Commentary

Soccer's numbers game -- big registration numbers don't always yield great national teams

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:

  1. A bigger portion of the world population is playing “unorganized” soccer
  2. Women’s soccer is growing in numbers
  3. Youth soccer is also growing in numbers

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.

21 comments about "Soccer's numbers game -- big registration numbers don't always yield great national teams".
  1. Karl Schreiber, February 16, 2018 at 1:15 a.m.

    A great topic, Ahmet. And an important topic in assessing development potential, commercial aspects etc. I performed analyzes with data from some of the emerging and at the time, relatively well-organized youth associations affiliated with USYSA/USSF in the 70s and made comparisons to data from a well-organized national association in Western Europe. I realized, of course, important variables in those comparisons as well as for our local predictive analyzes are population density and geographical area (which in a simplification relates to traveling distances). Taking this into account some of our state associations compared favorably with Europe…


    I have been ‘uninvolved’ since the mid 80s and with regard to the many levels or organizations now under “organized soccer” in the U.S., I wish you luck and success in getting reliable data from U.S. and from international sources for the ‘numbers game’.

  2. Mario Cesarone, February 16, 2018 at 9:17 a.m.

    Having played for over 20 years in an unaffiliated Adult league it was always my understanding that the League was not interested in affiliating because it did not provide any advantage.  There would have been a cost per player to register but no return whatsoever.  Seems to me this would explain why so few soccer players and leagues are affiliated.  In all those years we were never approached by US Soccer and never told of any benefits to affiliation.

  3. Wooden Ships replied, February 16, 2018 at 9:43 a.m.

    Very true Mario. USSF has maintained a stand off attitude, for specific reasons. To the  detriment of our pool and quality/style of play. Groups-organizations over the course of time design obstacles to inclusion. Power and Influence.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, February 16, 2018 at 9:44 a.m.

    At one time I looked into affiliation for the small adult club I was managing. We too played in an unaffiliated league. Among other things I was looking for a higher priority with the USSF referee assignor. There was no advantage at all to my club affiliating. For a match to be sanctioned and receive a higher priority for referee assignments required that both teams be affiliated. There is no incentive for adult recreational leagues and teams to affiliate or for affiliated clubs to register their house league players. 

  5. Bob Ashpole, February 16, 2018 at 9:33 a.m.

    My thinking on this issue has changed a bit in the last year. Cruyff's "My Turn" has been a catalyst. 

    I suspect that a more important factor is professional clubs with successful youth academies. All the raw talent in a given country won't yield exceptional players domestically without meaningful training opportunities from ages 10 progressing through the reserves to the first team.

    Because talent identification of future first team players is so inaccurate, even at age 18, large numbers of players are developed but only a few players make the first team. This means domestic professional clubs are necessary because foreign clubs won't take enough players from any one country to build a world class national team pool on foreign trained players.

    Then there is the playing time opportunity question for young domestic players, even in countries with domestic professional leagues. Compare how young domestic players fair in the German Bundesliga to the EPL. 

    I have come to the conclusion that the key to developing exceptional players is professional club player development, not millions of affiliated youth players nationally. Quality of training opportunities is more important than quanity of players.  

  6. frank schoon replied, February 16, 2018 at 11:56 a.m.

    Bob, Exactly. All the registration and signing up new members, more and more,  in hope of finding someone talented, that's crazy...for US Soccer it is all about quantity not quality. It's been 50years and we still can produce a great ,great talent. It all comes down to developing and training. The dutch skating success is a perfect example.

  7. Kent James replied, February 16, 2018 at 12:57 p.m.

    While I agree that professional clubs are the most likely entity to develop high level talent, I don't think we should give up expanding the number of kids playing soccer to focus on a few elite players.  I think that has generally been our model, and if we were able to spot the 10 year old who was going to the national team, that would be the most efficient way to develop pros.  But I think that's generally been our approach (though youth clubs more than pros attempting to pick the talent), and while it has obviously yielded some good players, I think we're missing many more.  Assuming talent is a combination of genes and environment, failing to maximize the gene pool means we're missing potentially great players.  While it is sensible to suggest that players need to be in a competitive, elite environment, I don't think doing that at a early age or too intensely is appropriate.  I think there should be a gradual process, with younger kids spending most of their time in a relaxed, inclusive environment, with some exposure to higher level play (maybe 90/10 inclusion/competitive), than gradually shift that so that by the time they're 16, it's the other way (90/10 competive).  By focusing on inclusion at a young age, we stand a better chance of netting that genetic talent that might not be interested in a more select environment at first (especially when entering that environment precludes other interests).

