One can always ask the question “what are the prerequisites -- other than talent/genes –- to be a soccer star?” There are two obvious answers developing the prospective soccer star in a soccer culture / environment and 10,000 hours of training as promulgated by Professor Anders Ericsson. By soccer culture we mean a community which is deeply immersed culturally in soccer and by soccer environment we mean the immediate family members of the player who are either knowledgeable in depth about soccer and/or have meaningful experience in soccer as a player/coach.
How about the race of the player? Is that a critical factor?
A recent survey lists the best 100 young (born Jan 1, 1997 or later) players in the world. I know that such a list is very subjective but it still gives us a sample of the best players.
Of the 100 best young players 38 of them are black (10 of them are from the Americas), 19 of them are Hispanic (Spanish, Latin American or Portuguese), 40 of them are white (11 of them are outside of Europe) and three are Asians. It is clear that there is no one clear race advantage over the others except that the Asians are underrepresented. Especially if you consider that nine of the black players come from Hispanic cultures then racially it is very much evenly distributed between blacks, Hispanics and whites. Of the 100 three are from the USA: Justen Glad, Tommy Redding and Christian Pulisic.
Out of these 100, 20 play in non-European leagues (four at MLS). It is obvious that as they grow older they will move to European leagues. 100 players are from 52 different countries. 59 players are from Europe (France leading by 10), 17 from CONMEBOL (Brazil leading by seven), 10 from CAF, eight from CONCACAF and six from AFC (including Oceania).
With the racial data explained above, it is obvious that the blacks are not all from Africa or South America. There are seven blacks from Africa and 10 from the Americas. That means 21 blacks are from Europe. They are all either immigrants or sons of immigrants from Africa. The immigrant statuses of star players in Europe are not restricted to blacks. Let us randomly look at the starting eleven of German MNT- the number one ranked team in the World. We chose the starting eleven of the recent friendly game between Germany and Brazil. Four players of the starting 11 were immigrants: Jerome Boateng (Ghana), Illay Gundogan (Turkey), Mario Gomez (Spain) and Leroy Sane (Senegal). You can find more numbers of immigrants in other starting 11 of the German MNT. Mesut Ozil, Emira Can, Sami Khedira and Amin Younes are there, to name a few. If you look at the Swiss MNT you will see a lot of immigrants from the new republics of former Yugoslavia, Albania and Turkey. Have a close look at MNTs of English, Belgium, Netherlands and France you will see a lot of white, black and Hispanic immigrants. The demography of the old continent started to change in the '60s when Western Europe required young workers from Eastern Europe and Africa. Now their sons and grandsons represent their new countries.
The Western European countries of Europe are the wealthiest and best organized countries in soccer. Simon Kuper and Szymanski in their recent publication of “Soccernomics” list three criteria for the success of a nation in sports: Wealth, population and experience. (The current success story of Iceland is difficult to explain with these three criteria except for wealth.) USA MNT is an underachiever with these criteria, according to the authors. The lack of experience compared to the top 10 teams of the world hurts the status of the USMNT. (Top 10 teams, according to win percentages in 1990-2010, are Spain, Brazil, France, Germany, Argentina, Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal and Czech Republic) Although USMNT performance based on win percentage jumped from prewar of 0.385 to 0.646 (between 2001-2010), the authors think in order to build the experience criteria USMNT should play more games outside of Concacaf. Since USMNT neither lacks the wealth of the country nor the population.
The story of immigrants in Europe takes an interesting swing as some of the MNT of periphery countries of Europe rely on the second tier stars developed by the Western European countries. Turkey’s MNT at all levels have around 25% to 35% players who are developed by Western European countries. These are dual citizens of Turkey and the Western European country,mainly Germany. Germany will not allow the likes of Ozil, Can, and Gündogan to play for the Turkish MNT. Instead players like Nuri Sahin, Omer Toprak, Hamit Altintop and Yunus Malli, who are second-tier European stars opted for the Turkish MNT. The same could be said for some of the members of the USMNT who are dual citizens.
The bottom line in order to be a star: your racial background is immaterial but rather being an immigrant in a developed wealthy country with a lot of soccer experience is important.
