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What makes a country good at soccer?

Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

What national characteristics correlate most strongly with success at the World Cup? Does a huge pool of athletes from which to draw necessarily produce a world-class team? What about a strong system of player development? Can a deep love of the game overcome other factors? 

As in life, nothing in soccer is black and white (not even the balls anymore). A look at the populations of nations that reached the Round of 16 teams reveals no easily discovered parallels.

Nation Population Global Rank
USA 318,286,000 3
Brazil 202,766,000 5
Nigeria 173,615,000 7
Mexico 119,713,203 11
Germany 80,716,000 16
France 65,906,000 20
Colombia 47,654,000 27
Argentina 42,669,500 32
Algeria 38,700,000 33
Chile 17,620,000 60
Netherlands 16,856,700 64
Belgium 11,198,638 75
Greece 10,816,286 79
Switzerland 8,160,900 97
Costa Rica 4,667,096 120
Uruguay 3,286,314 135

[Source: Wikipedia]

The first thing that jumps out is how remarkable the success of Costa Rica and Uruguay, two nations that rank outside the world's top 100 in population, really is.

Uruguay, in particular, is truly unique in international soccer because its success is sustained. La Celeste are two-time World Cup winners (1930, 1950) and were semifinalists in 2010. Maybe the uproar in Uruguay following Luis Suarez's expulsion from Brazil shouldn't be surprising, given that the relatively small population must be soccer obsessed to be able to consistently compete at such a high level.

Uruguay's success certainly can't be attributed to the depth of its player pool. This small nation wedged between Brazil and Argentina on South America's east coast is home to about as many people as the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. A deep-seated love of the sport and an aggressive system of identifying and developing young talent propel Uruguay to international success. 

Like Uruguay, soccer is life in Costa Rica. Glenn Moore of The Independent traveled the country and wrote about the symmetry he saw: "I was struck by how every town, village and hamlet, however small, had three common elements: a school, a church, and a football pitch."

Uruguay and Costa Rica seem to succeed on the collective size of their hearts and not the objective number of them, but is a passion for the game a prerequisite for success at the World Cup? 

It doesn't seem so. 

A love of soccer is unquestionably growing throughout the U.S., but it appears on the surface the success of the U.S. national team is driven primarily by a large population and expertise in athletics of all forms. 

Soccer is rarely the first (or second) choice for the U.S.'s premier young athletes (college scholarships and the allure of multi-million dollar salaries in the "big four" North American sports siphon away many of the best), yet the Americans once again reached the knockout stage, and found themselves inches from advancing against Belgium. 

The United States may be the exception here, as the "so many athletes that there must be a good soccer team in there somewhere" theory falls flat when you look at the list of nations not present on the list above (and rarely present in the long history of the World Cup).

Despite their immense populations, these nations have combined for just two appearances at the World Cup and zero matches won:

Nation Population Global Rank
China 1,365,250,000 1
India 1,245,910,000 2
Indonesia 247,424,598 4
Pakistan 188,020,000 6
Bangladesh 156,524,000 8

What's preventing populous countries like China and India from even qualifying for the World Cup, let alone competing for the trophy? The reasons are deeply intertwined with the social and economic environments in these nations. 

It's not that China's 1.3 billion citizens aren't athletically inclined. China finished second at the 2010 London Olympics in medal count and first at Beijing 2008. 

It's not that soccer is a cultural afterthought, either. TV ratings (600 million Chinese viewers are expected to watch this World Cup) and merchandise sales prove the nation is wild about the World Cup. A page in support of the German national team on the Chinese social media site boasts 300 million views — more than the entire population of every team in the Round of 16 outside the U.S. 

It's not even a lack of money. Though millions live in poverty in China, investment in sport rivals any other nation. When the Chinese government wants to win — as it did in 2008 — it gets what it wants.

Yet the Chinese national team currently ranks 103rd in the world, just ahead of Iraq. Qualifying for the World Cup through the relatively weak Confederation of Asian Football shouldn't be difficult. Japan and South Korea routinely succeed, and even North Korea qualified in 2010, but it's proven an insurmountable task for China outside of a lone appearance in 2002. 

Why is this so? One important factor is undoubtedly the lack of participation in youth soccer. Many parents steer their children to sports with a lesser chance of injury like table tennis. Local academies are rare. 

There are more nefarious forces at play, though, and it isn't a leap to say these are the biggest reason China isn't playing in Brazil right now. China's system of talent evaluation is rife with corruption and fails to identify young talent based on merit. Scouts routinely accept bribes to advance the careers of lesser talents. 

Not helping matters are the repeated match-fixing scandals that plague the nation's top club competition, the Super League. It all adds up to create a toxic climate for the development of the sport.

Similar issues afflict India, Pakistan and the southeast Asian nations, and they're compounded by a lack of financial resources. Interest in the sport is significant (and growing) but youth participation is insufficient and the developmental system lacks infrastructure — literally. Traverse these nations and you'll see children kicking balls through the streets, but you'll be hard-pressed to find pitches or teams or leagues.

If the next Messi or Neymar is born in China or India, will he get the support he needs to meet his full potential? Sadly, probably not.

But neither would he be likely to reach the apex of his soccer capabilities in the United States, where he's more likely to play another sport.

In the end, there's no formula or template to follow. It's more complex than that. However, we can identify the areas that certainly make it easier on individual soccer federations.

It comes down to three elements:

  • A large population; 
  • A good training infrastructure; and 
  • A national passion for the sport that surpasses others. 

Given Uruguay's continued success — despite their Round of 16 exit in 2014 — perhaps passion is the most important of the three. However, the dedication of a small population is nothing without a successful training infrastructure. Similarly, a large population isn't enough with the passion.

After the exposure the United States men's national team earned in Brazil, it seems as though it's only a matter of time until American fervor for soccer begins to match the advances in its infrastructure and overwhelmingly large population. However, it won't be an easy ride for the U.S. if China decides to focus its resources on cleaning up the state of the game in its nation.

Meanwhile, the pedigrees of the best nations today will continue to inform their future as soccer playing states.

Because there isn't an easy answer to why some countries are better than others, we can expect the World Cup to remain every bit as competitive as it is now, far into the future. That's good news no matter where you come from.

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