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'Soccernomics' writer: Why soccer will rise in the US

Posted by David Beard, Globe Staff  November 2, 2009 08:55 AM

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By David Beard, Globe staff

Simon Kuper is one opinionated sportswriter. Witness the title of his book just out in paperback, "Soccereconomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey -- and even Iraq -- Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport.'' Below, the Paris-based Kuper, who writes a weekly sports column for the "Financial Times,'' tells us why one star can't raise the MLS and why the US Olympic team should ''quit the nationalism'' and hire a European coach:

Q. There remain legions of American sports fans who believe soccer's
proponents are just wasting their time waiting for its popularity in this country? You make the point it will happen. When, do you think?

A. I would argue that soccer already is popular in the US. According to Fifa's figures, you are the country with the second-most people who kick a ball at least once a year - about 24 million, behind China's 26 million. The US is a rare country with a high female participation in soccer. There's a large niche audience following international soccer - 17 million Americans watched the last World Cup final. Kids play soccer -- more than play most traditional US sports. There's so many kinds of soccer in the US that are flourishing, from kids' teams to some college soccer to watching Man U in bars.

But when people say that soccer hasn't taken off in the US, what they do is point to the MLS. Now you could argue that the MLS has actually done OK. But the point is that the MLS is not US soccer. It's just a small piece of the mosaic that is US soccer. In the book we argue that in this new globalized era, in new soccer countries like the US and soccer, there's a new model of following soccer. No longer do people necessarily follow their local team. Instead they choose a world team, like Man U or Barcelona or maybe both of them, and follow that.

I suspect soccer will continue to grow in the US, simply because it has in almost every other country where it has gained a foothold. It isn't going to oust the traditional US sports (except maybe ice hockey). It's going to exist alongside them, in its own large and growing niche.

Q. To help make soccer rule in the USA, a franchise-worthy American player
is needed. Is it Landon Donovan? Clint Dempsey? Who do you think can be the person who could carry it off?

A. As I say above, soccer isn't going to "rule" in the US. It's just going to coexist successfully. And as I say above, the MLS is only a tiny piece in the mosaic of US soccer. That's why the argument that Beckham was going to bring soccer to the US was flawed. Soccer was already alive and flourishing in the US. What wasn't particularly flourishing was the MLS - and that's partly because in the new global age of soccer, the MLS isn't that important to American soccer fans. Probably more Americans watched Becks playing for Man U and Real than ever saw him at the Galaxy.

I'm very skeptical of the notion of hanging a franchise on one player. Recently I interviewed Joan Oliver, CEO of Barcelona, and he pointed to the LA Galaxy as an example of the failure of that strategy. Oliver says that if you want to market your team through one player, you become very vulnerable to that player's successes and failures. You end up living and dying through him. I don't think US soccer fans are so naive that they will believe that Donovan or Dempsey is god. There's a good knowledge in soccer that a team is a team. Even Pele was never the whole face of the Cosmos. I would dissuade the MLS from trying to pick one or two champions. What happens when the guy pulls a hamstring or gets older or signs for Bayer Leverkusen or quarrels with his teammates?

Q. Another controversial point is that Iraq will prosper, at least in soccer. What's behind that?

A. The basic point is as follows. We argue in the book that each country's performance in international soccer is closely linked to three factors: that country's population, its income per capita (rich countries generally do better in international soccer) and its soccer experience (for which we use as a proxy the number of international games it has played in its history).

If you take those three factors, the US does much worse than it should. In our book we have it as one of the worst underperformers in international soccer. But Iraq does brilliantly relative to those factors - i.e. it performs much better than you would expect. So if Iraq becomes a normal country, a bit richer and playing more games, you would expect it to get even better. It's noteworthy that just since the fall of Saddam they've finished fourth in an Olympics and won an Asian Cup. Iraq is one of our bets for a country of the future. But our strongest bet for country of the future has to be the US: once you just start performing in line with your massive population, per capita GDP and increasingly large soccer experience, you're going to reach the top. The Confed Cup was an early harbinger, we reckon. And as we argue in the book, the key thing you need to do is appoint a western European coach. Quit the nationalism.

Agree with Kuper? Disagree? Have your say in our comments section below.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About Corner Kicks: Julian Cardillo offers insight and analysis about the New England Revolution as well as European and international soccer.

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