Commentary

UEFA vs. U.S Soccer -- what there is to learn from Europe

Whenever I compare any country with the USA with reference to soccer, I meet with the same opposition: “You cannot compare the USA with – let us say – Germany – because we are as big as a continent and they are a just country.” Well said. 

European men’s soccer is considered the golden standard. European MNTs won the last three World Cups and the last nine out of 10 Club World Cups were won by UEFA clubs. The best players on the planet play in Europe, the best coaches coach in Europe the best referees referee in Europe. 

So let us compare USA with Europe and hence U.S. Soccer with UEFA to draw some lessons.

Europe

USA

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Area

3,930,000 sq miles

3,796,742 sq miles

Population

741,447,158

325,719,178

GDP / capita

$21,767

$61,687

GDP

$19.0 Trillion

$20.199 Trillion


It is clear that both the USA and Europe cover approximately the same square mileage although the old continent is more populated and less wealthy per capita compared to the USA. The wealth (GDP) of Europe and the USA is comparable. 

Unfortunately as I mentioned in an earlier article, there are no reliable recent figures showing the number of registered soccer players in the USA and Europe. If we assume that we have 4 million registered soccer players in the USA, it means U.S. Soccer reaches and registers as players approximately 1.25 % of the population.

The most recent survey done by UEFA on the registered players is from 2006. 

Professional Players

57,463

Men (O18)

12,198,389

Women (O18)

933,291

Men (U18)

8,882,066

Women(U18)

586,978

Futsal

422,244

TOTAL

23,080,431

I believe the total number of registered players in Europe did not change drastically in the last 12 years. Neither did the population (730 million in 2006 vs. 741 million in 2017). My guess – based on my personal observation what is happening in Europe -- is that the number of senior amateur men players decreased considerably whereas the youth players for both genders and women senior amateur players increased, but the overall total registration stayed approximately the same. In 2006, UEFA through its national associations (NAs) registered 3.1% of the continent’s population as soccer players.

So are we comparing apples and oranges when we compare U.S. Soccer and UEFA?  Germans would say jein (yes and no). Let us look at the “yes” parts:

  1. UEFA is a confederation and U.S. Soccer is a federation. But in essence UEFA acts like a federation and U.S. Soccer acts more like a confederation in the true sense of the word.
  2. The composition of the general assembly (GA) of UEFA is very much different than U. S. Soccer’s. The GA of UEFA is composed of NAs. San Marino has one vote so does Germany. In the GA of U.S. Soccer the votes of state associations are based on the number of players they register. So the vote of Vermont is not the same as Cal South.
  3. Soccer is the number one sport in Europe, but in the USA it has serious competitors. As a result, there is a lack of soccer culture in the USA compared to Europe.
  4. UEFA reaches more registered players in the population compared to U.S. Soccer (3.1% versus 1.25%)
  5. Soccer – for both the amateur and the professional game -- in Europe is a passion first and then a business, where as in the USA it is first and foremost a business. For Europe, quality comes before quantity where as in the USA it is quantity first. 
  6. All the competitions in Europe -- across national borders -- are organized by UEFA (total of 19 competitions for both NTs and clubs), whereas U.S. Soccer only organizes the Lamar Open Cup and the DA leagues across state lines in the USA.
  7. The annual budget of UEFA in quantity is not comparable in any way to U.S. Soccer’s annual budget. 

But there are also “no” parts.

  1. Both Europe and the USA are big in size, populous and wealthy. They have the same size and wealth.
  2. There are 55 NAs in UEFA and there are 55 state associations in U.S. Soccer. 
  3. Although there are federal governments in Europe (like Germany, Switzerland), the central governments are strong entities whereas in the USA the federal government is not as strong as in Europe. States resent and at times react to mandates from D.C. – similarly state associations act the same way towards Chicago. So comparing UEFA to U.S. Soccer is more appropriate than let us say comparing to the English FA. UEFA has to deal with independent countries and their NAs: 55 countries, 55 different political systems, 55 different cultures and 55 different NA governance structures. Even though that is the case, because of their inclusive governance approach and their financial strength they can mandate a lot of issues to their NAs.  We are hence comparing similar political structures.

