Commentary

USA, Belgium and 'Something,' The final episode

We have finally come to the final episode of this series. Reading the comments for the first three parts and also talking to people who read the articles, I came to the conclusion that I could not make my message clear or convey it properly.

The USA and Belgium soccer/football landscapes cannot be compared to come to a conclusion, but lessons can be learned from that comparison. There are far more differences in the respective soccer/football landscapes than there are similarities. Just to name a few:

  • Belgium is a small country whereas the USA is the size of Europe; this difference causes serious logistical problems for the USA.
  • The governance and business models of MLS and Jupiler Pro league are completely different.
  • As Mark Zeigler wrote in a recent article, “We’re a soccer-playing nation and not a soccer nation.” Whereas Belgium like nearly all of other European nations live by football and die by football. There is no ‘football’ or baseball or basketball to compete with.

Actually the differences between UEFA's 55 federations in terms of the way they run their federations and the leagues are minimal. These are restricted to: 

  1. The way the Professional Leagues are run: Some Federations manage the Professional Leagues and in other countries the Leagues themselves run the upper-tier Professional Leagues. 
  2. The structure of the AGM: The percentage of Professional vs. Amateur representation and whether players, coaches and referees are represented.
  3. The number of registered players, coaches and referees and their ratio to the overall population
  4. The value of the soccer economy in the country and the budget of the Federation with respect to the overall registered players.

None of these except the fourth one is an obstacle in developing a world-class MNT or WNT. If any of the countries is not doing well, then the only problem is that they couldn’t find “something” to develop world-class players/team or they did not know how to manage that “something,” Germany, France, Iceland, Croatia, Switzerland and Spain did and England and the Netherlands are doing that “something.” That “something” definitely has to be “something” different than the status quo.

Now let us look at Belgium. “Belgium is much more than a golden generation and it is not luck.” Belgium MNT was never ranked in top ten until they hit the bottom in 2009 (66th). Their average ranking is 29th less than the USMNT whose ranking is on the average 21st. Since 2009 they are in a steep rise all the way to be the number one for the past two years.  


When they realized that they have to do “something” to come out mediocrity and exit the status quo there were not any obstacles on their way. 

They had a substantially big budget (Belgium FA spent $181 in 2018 per registered player whereas US 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.) The structure of their AGM supported any mandates that the Belgium FA will lay down. They had a very diverse and rich human resource that they were able to capitalize on. And football is a way of living for the Belgians who are interested in sports.

That “something” is called “Project 2000”. Although they dipped down in 2009, the project actually started in 1998. “For the federation, the watershed moment came in 1998 when Belgium was eliminated at the group stage at the World Cup finals in France.” So you might call Project 2000 a late bloomer. They worked closely with the Universities to analyze the “as is” of Belgian football. They believed in scientific analysis as a guiding light. It is not a coincidence that Double Pass – the company that many European federations as well as U.S. Soccer utilize -- is a world leader in analyzing and assessing youth development in academies is a Belgian company. Double Pass was founded in 2004 as a spin-off company of the University of Brussels. 

So the Belgian FA – like many other European Federations mentioned above – did “something” that elevated the MNT to the top of the world rankings. It will not be surprising that they will start coming down –- just like Germany did after 2014 – after a while, then they will have to do “something” else to go up again. 

If you come to this side of the Atlantic the USMNT is on a plateau after the initial boost of the 1994 World Cup  and prior to that the push of the old NASL. This is what an old friend of mine that has been involved in soccer at the highest level since the 1970s thinks and I agree with him. A co-writer of Soccer America, Beau Dure, just wrote a book called “Why U.S. Men will never win the World Cup”. Although I haven’t finished reading the book to understand his reasoning, I agree with him also. 

Our differences with the rest of the world make it very hard if not impossible for the USMNT to be ranked No. 1 in the near future (10-20 years) or win the World Cup. Let us not forget there are only eight MNTs – two of them only once – that won the World Cup. So our goal should be plateauing in the top ten instead of somewhere between top 20 and 30. That should be the realistic goal for the next few decades. Playing a semifinal of a Men’s World Cup before 2050 will be icing on the cake. 

