One of the most intriguing problems of soccer is to find out the number of players playing the game both at the national and global level. Naturally, you have to break down these numbers into registered and unregistered players as well as professional vs. amateur, men vs. women, youth vs. adult players.
The last time FIFA came up with some numbers was 2006. The report called “the Big Count” claims that 4 percent of the population of the planet earth in 2005 was playing (player) or was involved with (coaches and referees) soccer in one way or the other. The big count added up to 270 million people of all ages and both genders. This data came from only 75 percent of the National Associations (NAs) under FIFA. So the actual number might be more.
I used the verb “claim” for the total number because the report itself admits that the data collection was neither scientific nor reliable. It is a pity that in the 21st century and in the Information Age we (as the international soccer community) cannot find the correct tools to collect this type of data. Usually, we are left to the mercy of NAs.
The report admits that counting the unregistered players was a very difficult task: “it was hard for the associations to estimate the number of unregistered occasional players because, by definition, no reliable details were available in this regard.” Hence the number of unregistered players is inaccurate, but this does not change the fact that far more people on the planet play soccer in unaffiliated leagues and organizations than those under NAs.
The Big Count was the last time that FIFA carried out such a research, UEFA did one in 2006. UEFA asked its NAs to report on the number of registered players in different categories.
Women soccer is more organized. UEFA annually reports the number of registered players in its NAs. When you look at these numbers, you see important discrepancies. For example, the Big Data (2006) shows Germany as having 871,000 female players. The UEFA Women’s report (2017) shows that Germany has 203,756 registered female players (both adult and youth). It is hard to believe that Germany with a population of 82 million ranked number two in the world and one in Europe would lose over 650,000 registered players over the course of 11 years. So you have to take these numbers with a grain of salt.
Whether accurate or not, these numbers when examined with scrutiny indicate three facts:
Let us come and have a look at our country. Unfortunately, you cannot get an accurate number of youth and adult players broken into two genders from one source. One would like to hope that new Cordeiro administration will put the number of players, coaches and referees registered with U.S. Soccer broken down into various categories on its website, preferably in real time.
Although the 2006 FIFA’s big count is not accurate, it is still a fact that there are far more unregistered soccer players than registered players in our country. Whether there are 24.4 million (approximately 20 million unregistered and 4 million registered) players playing the beautiful game in the USA is irrelevant, what is relevant is that the number is very big. Even if 24.4 million is correct, it still does not put the USA in the top 10 nations in the percent of the population playing soccer. One fact is that in all the top ten countries with the highest percentage of players to population soccer is the main or may be the only sport in the country whereas in our country football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey are main stream sports alongside soccer.
The major difference between unregistered players and registered players is that the unregistered players will most probably not get the chance to be scouted and play for the NTs. Even if the Big Count data on unregistered players in the USA is not a very reliable source, it is obvious that we might be missing a lot of talented players who are unregistered.
In the country that excels in the use of Information Technologies and has some of the best researchers and tools is statistics, we do not even know as a ballpark figure how many unregistered players we are leaving behind and their demographical/geographical breakdown. What percentage of them are African-Americans or Latinos? What percentages of them are from inner cities or from rural areas?
Although there is a lot of talk for reasons that we have so many unregistered players like the cost of pay-to-play system and undocumented players, we do not have an exact idea what is causing unregistered players not to register. If we do not know the exact reasons lying behind the symptoms, how can we diagnose and cure the illness? The illness might be causing us not to identify the Messis and the Ronaldos of the USA. Messis and Ronaldos of this world do not come from affluent suburban families.
Recently, Aspen Institute showed a decline in soccer participation for ages 6 through 12 between 2008 and 2016, but this is not specific to soccer although during the last presidential race this was mentioned several times as if it was specific to soccer only. Participation in team sports like basketball, baseball, football and volleyball shows a decline also. Modern kids like to spend time indoors playing with information age gadgets. So the potential decline in youth soccer registration most probably is the result of this phenomenon.
Most of our youth players come from suburban family households although I have not seen a very detailed research showing the socioeconomic background of the soccer parents. Although it is obvious and research shows that the soccer parents are more affluent families than basketball or football parents. My gut feeling is that we might come to the end of the road in recruiting new youth players from the same socioeconomic groups. Even if in the next 10 years we double up our youth registration – which I think is impossible – from the same socioeconomic groups, we will still be a mediocre soccer country in men’s soccer.
Unfortunately, not always big numbers bring in success at the global level. You need to scout the correct group with the correct development plan. Japan, which won the Women's World Cup in 2011 (and was runner-up in 2015) and currently ranked ninth in the world, draws its women's national team from 35,000 registered female players. Iceland, which is a country with a population of 330,000, qualified to the 2018 World Cup from Europe as a group leader.
It is evident big numbers of registered players do not always yield very successful national teams. You have to have the correct pool and the correct development strategy to achieve success in soccer. Numbers do not lie if you look at them from the correct perspective. Otherwise, they might be misleading.