The bottom line is that with an inclusive governance framework and correct organizational structure UEFA has achieved a lot in the last decades. 

U.S. Soccer can look at UEFA’s developmental model and adopt some of them -- like they did with the coaching structure and the DAs -- but unless the governance framework, organizational structure and the approach of Chicago is changed, the effects will be minimal and will face resistance from the state associations. It is worth analyzing in detail the governance model and the organizational structure of UEFA -- both professional and voluntary committees/panels.

I agree with the approach of growing the business side of U.S. Soccer first, because if you are strong financially then you can implement and mandate changes. If U.S. Soccer had been financially sound and strong in the past, we would not have seen this fragmented youth structure.

I have learned in life that whatever project you might develop to improve the quality of soccer in a country, unless you have the support of the constituents it is doomed for failure. A correct inclusive and well balanced governance approach to the constituents can create miracles like UEFA has done. I have seen signs of change to that effect in the pre-election talks by all the candidates and I am hopeful that the new administration will make those changes to spearhead inclusiveness. Then you can talk about developing projects and implementing mandates especially in a country where too much interference by the central authority is resented.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director 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 Austin, TX.

3 comments about "UEFA vs. U.S Soccer -- what there is to learn from Europe".
  1. John Polis, March 16, 2018 at 1:03 p.m.

    A lot of good points here in this thoughtful article, Ahmet, but the scales are severely tipped with Europe a continent ripe with soccer culture and the USA a single country with a pittance of soccer culture. Plus, I'd point out that every country within UEFA doesn't approach soccer with any sort of uniform prescribed way any more than the USA, Mexico and Canada approach it in North America. I will say, however, that I am on both sides of the argument. We do have some unique challenges here in America that Europe doesn't have (weather, less experienced coaches, lack of history of the game and that everpresentlack of fan culture), but we also can learn much about the game from UEFA and its countries and their similarities with us, especially when it comes to international competition. For example, the national team coach. I've always felt that the coach of the U.S. National Team, at the very least, should be someone who has coached (and preferably played) at the highest level. On that issue we would do well to follow the examples of our European big brothers, who (except in rare instances) would require that of every candidate. Thinking that we can home grow everything we need in soccer is as silly as assuming we can open a world class restaurant without hiring any chefs from abroad. Again, thanks for the great article and for addressing such a complicated topic of which we're all concerned.  

  2. Bob Ashpole, March 16, 2018 at 4:31 p.m.

    Just out of curiosity, what are the figures on unregistered players in Europe? Here in the US unregistered players have historically greatly outnumbered registered players.

    The FIFA "Big Count" put the total number of soccer players in the USA at 24.4 million in 2006, only 4.2 million were registered. (I suspect the "Big Count" data is the source of the numbers in the article for Europe.) The number of soccer players in the US was second only to China.

    The bottom line is that the participation rate in North America and Europe are essentially the same percentage.

  3. Bob Ashpole, March 16, 2018 at 4:47 p.m.

    "...it means U.S. Soccer reaches and registers as players approximately 1.25 % of the population."

    This percentage is meaningless, or at least should be meaningless, for telling us anything about USSF's influence on the sport in the USA. I was an unregistered player for over 50 years, yet I was greatly influenced by technical information provided by USSF and its member organizations as well as influenced by watching USSF sanctioned matches. USSF is now drying up as a source of information for non-members. 

    The problem is that USSF has become more insular over the years, not allowing the free transfer of knowledge or players between affiliated and unaffiliated participants and clubs. USSF is less influential today because of their insular nature. NSCAA, now called USC, is one community where information is shared. But that is done by individuals, not the organizations. 

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