How many times were you reminded that Iceland only has a population of a few hundred thousand people? How many times have you been told that Croatia’s population is about the same as Oregon or that it’s about the size of West Virginia? If you have paid any attention to the World Cup over the past month, you have probably seen or heard similar things and it was usually meant to sound like it was surprising that a team from a country with a small population could advance while defeating teams with populations multiple times higher than them. It is some of the laziest, most asinine World Cup analysis, and it just needs to stop now.
Don’t get me wrong, talking about the disparity in population size between two opposing countries can be useful in providing the viewer or reader added context. In the case of Croatia, their population size can make for an interesting fact that would be useful for someone to learn. For instance, Croatia’s population of nearly 4.1 million people means that Croatia is the smallest country to make the World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950. But it’s simply an interesting fact, and not meant to be the sole base of an argument on how successful or not a national team is.
The problem is that too many people think that the higher the population of a country, that there’s some sort of connection that they should magically be better at soccer than a smaller populated country. And considering this is the United States and the United States didn’t qualify for this year’s World Cup, many people want to look at why a country with nearly 330 million people cannot qualify for the World Cup but a country like Iceland with about 350,000 people, can qualify.
Not to say it wasn’t a disappointment and an embarrassment that the USMNT didn’t make the World Cup, but many nations with high populations didn’t make the World Cup either. The top five most populous countries in the world are China, India, United States, Indonesia and Pakistan. None of them made it to the World Cup this year, and other than the United States, those other four countries have a combined two World Cup appearances. One of them was before Indonesia gained their independence; they played as the “Dutch East Indies.” By trying to insinuate population is somehow supposed to be connected to success, then why aren’t these other teams dominating as well? China and India have four times the population of the United States. By this logic, those two countries should be playing for the trophy every four years.
Instead of looking at overall population, look at how many people even play soccer and more importantly, how many who play, or are about to play professionally. The United States may have 330 million people and Iceland may have 350,000 but that only has meaning if US Soccer is able to scout every soccer player within that 330 million person demographic and that’s simply impossible to do.
US Soccer can only scout and discover so many players to develop and that’s probably the case with smaller countries like Iceland or Croatia. Even if the United States has the capabilities to scout, let’s say, a thousand more players than Iceland can, Iceland is going to be able to scout a higher percentage of their potential national player pool than the United States can. Therefore, fewer people are going to fall through the cracks in Iceland than in the United States. In that instance, a smaller population is actually more beneficial instead of being a hindrance.
The same goes for country size. One reason why Uruguay did so well in the World Cup is that long-time coach Oscar Tabarez instituted a system years ago where the top 30 teams in Uruguay released their youth players to the national team from Monday to Wednesday so they can play with each other and be developed into top stars for future international tournaments. This is great and it’s easy to say that the United States should do the same but it’s much easier to do this in a country the population size of Connecticut and the area size of Missouri because 24 of the top 30 teams play in the same city, Montevideo. For the United States to do something like this, they would need to vastly adjust this plan to their area and population size and that’s easier said than done.
Talking about population and trying to tie that into some sort of expectation of automatic success is similar to the “When will the United States produce a Lionel Messi” or the “What if our best athletes played soccer” questions that people in this country ask who don’t really know anything about soccer or who think their audience doesn’t anything about soccer openly ask in order to make themselves sound smarter about soccer than they actually are.
It’s not that these questions aren’t worth asking, it’s that everything comes down to “Why isn’t US Soccer doing better on the men’s side” and the answers, as well as the ideas to help improve that, are so complex and diverse that it would be detrimental to reduce them to sound bites because we have such a short attention spans.
At the end of the day, there’s only 11 people playing per team at one time and 23 people to complete a squad. Every country in the world has more than 23 people so everyone can literally fill a team and theoretically have a chance at qualifying for, and winning the World Cup. A country with a higher population only means you get more lottery tickets to find the 23 players to fill a team to win a World Cup. The person who buys the most lottery tickets may give you more opportunities to win but they don’t always win the lottery. It’s not about the number of people who live here, it’s about how you shape the players who live here (and citizens living abroad) to make them the players capable of competing and winning a World Cup.
When France and Croatia square off this Sunday, many people will want to point out that France has over 67.2 million people and Croatia has 4.1 million people and that’ll probably be mentioned multiple times on Fox’s broadcast. But they don’t play 67.2 million v 4.1 million. It’s 11 v 11, and while France enter the final as the favorite, it’s not going to be because their population is 16 times higher than Croatia’s. And if anyone tries to make that into more than just an interesting but rather meaningless tidbit, you should know it’s a point that lacks any substance.