I consider myself to be a casual fan of soccer (which most of the world calls football or some variant thereof), which in the United States makes me more passionate about the sport than just about anyone else . Although the world’s attention is generally riveted on the World Cup, where the 32 qualifying teams from either five or six continental tournaments (sorry, no team from Antarctica) play for the World Cup champion, in reality the World Cup Finals are merely the last stage of a very long tournament that takes about two years from start to finish, and I am enough of a fan to show at least some interest in the whole process.
As it stands now, six teams have progressed to the knockout round of 16 (including Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica), and five teams (including both England and defending champions Spain) have been eliminated. To say that the results have been unpredictable so far is a massive understatement. In such an unpredictable circumstance, it is at least very possible that the United States would be able to seal a spot in the top 16 by defeating Portugal this weekend. Although the United States is not a soccer power in the world (at least not yet), we are at least a nation that can compete on the world level, and that is more than a lot of nations can say.
The World Cup as a tournament is all about the strength of continents. Not too dissimilar to college football , access to the World Cup final depends to a great extent on the strength of the soccer teams for the continent. The 32 spots for the World Cup final are divided in a very unequal fashion. Thirteen of the slots go to European teams, five to African teams, four or five places to South American teams, for or five to Asian teams (including Australia), three or four places to North American teams, 0 or 1 to teams from Oceania, and one automatic slot for the host. These rankings reflect the very different strength of the continental associations as well as political concerns. Asia’s teams are all very low ranking (Japan, at #44, is the best ranked team of the continent in this year’s World Cup finals), but they get 4 guaranteed slots and the possibility of a fifth. On the other hand, all of North America’s teams are at least moderately ranked (the United States is best at #13, and Honduras worst at #34) and yet at best North America can get four slots, which it did when Mexico eliminated New Zealand (preventing any teams from Oceania from qualifying). Not surprisingly, all of Europe’s qualifying teams and South America’s qualifying teams are highly ranked (Europe’s worst team is #21 France, while South America’s worst team is #22 Ecuador).
Yet these rankings in themselves are, to put it mildly, somewhat questionable. Spain was eliminated from the World Cup finals after losses to both Chile and the Netherlands, and yet Spain is the #1 ranked team in the world largely based on past results over the last four years. On the other hand, #31 ranked Costa Rica has stormed to a spot in the knockout round with victories over #9 Italy and #6 Uruguay. In many ways, the excitement of the World Cup is pretty similar to March Madness in college basketball, where lower ranking teams can serve as “bracket busters” and where teams without a great offense can succeed because of an unbeatable defense . Yet as exciting as the World Cup finals are, they are only the last stage of a long chain of exciting tournaments, the advantage being that the World Cup Finals include teams that earned their way in, as no team other than the host is an automatic qualifier. And these qualifying tournaments themselves show very clearly the hierarchical nature of soccer around the world and the ways that soccer powers seek to smooth their way into the best tournaments while leaving the smaller and lesser ranked teams a much more difficult challenge.
Europe and South America have perhaps the most egalitarian ways of qualifying for the World Cup. In South America, all ten teams that are a part of the continental conference (CONMEBOL) play a home and away team against every other team in the conference, and the top four teams get automatic qualifying slots and the fifth ranked team (a team like Uruguay) plays some poor team from Asia in a playoff and almost always qualifies as well. Europe divides its much larger conference (called the UEFA) into nine groups seeded by powers (each containing some regular powers, some competitive teams, and some minnows), in which the winners of all nine groups win automatic qualifying spots into the World Cup finals as well, and the top 8 second place finishers have playoff matches for the other four qualifying slots.