How about the social class of a soccer star? Is that a critical factor?
There are no social class indicators for the top young 100 stars of soccer. In general, in Europe and Latin/Central America soccer stars usually come from urban blue-collar families. The immigrant families of soccer stars are usually blue-collar families without an exception. Most of them have hardly finished high school. Although there are soccer stars like Ruud Gullit, Dennis Bergkamp, Socrates, Osvaldo Ardiles, Jorge Valdano, Pep Guardiola, Andres Iniesta and Kaka who have gone to school past high school. Very few of the parents of soccer stars were either executives or white-collar workers. Oliver Bierhoff’s father was a member of the upper middle class, the director of a big energy company. But these are exceptions in Europe and Latin America. Usually the less educated soccer stars that come from blue-collar families resent and ridicule those who are better educated and come from middle class families. For example Die Zeit – the German daily – described Bierhoff’s status as the general manager of the German MNT as that of “an alien object." “In the conservative environs of soccer, he’s always been an outsider.” (From “Das Reboot” by Raphael Honigstein.)
If you cross the Atlantic and come to the USA, you will see a different picture. Actually a research has been carried out in 2015 when journalist Roger Bennett and University of Chicago economics professor Greg Kaplan produced a study comparing the background of each U.S. men’s soccer national team member from 1993 to 2014 with every NBA All-Star and NFL Pro Bowl player over the same period. The study found the soccer players came from communities that had higher incomes, education and employment rankings, and were whiter than the US average.
This is the proof that soccer is the sport of the suburban middle-class families who are predominantly white. Actually having better educated soccer stars than the rest of the world might give us a considerable edge. Because better educated players will be smarter, more analytical and more professional on the pitch and can be better team leaders. Unfortunately, there are two obstacles to this potential edge: First, is the very conservative NCAA who will not even allow for two semesters of college soccer. To be honest, men’s college soccer might not be NCCA’s first level of priority looking into the revenue it generates. The second obstacle is the pay-to-play system and the families that feed it. For the middle-class suburban families, the amount of money they spend on their kids is secondary. They want their kids to be happy and if possible get a college scholarship through soccer. Developing a soccer star for the USMNT is not in their dreams. The very obvious first prerequisite for developing a soccer star, namely living in a community with soccer culture or in a soccer environment, is not inherently in the suburban middle class culture. Even though you might have some immediate family members with a soccer culture like the Pulisics, still they will be the exceptions for the years to come. For a middle-class suburban family to promote and encourage 10,000 hours of playing/training soccer is beyond their wildest dreams. They would like their kid to finish school and go to college. It is if not impossible to have 10,000 hours of training/playing in a non-soccer environment and at the same time being successful in school, it is at least very difficult.
The two prerequisites of soccer culture/environment and 10,000 hours of soccer training and playing can only be materialized in urban settings of immigrants, just like in Western Europe.
Pay-to-play model is a multi-billion business and a reality of our country. It is a known fact that pay-to-play system excludes the immigrants of our society. It makes it inaccessible for low income populations. Like their counterparts in Europe immigrants -- at least the first two generations -- they are underserved. The current scholarship system is like a Band-Aid for a major bleeding wound.
The model to success is clear. You must integrate the immigrant population into the soccer development system like we clearly see in Western Europe. The USA has the same -- if not more -- capabilities and facilities like Western Europe. The USA has excellent human resources for the design of the development of soccer. The basic difference is that our system is not egalitarian like the Western European one. This country has more immigrants than Western Europe and is more diverse in culture. Unfortunately, due to the non-egalitarian approach, the immigrants stay away from organized soccer.
The pay-to-play system and the related youth systems rely on quantities. Quality is not the primary concern of the pay-to-play system. U.S. Soccer in order to be in the top ten ranking in men’s soccer need to primarily rely on quality in player, coach and referee development. Immigrants are waiting to be embraced by the system. U.S. Soccer has to create a parallel universe to embrace the immigrants in urban settings. Diversity and its manifestation as immigrants are the greatest wealth in our soccer world. Just look across the Atlantic to get a lesson.
Ahmet Guvener (email@example.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.