Nowhere does the idea that “size matters” feel more out of place than in soccer.
Lionel Messi, all five feet and seven inches of him, is one of the sport’s all-time greats. Even seemingly towering goalkeepers stand no taller than your typical NBA point guard.
Yet size seems to be even less of an advantage when it comes to factors of national population. Indeed, in relation to the World Cup the bigger a country is, the more likely it will be sitting at home watching on television.
Compared to their lofty standing in tables detailing the sheer scale of humanity, the planet’s largest countries punch well below their weight in the global game. And yes, count the United States squarely among the underachievers – this year at least.
The four most populated nations on earth make up nearly 44 percent of all the humans in existence. However, not one of those countries is present at the World Cup, and most of them didn’t even get a sniff of it.
So why is it that the likes of the U.S., China, India and Indonesia are bad enough to be excluded from a field of 32 that included Iceland, Uruguay, Panama and Croatia, whose numbers combine for slightly more than the state of North Carolina?
“They share large populations which would make you think that they’d all be capable of producing highly talented players (from that) big pool,” Stefan Szymanski, co-author of the book Soccernomics, told USA TODAY Sports. “The reasons are all different.”
India, the biggest country on earth, has never truly prioritized soccer. While India got through a playoff against Nepal, it placed bottom of its first qualifying group for this World Cup behind Guam, population 162,000 and not even an official country.
Indonesia took part once, as the Dutch East Indies, back in 1938. It played one game, got hammered 6-0, and has been nowhere near since. In 2014, it lost all six games in its qualification group, conceding 26 goals in the process. It was likely spared further embarrassment this time by being suspended by FIFA for government interference in its soccer federation.
China has played once at the World Cup, back in 2002, losing all three games without even scoring a goal. This time it got a qualifying win over South Korea, but still finished fifth out of six teams in its Asian pool.
As for the United States, you know what happened there and we don’t need to talk about it. We do? Okay, well, needing only a tie against Trinidad and Tobago (population 1.3 million and having lost eight in a row), the Americans stumbled to defeat and missed out. Panama (population of 4.1 million) qualified from the CONCACAF region instead.
“Not that soccer’s not played (in the U.S.), but it’s not an important activity,” Szymanski added. “It hasn’t been. The potential is there because it has a wealthy economy, but schools, colleges, people…have mainly been interested in other big sports rather than soccer. That may change in the future, but that’s been the way it has been.”
All of the populous nations mentioned also occupy huge areas. Smaller geographic nations can benefit from elite players being able to collect in close proximity.
The four semifinalists come from the 78th (Belgium), 128th (Croatia), 21st (France) and 22nd (England – though stated population is for the United Kingdom) most populated nations on the planet. Brazil (5th) is the most populous country at the World Cup and got bumped by Belgium in the quarters.
“Our team are like brothers,” Icelandic soccer agent Magnus Magnusson said. “One of the disadvantages of being so small is obvious – you have less players. But the big advantage is these guys have played together since they were young.”
Being an underdog can also foster spirit.
“We have big hearts and we fight for our people back home,” Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic said.
In many countries soccer is not just the national sport, but the only one that truly has a serious following. In India, the same can be said instead for cricket – at the expense of all else. India did qualify for the World Cup once, in 1950. It promptly withdrew – for reasons that are still entirely unclear – and didn’t participate in the tournament.
Indonesia finds things tough due to factors both economic and geographical. It is spread out over several islands, making it hard to pull together strong and cohesive national teams at all age group levels.
Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Bangladesh all have more people than any of the semifinalists. None of them have ever played in a World Cup.
The U.S. qualified for the seven World Cups before this one and is unlikely to miss out again in four years’ time. The Americans aside, China is the most viable high-population nation to do something about its soccer struggles. President Xi Jinping has taken up the soccer cause as a personal pet project, ordering that it be made part of the national school curriculum and encouraging major businesses to invest as a way of currying favor.
After years of being a corrupt joke, the Chinese league has gotten serious by investing huge sums in signing elite international players. Xi’s blueprint is to qualify for a World Cup, host a World Cup and eventually, one day, win one.
Given China’s economic clout and ability to rally behind a cause, at least two of those outcomes seem plausible.
Yet ultimately, the impact population has on soccer success boils down to a simple reality. However many people might live in a country, only 11 of them can be on the field at any one time.