USA, Belgium and 'Something' (Part 1)

I was talking with a friend of mine, who is very knowledgeable about the history of soccer in this country, about how to make the USMNT one of the best in the world. I told him that “Look at Belgium; they must have done “something” over the years so that they are now ranked number one in FIFA rankings. We should do “something” also for the USMNT to be one of the best.” I did not elaborate on what “something” should be. My friend – quite correctly – said: “How can you compare Belgium with the USA? The USA is as big as Europe. Whatever they have done most probably is not adaptable in the USA for a multitude of reasons.”

There are many differences between soccer in the USA and Belgium; some of them are measurable differences and some are intangible ones like soccer culture, history etc. Let us have a look at them.

Belgium has competed in 13 World Cups, starting in 1930, and their best performances 3rd in 2018, 4th in 1986 and 6th in 2014. Actually, in their first World Cup appearance the USMNT beat them 3-0. The USMNT competed in 10 times in the World Cups starting in 1930. Its best performance was in 1930 when it reached the semifinals (beating Belgium, 3-0, in their first ever game). The USMNT more recently were in the round of 16 three times and once in the quarter final in 2002 World Cup. 

One can say that until the last two World Cups their performances in the World Cup were comparable. 

Let us have a look at the FIFA rankings:

Belgium is currently ranked 1st and their average ranking since 1993 is the 29th in the World. 

The USMNT is currently ranked 21st and the average ranking is also 21st in the World.

It is clear that Belgium or let us be specific: Belgium FA has done “something” starting in 2009 – when they had their worst ranking 66th  - that eventually made the Belgium MNT to be ranked No. 1 in  2019 – namely 10 years later. 

Unfortunately, you do not see that kind of an upward trend over the years with the USMNT but rather ups and downs.

One has to also look at some other measurable factors regarding two countries and their respective federations.



Population (Million)



Area (sq. miles)



Registered Players (app.) 



Budget of FA 2018 (M$)



Reg. Player /Pop. Percent



Budget / Reg. Play. ($)



These numbers show that the USA is 30 times bigger in population than Belgium and 320 times bigger in area. Belgium is approximately the size of Hawaii.

Both the USA's size (fourth in the world) and population (third in the world) bring in logistical and socio-cultural problems. What is interesting is that the top most populous countries in the world, namely China and India, are pretty low ranked in FIFA ranking, 66th and 104th, respectively), If you look at the soccer stories of Iceland, Uruguay, Croatia and Belgium, it is clear that having a big population or having a high number of registered players do not necessarily mean success for WNTs or MNTs.

Belgium has nearly three times (3.08) as many registered players per population compared to the USA. Considering that soccer is still not the No. 1 sport in the country and the fact that participation in nearly all sports for kids are dropping, I personally do not think that we could increase 1.22 percent to 3.73 percent in the coming decades. (Increase to 3.73 percent would mean 12 million registered players.) What is interesting in countries where the game is called is soccer, the game is not the number one sport in the country and the highest ranked one is the USA with the 21st position. In order for the success of any NT, the quality of the young players is far more important than their sheer registered player numbers. We must definitely distinguish between elite players and recreational players, since U.S. Soccer has both a social and sporting responsibility. Instead of increasing the number of registered players, maybe we should look at the players who might have both talent and a soccer culture that the system leaves behind; namely the underprivileged kids who come mostly from immigrant families or inner-city kids.

Belgium FA spent $181 in 2018 per registered player whereas U.S. Soccer spent $31 per player during the same year. In order to be comparable, U.S. Soccer’s budget should increase to $724 Million and we know that this will take some time. 

Belgium FA must have done “something” correct in the last 10 years and that “something” must have been mandated through its system. In one of my earlier articles, I have written the reasons why U.S. Soccer is having problems mandating “something." One of those reasons was the fact that the actual budget of U.S. Soccer was inadequate to navigate around the constituents to mandate standards or make radical changes. Another reason was the structure of the National Council. Two weeks later, we will compare the national councils and governance models of both of the FAs, their approach to diversity and inclusion and other intangible factors affecting both countries. 

