PtG Comment 30.06.2010

The United States of Soccer?

There were many who believed – and hoped – that the U.S. would do well in this year's FIFA World Cup. The U.S. has good results to show for the last couple of years (finals in the Gold Cup and the Confederations Cup) and it is the third best team in the Americas (14th in FIFA rankings).

In addition, they play attractive football and appear to be an un-American team – a team with few stars, but with very good team morals. Personally, I think it's just a matter of time before the U. S. also has the status of a super power in football – and before we have to get used to more and more talk about ‘soccer’. If this happens, the relationship between football and politics will be challenged in two ways.

Europe versus America

More often people talk about the European and American sports models. The European model is based to some degree on social democratic principles where everyone has the opportunity to participate and has the opportunity to reach the top through good play. The American model is a closed system with no promotion and relegation – a so-called franchise system. The distinction is not always clear, but still there is a difference.

Politics versus business

The difference between the two models means that football itself differs between the continents. In Europe, football – and other sports – has a great political significance. This has been evident during this year's World Cup. Nicolas Sarkozy has demanded an investigation of the French national team because the team has damaged France’s reputation, and David Cameron has demanded the use of goal-line technology after one of England’s goals against Germany was denied. Such political interference does not occur in the U.S. True, Bill Clinton was present at the U.S. matches in South Africa and Barack Obama took time off during the G8 summit to see parts of the games.

But it would never occur to the two presidents to interfere in FIFA's business, use the efforts of the U.S. team for their own political gain, or claim that the team damages America's reputation if they lose. In the U.S., sport and football (soccer) is more connected to business and business interests than to the reputation of the U.S. nation.

God forbid!

It is a clear signal that the interest in soccer is growing in the U.S. when Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo grace the cover of Vanity Fair’s June edition (in their underpants). And the renowned security policy journal Foreign Policy is managing its own blogs on what is happening in South Africa. That would not have happened ten years ago! Based on what happened when France was knocked out of the World Cup, the American Foreign Policy columnist Daniel W. Drezna expressed clearly in one of his blogs what he does not want to see happen in the U. S. when the interest in football picks up:

  1. American philosophers using the national team to explain how far the integration efforts in the U.S. have come (football cannot say anything about that!)
  2. Politicians from the opposition party making political profit off the losses by the national team by claiming that the loss was caused by the government’s bad policies (that’s one on you Jean Marie le Pen!)
  3. The U. S. getting a Minister of Sport.
  4. Basing discussions of the socio-economic condition of the country on the efforts of the national team.

Mixed model?

It remains to be seen whether it will be the American or European model that comes off best in the future. As the U.S. is currently fighting to get the World Cup in 2018 or 2022 I would assume that there is a kind of political prestige in this that will reach all the way into the White House. We will probably also see that the business model becomes more and more prominent in Europe. This way we will likely see a mix of the two models in the future.

Membership practices

The U. S. may also challenge our concept of a nation. With increased success in international football, the U.S. will get a stronger voice in the international football federation, FIFA. The a member of CONCACAF while the European teams are members of UEFA, and the two regional associations have different membership practices.

Because of complaints/potential complaints about the memberships of small regions, UEFA has introduced a restriction which says that only UN countries can become members of UEFA. This means that Gibraltar does not stand a chance as long as Spain and Britain are in conflict over the enclave, but that Kosovo can join if Kosovo gets UN status.

CONCACAF does not have any UN status demands. This means that the U.S. Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Aruba and Puerto Rico are members of the federation, and that the road is open for other regions should they wish to become members of CONCACAF.

However, the UEFA rule does not have a retrospective effect – for now. UEFA, for example, includes the Faroe Islands, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. None of these are UN members. The question is whether a stronger U.S. will either demand that the CONCACAF introduces the rules of UEFA or that UEFA introduces the rules of the CONCACAF.

If it is the first option, it will mean that there will be fewer teams from the CONCACAF region. If it is the second option, UEFA will have to open up to new regions that do not have UN status. In other words: CHAOS!

Should it come to a conflict between the two regional associations it should not come as a surprise if Texas or California launch their own ‘national’ teams to show the UK that their (special) arrangement with UEFA may have unfortunate consequences.

This will open up to the possibility that the U.S. can field 50 teams for the World Cup qualification. Then I'll wager that the world will be dominated by one or more teams from the USA!

Then the rest of the world must get used to talking about soccer ...

This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on June 29 2010. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on