I’ve been following the World Cup since Pelé went out with a bang in 1970. Over the decades, the rhetoric that quadrennially accompanies the soccer championship has grown ever more strident in its insistence that the reason most Americans find soccer less than galvanizing as a spectator sport is that they … fear diversity!
In reality, soccer, both at the international superstar level and at the park league level in America, is whiter than football, basketball, or baseball.
For example, the last World Cup was won by Italy’s all white team. In America, this would be considered scandalous.
Let’s look at ESPN’s list from earlier this year of the “Top 50 players of the World Cup.” The five best players in the world -- Lionel Messi of Argentina (who is of Italian descent), Christiano Ronaldo of Portugal (a Tim Tebow-lookalike), Wayne Rooney of England, Kaka of Brazil (who is from an upper middle-class family), and Xavi of Spain --are white.
Out of the top 10, eight are white and two from West Africa. Out of the top 50, the proportions look similar. Judging from their pictures, I would say 10 are black, one is mostly white but clearly part black, and the other 39 look more or less white. None of the top 50 are East Asian or South Asian, and I don’t see any that are as mestizo-looking as, say, Diego Maradona, the star of the 1986 World Cup.
In contrast, only one American-born white guy has been selected to the NBA All Star game in the last half dozen years. Most of the prestige positions in the NFL other than quarterback are dominated by blacks.
Of the soccer top 50, 24 are white guys from the six sunny powers of Spain (9 of the top 50), Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. In other words, almost half of the global soccer superstars are Southern Europeans. As baseball discovered back in the days of Joe DiMaggio, it doesn’t really hurt your sport’s popularity to have stylish Mediterranean guys as stars.
Whiteness is even more predominant in American soccer participation rates. From the late 1960s onward, white middle-class parents started to notice that soccer was a fine sport for their children to play, especially now that football and basketball were coming to be dominated at the highest levels by, well, by … uh, you know … And at this point countless conversations I’ve had over the years with very nice liberal white soccer parents typically break down into uncomfortable gesticulations as they try to not quite come out and say that soccer in America has been, to a large degree, White Flight in Short Pants.
One way to measure how much soccer is played by white youths is to look at a byproduct: the demographics of placekickers in American football.
Traditionally, American kickers faced the goalposts squarely and swung their legs straight ahead, but in 1964 Pete Gogolak, a Hungarian refugee soccer player, introduced sidewinder kicking to pro football. Kicking the football off the instep rather than off the toes proved to be a superior technique. Foreign soccer players flooded into the NFL, such as Jan Stenerud, Garo Yepremian, Efren Herrera, and Donald Igwebuike.
Since Mark Mosely retired in 1986, every NFL field goal specialist has kicked soccer-style. Yet, the imported soccer player kicker has virtually vanished. Although NFL rosters are now only 31 percent white, every single one of the 39 players who attempted a field goal or extra point in the NFL in 2009 was a non-Hispanic white.
There are few famous NFL placekickers anymore, though, because they’ve all gotten so good -- they were successful on 82% of their field goal attempts in 2009 versus 56% in 1969. Now, unless they score in a snowstorm, they are only talked about when they miss.
If the NFL wanted more white heroes to attract fans, the league could narrow the goal posts to decrease percentages so that kicking one would be more exciting. Apparently, however, creating more white stars is not a priority in the business of American spectator sports.
In contrast to white youngsters, African-Americans (with the exceptions of immigrants and preppies) don’t much like soccer at all, as can be deduced from how bad at placekicking black high-school football teams tend to be.
Trotsky observed that while you may not be interested in war, war is interested in you. Similarly, African-Americans may not be interested in soccer, but the American soccer establishment sure is interested in them. The U.S. World Cup team is about one-third black (while it’s only one-ninth Hispanic, even though Latinos outnumber blacks in America and are vastly more interested in soccer).
That’s how Americans think about sports. The solution to every sporting problem is to Get The Best Athletes. And how do you know who the Best Athletes are? They’re the ones with the most Athleticism. (In case you can’t tell, these are all American Sportstalk euphemisms for “black.”)
FIFA could change the rules to make soccer more a sport of explosiveness and sprinting ability, like American sports. Americans are used to watching games where athletes rush about in a frenzy for a few seconds, then take a breather. We tend to be annoyed by soccer’s shortage of substitutions and timeouts, which leaves soccer players dogging it around the field to conserve energy.
Over the generations, rule changes in American spectator sports have tended toward more timeouts, more substitutions, and more specialization. For example, college football players used to play both offense and defense, but by 1960, the NCAA allowed specialized offensive and defensive platoons.
Soccer, though, hasn’t gotten with the program. This not only reduces the number of commercials that can be shown during soccer broadcasts to un-American levels, it also subtly penalizes players of West African descent who tend to be better at sprints than at endurance running.
This is clear at the world-class level in men’s track & field. Blacks of West African ancestry monopolize the 100-meter dash, accounting for all but one of the 200 fastest times in history. They're almost as good at 200m, not quite as overpowering at 400m, and only modestly competitive at 800m. They aren't world class at any longer lengths, although a black Brazilian did once run a fast marathon in the 1990s. (Brazilian blacks appear to average more East African ancestry than American and West Indian blacks.)
Whites on the other hand, tend to have more endurance than West Africans. The American urge to fix soccer’s rules to make it more exciting is a compulsion, in effect, to make soccer a better game for blacks. White American sports administrators have so succeeded in making basketball and football more electrifying spectator sports than soccer that they’ve largely succeeded in pushing whites out of the NBA and NFL.
So, FIFA could change the rules to make the game more appealing to American spectators, which would benefit black athletes. But it doesn’t want to. It thinks soccer is fine the way it is, as a white-dominated sport.
The rest of the world seems to agree.