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, February 16, 2018 at 2:17 p.m.

    Kent, I support expansion of soccer participation in all respects. The purpose of youth soccer, however, is to improve people's lives, not merely to produce future professional players. Adult soccer is also about improving people's lives. One of my fond memories is playing with an over 30 team when we had 3 of the 11 players on the field in their 70s, a great bunch of friends still kicking it on weekends.

  9. John Polis, February 16, 2018 at 12:39 p.m.

    Great topic. For years I have been fending off strange arguments that a country like ours -- because of its large population -- should automatically be good at soccer on the international stage. But if population were the key, China would have long ago been a powerhouse. And maybe even India. It's about a structure that gives players and a soccer culture the chance to develop. We are getting there, but there many impediments, not the least of which that the deck is stacked against soccer at the scholastic level in the USA, where soccer in many areas (not all but quite a few) is an afterthought. It's good that our failure to qualify for the World Cup has everyone buzzing about this, but there is no easy fix.

  10. frank schoon replied, February 16, 2018 at 12:57 p.m.

    John ,I've been involved in soccer since 60's when it began so to speak and I agree on your quote <"the deck is stacked against soccer at the scholastic level in the USA, where soccer in many areas (not all but quite a few) is an afterthought."> but that quote is suited for soccer back in the 70's, not today.

  11. Jim Ngo, February 16, 2018 at 2:36 p.m.

    A goal of national team success is to me the wrong way to start off. We should be looking to get more Americans on high level clubs around the world where tactical development can't be matched yet by domestic leagues. Players like Mascherano and Messi bring their experience back to Argentina but the primary desire was to get Argentinians to Europe. We should be willing to listen to European talent scouts critiques about American players and work to correct those deficiencies as a federation, otherwise we are going about it blindly.

  12. frank schoon replied, February 16, 2018 at 3:28 p.m.

    Well, stated. This is why I want someone to coach the USMNT to be a non-American. We need to bring in the foreign input and know-how, the coaching and training kind, and at the same time send American players to Europe to experience a better level of soccer. Both aspects helps our soccer to improve.

  13. R2 Dad replied, February 16, 2018 at 4:07 p.m.

    I agree with you, Frank, but according to USSF/MLS that makes you a bad american. The existing (ironically flawed) thinking is we have thousands of college coaches to choose from so among them there has got to be at least one world-class coach.

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, February 16, 2018 at 4:28 p.m.

    Frank, my wish is slightly different. Just any foreignor won't do. The late Johan Cruyff would have been perfect in the "general manager" position. While I think Pep Guardiola may eventually come to the US, that time is not now. There simply isn't a lot of genius who embrace change to go around. I would like to see our successful former national team coaches in those general manager positions. Ahmet Guvener would do well. We also have a generation of people who played in Europe. Including Renya, Ramos, Cherundolo, etc.

    I suspect some of the women hall of famers would be a good pick for general manager too. Akers and Hamm for instance were the only women included in Pele's list of greatest living players. Akers was not only captain of a world cup winning team, but in her time the best female player in the world. For a women, there is no higher level than that. Then I don't believe anyone knows more about women's soccer in the US over the last 30 years than Anson Dorrance.

    Ramos is my first choice to coach the MNT.

    The real value of using great former players is that you don't get to that level without personally striving to improve every day. They embrace change and growth.

  15. frank schoon replied, February 16, 2018 at 5:08 p.m.

