (4th in the World) and the population (3rd in the World) of the USA bring in logistical and socio-cultural problems. What is interesting is that the topmost populous countries in the World namely PRC and India are pretty low ranked in FIFA rankings. (66th and 104th respectively) If you look at the soccer stories of Iceland, Uruguay, Croatia and Belgium it is clear that having a big population or having a high number of registered players do not necessarily mean success for WNTs or MNTs.
Belgium has nearly three times (3.08) as many registered players per population compared to the USA. Considering that soccer is still not the number one sport in the country and the fact that participation in nearly all sports for kids are dropping, I personally do not think that we could increase 1.22% to %3.73 in the coming decades. (Increase to %3.73 would mean 12 Million registered players.) What is interesting in countries where the game is called is soccer, the game is not the number one sport in the country and the highest-ranked one is the USA with the 21st position. In order for the success of any NT, the quality of the young players is far more important than their sheer registered player numbers. We must definitely distinguish between elite players and recreational players, since US Soccer has both a social and sporting responsibility. Instead of increasing the number of registered players, maybe we should look at the players which might have both talent and a soccer culture that the system leaves behind; namely the underprivileged kids who come mostly from immigrant families or inner-city kids.
Belgium FA spent $181 in 2018 per registered player whereas US Soccer spent $31 per player during the same year. In order to be comparable US Soccer’s budget should increase to $724 Million and we know that this will take some time.
Belgium FA must have done “something” correct in the last 10 years and that “something” must have been mandated through its system. In one of my earlier article I have written the reasons why US Soccer is having problems mandating “something”. (a) One of those reasons was the fact that the actual budget of US Soccer was inadequate to navigate around the constituents to mandate standards or make radical changes. Another reason was the structure of the National Council. Two weeks later, we will compare the National Councils and governance models of both of the FAs, their approach to diversity and inclusion and other intangible factors affecting both countries.
Ahmet Guvener (email@example.com) is the former Secretary-General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.