Asking for promotion/relegation in the Professional Leagues or abolishing the pay-to-play system is not realistic goals. Trying to defragment the various youth organizations is also not realistic. Trying to change all our differences with the rest of the world or copying/adapting some other county’s “something” project is also not realistic. You can say that our differences are to some extent due to American exceptionalism and I would agree with you, but this will not change the reality. 

You cannot compare U.S. Soccer and our soccer landscape with any other country in Europe or Latin America. You can look at the differences and try to learn how those differences accelerate a country’s MNT in FIFA rankings.

But none of these realities change the fact that we have to change the status quo and do our original “something” so that we plateau in the top ten. For that we have to be creative and patient. We have to convert our differences with the rest of the soccer world to be our strengths in developing that “something” project, since our soccer landscape will not allow us to narrow the gap of our differences with the rest of the world. Maybe in a later article I can talk about what could be our “something” project. 

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) 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.

3 comments about "USA, Belgium and 'Something,' The final episode".
  1. R2 Dad, November 22, 2019 at 9:57 p.m.

    I really like this series, and look forward to your “something”, AG. What will it take for people to start caring about the quality of soccer in this country? The only thing I know for sure that people truly care about is beating Mexico. Nothing else, before or after Couva, seems to matter—no one cares. A truly epic beat-down administered by EL Tri (featuring a bunch of American kids for good measure), our equivalent of Brazil’s 1-7 humiliation, might do it. If it came at the hands of Tata at the World Cup, even the craven bureaucrats inChicago could not survive a self-inflicted futball Hiroshima of their own making. But what to do? Handwringing, amazingly, has not worked so far. Doubling down on MLS, again? Oh sure, why not? How much worse can it get, the thinking would go. But then all the voting members of USSF would just go back to printing money and pretending everything was fine. They would push out Carlos but then elect another businessy bureaucrat to rubber-stamp MLS initiatives. And international soccer would just die of apathy in this country. Unlikely? England WON a World Cup and then sucked for 50 years! I need to find a beer to cry in....

  2. Kent James, November 23, 2019 at 12:41 a.m.

    Great series of articles; while it is unrealistic for us to be able to match Brazil or Germany, Belgium should be an achievable goal.  I think the most difficult obstacles are logistics and the lack of soccer culture.  For logistiics, I feel like trying to indentify potential world class players at a young age so they can be groomed under special circumstances is exceptionally difficult unless you're dealing with someone like a Messi.  In dense soccer areas (like the Northeast, CA, parts of Texas) we may be able to structure our programs like those in Europe.  But we may need to take a different approach to areas that are widely spread out, maybe instead of trying to have youth leagues where players travel long distances every weekend (expensive and likely to lead to burnout),  have training camps that players in less densely populated areas can attend for a couple weeks a year.  Camps below the national team level (to keep the player pool large in order to scout a larger number of players), and often enough that it's not a tryout where one day's performance makes or breaks you, but rather the coaching staff can keep tabs on how promising players are developing (probably in the age range 14-16 or 17) over a 3 year period.  Something like 8-10 camps (not sure how many, but enough that they're not too hard to get to, and fund them so the players don't have to pay).   


    For soccer culture, we just have to keep plugging away, promoting it at every level (but the MLS has to be successful, or our national team never will be).  I'm curious as to how the growth of other sports throughout the world is impacting soccer's dominance in other countries.  Certainly with the number of sports one can easily watch worldwide, I would think other countries football cultures may become a bit more diliuted over time (making catching them a bit more achievable, though still very difficult).  

  3. Philip Carragher, November 24, 2019 at 12:16 p.m.

    Ahmet, thank you for the articles. I've ordered your book and look forward to your thoughts about US Soccer and its future. I skimmed the past articles in this series and the comments and didn't see much detail on specific training but the Sky Sports article you highlight above does. The main thrust of the article points to Belgium's footballers understanding the inequities of selection bias that centers around player's birthdates and how players may blossum later than others. It also mentions that they utilize Cruyff Football and that they're going to emphasize dribbling and futsal.

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