    Bob, there is room for those you have mentioned. As general manager, fine, we have people but that is different than coaching.
    But when it comes to the highest level of soccer there is soccer knowledge and insights and there is soccer knowledge and insights which we simply lack.And because we lack the info is why we bring in foreign know-how, like these Dutch flunkies from the Dutch KNVB to help us out, of which, I think, are the wrong people to bring in anyway.
     We have not attained a level of coaching expertise, and know how, professionally or college where we can draw from to coach at the highest level. We don't even have player material that plays at the highest level and is likewise reflected in our coaching as well.
    R2, it is not a question of able to find a capable college coach to pick from out of  over the thousand college coaches, the problem NONE have experienced the higher level game.
    Remember what Bruce Arena stated upon taking the job first time as USMNT coach about all what he learned...and that's just scratching the surface. And that I think it's useless to even consider a college coach...
    As general manager, fine, we have people but that is different than coaching.

  16. Ric Fonseca, February 16, 2018 at 11:02 p.m.

    Only and unless I misread the article, the main focus is on the number of players we do or don't have, registered/unregistered, affiliated/unaffiliated clubs/leagues, etc.  As for a HC job for a "native born" or "foreign born" this is not the gist of the article and I betcha Corediero is going to do what he feels is the best thing for US soccer, and I betcha we - or many of us - will not like his choice but c'est la vie, amigos! 
    Meantime, my take on unregistered/unaffiliated, as one comment says above, there is nothing palatable for them, no incentive, and more importantly, the registered/affiliated clubs, leagues and associations, just don't give a rats behind about them. I could regale you with some horror stories about this, and mind you I am talking about the decades from the 60's up to and including the first ones of the 21st Century. To put it bluntly, it is pathetic, and as Brad Rothenberg put it, it is due to the blatant arrogance and ignorance of you know what and who. At least I know that during my "active soccer duty time" that lasted more than decades, I gave it the good old college try, however, and still today I get more and more frustrated when I continuously read local community sports magazines, e.g. "el deportista" of So. L.A. that focus completely on the Latino soccer scenes, and I can just betcha-a-nickel they aren't even u naffiliated to the state association.  And this is just here in the Greater Los Angeles region and I betcha another nickel it is the same throughout the country. Affiliation is just not a big deal, and everyone knows it, why? because state associations/national bodies don't give a crap about them. So to Mr. Guvener, maybe you hold the key to getting this country's numbers up, if you were to get the word out.  Man-oh-man, there sure is one hell of a lot yet to be discussed on this matter!  PLAY ON!!!  

  17. Ahmet Guvener replied, February 17, 2018 at 12:35 a.m.

    I never said that we need to have more registered players, on the contrary more players do not mean much unless you get them from the correct source and with the correct development model. 

  18. Bob Ashpole, February 17, 2018 at 1:10 p.m.

    Ahmet, consistent with what you said, the last time I checked (a few years ago) registered youth in the USA composed roughly half of the world's registered youth players. I interpret that as an indication of the degree to which youth soccer has become an industry in the USA and that quantity is not quality.

    The development of table tennis champion Matthew Syed, auther of Bounce, I think demonstrates that elite young players may be developed in relatively small and isolated groups. I also believe that the formal league/team competition structure is inferior to the academy structure until about U14. With professional clubs as an example, it appears that an academy approach, without months long competitions and fixed rosters, is superior for development of teens too. 

    The advantages of the academy approach is efficiency and flexibility. It unites staff as a team rather than divides them as competitors.  

  19. Bob Ashpole replied, February 17, 2018 at 1:16 p.m.

    If I recall correctly, for total players of all ages, the USA had 1/11th of the world's players.

  20. David Whiteman, February 19, 2018 at 7:55 a.m.

    I think we need a LOT more kids playing ... with several other more popular spectator sports in the US - and financially more successful ones as well - what sports are the best young athletes attracted to? I think the issue is that soccer does not catch a large enough percentage of those top athletes. The way to change that is by soccer becoming more popular, and more financially successful, as a spectator sport. That is happening, but it will take time and will be aided by developing future spectators by greatly increasing the number of kids playing.

  21. frank schoon replied, February 19, 2018 at 1:27 p.m.

    David, you sound like someone from during the 70's where your point would have been well taken. I've been involved in soccer since the '60's. We have plenty of kids playing and more will come and it is not a question of other sports taking the athletes. It's not about athletics in soccer. This is why East Germany at time would have been the greatest soccer nation...instead it was a dud. Ball touch with feet, thinking, etc is not athleticism....Some of the greatest players were not necessarily great athletes...There is an old saying in soccer, the first few meters are between your ears ....

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