Monday, June 12, 2006


Soccer [Futbol!] Is the New Olympics.

Did you know that Mexico is ranked fourth in the world in soccer?* I didn't, until tuning in to see the Mexican team dismantle Iran (ranked 23rd) in their World Cup opener yesterday. As I was watching, getting swept away--as always--with World Cup fever, it occured to me that this is the only truly international sporting event. The Olympics, which lay claim to that title, is a farce of competition. The only countries with a real shot at winning more than a few medals are those who have the resources to dump millions into athlete development. The results represent economic, not athletic excellence.

But soccer is truly the only international sport (how many kids pine to throw the discus?). All countries are mad about it (except the US, who is, incidentally, getting beat by the Czech Republic as I write this), and every kid in the world wants to grow up to be the next Pele Ronaldinho. There are definitely world royalty in football, but when has Mexico been ranked in front of the US in, say, the 400-meter hurdles? The top fifteen ranked countries include Brazil, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, and Cameroon.

Having watched the marvelous Omar Bravo yesterday, I find myself rooting for Mexico. But I haven't gotten to see Ronaldinho yet.
*Football, futbol, etc.


eRobin said...

Nope. You can't root for Mexico unless you are from Mexico. I was told the rools of World Cup fandom today by a friend of mine from Equador. Of course my other friend from Equador was happy to have me root for his team so maybe there's some wiggle room there. My son though, looking for an angle, said that the US is a country of immigrants so we can pick whatever team we want.

I got Equador!

Idler said...

The Olympics were designed to be more pure, in a sense, since athletes were required to be amateurs. It's true that to a significant extent countries improved their chances by dumping money into national sport programs but that was hardly a sign of economic excellence. Rather, it was an attempt to artificially boost the image of certain countries by diverting capital into sports programs. This PR exercise was notoriously practiced by countries with extremely poor economic performance, such as the USSR, East Germany and Cuba.

Many athletes in countries that didn't make state investments, including the U.S., complained about the unfair advantage enjoyed by their funded counterparts who were essentially paid professionals. Many an American athlete had to make a serious personal investment in making the Olympic team, or in begging others to cover his or her costs.

By contrast, the World Cup's athletes have always been professionals.

In the early days the World Cup was dominated by countries with strong economic performance (and the game was codified in such a country) and economic performance helped to some extent. National passion for the game has also been a factor, but money has always played a role, along with sheer population. Brazil, for example, has the resources and population to have a large league. It also has the passion that resulted in the greatest soccer nation in the world with an inimitable and almost unbeatable style.

Countries that the lack resources of Brazil, particularly African countries, are doing better these days, in part because their players now have access to the richest leagues, where the highest standards of play prevail.

Thus overall economic performance still influences countries chances of winning, but economic priorities matter even more. The wealthiest economies of Europe all have strong leagues, but some of the more modest economies still do well. That's not despite economics, but rather because, more often than not, those countries allocate a higher percentage of wealth to the game (especially for manager and player salaries). Thus Spain has a league to rival any other in Europe, and Brazil has a league to rival the world.

Jeff Alworth said...

eRobin--My family has been in America for many generations, which means I got the UN running through my veins. I'll root for whomever I wish with conviction that it's my ancestors' team!

Idler, I generally agree with what you've written. Nothing is going to be pristinely democratic. But there's something you didn't mention: soccer is as cheap as a ball and a stretch of ground--you don't need any specialized equipment or facilities. That's another reason why the kids across the globe start out kicking balls (or balls of rags) when they're two--because they can.

Idler said...

That and the fact that baseball/stickball isn't native! Unless one is talking about the U.S. or the Dominican Republic (not to mention other locations on the Caribbean).

But hey, I'm with you on the beautiful simplicity of the game.

Impressive performance by Croatia today. Unimpressive performance by France. Group G just sucks.