The other continents have more complicated procedures. In Africa, for example, the lowest 24 ranked teams played each other in a home and away series , after which the twelve winners along with the 28 top ranked teams were put into a pot and divided into ten groups of four which played home and away games, the winners of which moved on to a third round where the ten winners were seeded by rank and played each other in a home and away series that decided the five qualifiers for the continent (which, perhaps not coincidentally, were the same five teams that qualified in 2010). North America has four rounds of qualifying , in the first round of which the ten lowest teams play each other home and away to advance, where they join the teams ranked 7-25 who are divided by seed and put into six groups of four teams where the winners advance to the third round where, along with the top six ranked teams, they are seeded and divided again into three groups of four, the top two teams of which play home and away games in what is called the “hexagonal,” the top three teams of which advance directly to the World Cup, and the fourth ranked team (this time it was Mexico) goes into a playoff with the winner of Oceania. Oceania itself, even though it is a small continental association, has its own hierarchical three round qualifying tournament, where the four lowest ranked teams played each other in a round-robin tournament, the winner of which advanced to the OFC Nations Cup with the other seven teams, in which the top four teams qualified for a home and away set of games to choose the winner of the continent, which qualifies for a playoff spot (no automatic spot for them). Asia has perhaps the most complicated setup, with a first round that includes the lowest 16 ranked teams seeded by strength playing in a home and away format for the right to play the teams seeded 6-27 in the continent to play fifteen more home and away games to advance to the third round, where these fifteen teams along with the top 5 teams are seeded and then divided into five groups of 4 where the top two teams in each group advance to the fourth round, where the top two teams in each group of four automatically qualify and the third place teams in each of those groups play each other for the right to play in another home and away playoff against the fifth place team from South America for a spot in the World Cup finals.
As can be imagined, the gauntlet a team faces to reach the World Cup finals varies widely based on which continent one is in and how highly ranked a team is. A South American team needs only to be in the top 40% of its entire continent to advance after 18 games (16 this year, because Brazil is host), while a low ranking team in North America or Asia would have to win several home and away series as well as groups in a several round format, while high ranking teams in those conferences receive an automatic spot with only a couple of rounds of games necessary for advancement. European teams, on the other hand, require only that they win a group of 5 or 6 teams for an automatic slot, or rank second place for a playoff chance. There is no pretense being made here that such designs are fair. Each continent (subject to approval by FIFA) has the right to set up its own qualifying procedure. It seems suggestive that Europe and South America (those conferences that have done the best in the World Cup over its history) prefer to have all teams placed together, where teams receive a variety of tests including teams that are not very good, teams that are competitive, and teams that are very competitive, in order to choose its qualifiers. In contrast, other conferences seek to weed out the lesser ranked teams along the way so that the best teams only play those who have proven themselves in preliminary competition, rather than receive confidence boosting wins against low ranked teams mixed with more competitive matches against similarly ranked teams.
Given the complicated nature of many of the qualifying efforts, and the very small margins by which the fate of national teams hangs, it is unsurprising that the rest of the world is so much more passionate about soccer than Americans are. When I lived in Thailand, for example, the World Cup qualifying matches between Thailand and Palestine (both part of the AFC, although Israel belongs to Europe, so the two teams do not have to play each other) were shown on national television, and all of our students wanted to watch, so naturally I watched as well. A hard-fought first match ended in a narrow victory for Thailand, 1-0. A spirited effort in the second game ended up in a 2-2 tie, giving Thailand the win by goal differential. Even had Palestine managed to gain a one-goal victory, Thailand would have advanced by the away goals tiebreaker. When the progress of your team depends on how many goals your team scores in an away game, obviously every game is going to take on a lot of additional importance. In contrast, only soccer-mad cities (like Portland) in the United States hear about hexagonal games, and even then we do not hear about the earlier rounds of qualification.
There appears to be a bit of a catch-22 here. If the United States was more interested in the sport, surely there would be better coverage (one would think), but at the same time there are a great many people who would consider themselves to be somewhat patriotic and would be looking for a reason to cheer on American victories against teams like Jamaica, Guatemala, and Antigua and Barbuda to book a spot in the hexagonal, or cheering on victories in friendlies (which can prove somewhat important, as they provide a way for teams to show their skill in between soccer’s many competitions) are ways to keep up on the sport. Even aside from questions of style, mere familiarity with the sport as it is played by adults could be very useful in leading to the development of a firm level of support for a team and an appreciation of questions of tactics and strategy in the sport, an area where Americans succeed in with some sports (baseball, football, and basketball come to mind), but where knowledge of soccer lags behind.
This same catch-22 applies to other areas of life as well. How does one gain respect and appreciation? Where there is a willingness to learn and enjoy, time and chance are all that is necessary for a fondness to develop. This is not so hard an issue to overcome. To the extent that there is an unwillingness to appreciate, though, there is an active block to the building of the love and respect that others have for soccer (or anything else for that matter). The question that has to be answered, therefore, is whether and to what extent there exists a block to the enjoyment of soccer in the United States, or whether the lack of interest that Americans have in the sport depends on simply a lack of familiarity with soccer in its highest practice, a lack of familiarity that could easily be corrected if there was the will and interest in doing so. Does that will and interest exist?
 Being a casual fan seems to be a consistent pattern in my life:
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