Until then….

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer 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 Georgetown, TX.

6 comments about "USA, Belgium and 'Something' (Part 1)".
  1. frank schoon, October 11, 2019 at 10:18 a.m.

    Ahmet, thanks for the article for you makes us think about things. How to explain what is happening to Belgium that has come out of nowhere is no different than what had happened to Holland in the past 10years. Holland has looked and played like "crap" in the past 10years. As a matter of fact I was so embarrassed how Holland played that I was rooting for Germany whenever they met for Germany was playing better and nicer soccer than Holland. I didn't realize it at the time but  subconsciously  watching Germany was like watching Holland play but better. And that is due to Germany deciding a decade earlier to change their stale style of play, old fashioned, and predictable and  they were falling behind other countries in development of the game and therefore chose to follow a dutch style. 
    How do you explain the Dutch disaster as I call it when you keep in mind all the variables, the complexities, the structures, the organizational aspects, and other aspects that run the total dutch picture, has never changed, then why the DIP, why all of sudden is Belgium doing well? Why is a broken clock right twice a day....well ,to me , the answer is "Sh...t, happens". After a dip in dutch soccer which left me embarrassed, all of sudden the dutch are beginning to climb out their hole of "embarrasment" do you explain that?  
    All of a sudden we have supposedly considered by many the best central defender combination in the world, van Dyk of Liverpool and the 18 year old Ligt who now plays for Juventus,  and also we have ,considered one of the best midfielders in world, Frenkie de Jong who is now playing for Barcelona, and next year Van de Beek of Ajax is already considered the next great midfielder in the world. Don't forget all these players mentioned were grew up in the Ajax system.
    You can't explain it by graphs and charts or by logic. This stuff happens in waves ,the trick for a well organized club,for example, is to reduce  the amplitude of these "sine waves" of change. And one great club Cruyff considers the best run and organized club, for that is what Germans are good at and is part of their DNA ,organization, is Bayern Munchen. And realize "organization" is what made German soccer so successful especially in tournament play like the world cup, for it is certainly not their quality of play. If you look at who runs  Bayern Munchen, they have Franz Beckenbauer, to me, one of the greatest "pure passers of the game", Hoennes  and Karl Heinze Rumminegge, two German greats. That is a reason why this club has been successful in reducing than developmental complications. If only Ajax could have been run like that they would not have needed the "Cruyffian Revolution".  NEXT POST

  2. frank schoon, October 11, 2019 at 11:10 a.m.

    You can't compare the situation of Belgium with the US. First of all there is one thing left out in this equation which is PICKUP soccer. What is Belgium, what is Holland , what is France,etc without PICKUP soccer that youth have in their soccer culture. This is the glue , or what we call in Holland a "red threat' that ties or connects and promulgates our DNA of soccer at all levels dealing with soccer. This is very easy to establish. If you go to Germany and play pickup soccer for a couple of weeks and than go to Holland and perhaps France, you will sense the differences , the nuances, the norms in how they play. This is a huge factor which is overlooked in your graphs, charts and working definitions. 
    Belgium has had many foreign influences especially the dutch for both have a historical and cultural similarities, Flemish. Belgium's DNA, characterized as "mousy", not assertive, passive, not mouthy, or better characteristics that are not helpful on the soccer field. The Belgiums realize this and throughout their soccer history have brought in dutch coaches and players who by nature tend to be more "bossy", mouthy, assertive, showoff types technically speaking, not lacking in opinions, confident, strong standing and willed, adventurous, that's the dutch for you. Yep , I know I identify myself in many of  those characteristics, good and bad.  Comparing dutch history, they sailed the 7 seas, were all over the world, were a power regardless of size than compare it to Belgium....chocolate anyone? I have to admit you can't beat their french fries or rather flemish fries.....
    Belgium's wave is riding high currently but how long will it last? The US has no players that can even create a great wave. Consider, geographically, where Belgium is located, the immediate soccer cultural influences it has with  all the great soccer countries in Europe than compare it to the US influences...Cuba, Costa Rica, Canada, Honduras, Panama,etc.  I think we have to wait how Belgium fares with their next generation before we can really make any comparisons...

  3. Philip Carragher replied, October 12, 2019 at 3:14 p.m.

    I love the idea of expanding pickup soccer, only in my efforts to do so, discovered an obstacle to having the effect we're looking for: the better, more effective (and probably older pickup) players have to play good soccer and display the skills and thinking that we'd hope the younger players would emulate. I just finished coaching a middle school co-ed team comprised of fifth though eighth graders and our approximation of pickup soccer was five sessions (1.5 hours long) of futsal. This is a wealthy Chicago suburban Catholic school and I don't inherit many strong athletes and few skilled soccer players. While playing futsal, the most athletic of the bunch were the most successful during the futsal matches (although some of the lesser players who used skillful techniques experienced more success during these futsal sessions than they do outdoors.) The most successful players used the athletic technique of pushing the ball into open spaces and running around defenders, but, unfortunately, this became the technique that others began copying, thus chipping away at the skilled techniques some of them were working on. On the plus-side I did witness overall improvement but, when translated to the outdoor game, the improvement was minimal. Maybe I can figure out how to "seed" futsal games with skilled players.? I believe that would help.

  4. frank schoon replied, October 12, 2019 at 3:44 p.m.

    Philip, I understand. Close down the space so they can't employ running. What you say about pushing in to space and running by their opponent tells me you allow way too much space. There is nothing wrong with plenty of space than create an environment that forces them to run less. For example, to stop others kids from running quickly on attack, place a rule that they must make 3 complete passes in their own half before on attack....Be creative and instill certain rules until you think you broken them of a bad habit. 
     But don't despair, remember if others begin to copy that trick passing and go opponents what does that tell you? Kids will learn what is successful if others do. That is why it is great if you bring in some fancy dribblers so the others can see and learn from..... Don't discount running into space but see it as another trick to beat an opponent. 
    In the beginning I let the kids play 4v4 or 5v5 on half a basketball court until they get it settled down and unable to use speed...

  5. R2 Dad, October 11, 2019 at 11:19 a.m.

    The FIFA rankings no longer show the entire ranking history in a graph, but the Belgians were pretty bad relative to the powerhouses around them. The major difference was they still had top players through the years, just not very many of them--something the USMNT has not ever been able to claim. Am curious if the Belgian 2010 re-boot is along the lines of Germany in 2005 (reform, something USSF is incapable of), or just another golden generation was born. 

  6. R2 Dad, October 11, 2019 at 12:21 p.m.

    I bet my bottom dollar Belgium does not have club teams blowing up on a regular basis. In the US clubs can do whatever they want because the FA doesn't care about amateur clubs. "We don't have enough players for a U16 team--no worries, we will dissolve our U16 and/or roll it up into a U17/18/19 team--problem solved". And then USSF wonders why our development is crap. Leaning on the DA does not address this structural issue. How many 15 YOs want to play in a mens league environment with a disinterested ref who awards dangerous play by swallowing their whistle? And the USSF wonders why participation is dropping for teens? Belgium bounced back, even though their national league is 2nd rate, because the club system structure has always been there, near enough to all kids, to work up through their system. Until our lower league clubs are established,  respectable and responsible to their communities, we will make due with the low-hanging fruit. I am now estimating that is 50-75 years from now, given the inability of USSF to actually establish a structure that works for players instead of coaches/club owners. Yeah, I'm enjoying the status quo, voting members of USSF--give me another heaping pile of Carlos Cordiero for the next 15 years. /S

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