I know we Americans have been conditioned to think of other countries, far to the east or south, as the true heavyweights of the sport. Yes, a few of those distant countries remain ahead of us on the global soccer power index, but there are actually only three that surpass the Red, White, and Blue. That's right, only three countries in the world outpace our beloved United States as soccer powers.
Let's cut to the chase. There may be lots of ways to measure a country's position in the global soccer pecking order, but here's one that is simple to compute and objective: rank order all the countries in the world based on the number of FIFA World Cup championships each has won. To lift a World Cup trophy is an extraordinary achievement for a country and its soccer enterprise, and rarely (if ever) does it happen as a fluke. Winning a World Cup is the result of a country's domestic soccer talent, its ability to develop that talent, and its organizational coherence to form a team capable of enduring the marathon that is a World Cup cycle. So, comparing the total number of World Cups each country has won is a measure of global soccer power because, "you are what your record says you are."
In the history of global soccer, 27 official FIFA World Cups have been held for senior men's and women's teams. 20 on the men's side and 7 on the women's side, and only 11 countries (out of FIFA's 209 member countries) have ever lifted one of those FIFA world championship trophies. Yes, it is factually true the men's World Cup is older and produces more income, but the women's World Cup is equally valuable as a measure of a country's soccer prowess. There is zero rational reason to weight a men's World Cup championship any more than a women's World Cup championship as a measure of a country's global ranking in soccer.
So, adding up the total number of FIFA World Cups each country has won produces our global soccer power index. And here it is:
|Nation||Total FIFA World Cups||Men's Championships||Women's Championships|
Perhaps not surprisingly, German is the world's greatest soccer country. As the only country to when both men's and women's World Cups (in fact, it has multiple of each), the Germans have the most FIFA trophies in their display case, and they truly represent the pinnacle of global soccer. The old adage from Gary Lineker is almost always true (except when the American women are on the field): "Football is a simple game. Twenty-two [players] chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win."
The next two teams on the global soccer power index are also worthily ahead of the United States. Brazil is the spiritual home of the beautiful game, and produces geniuses on the ball, both male and female. They've come close to winning a women's World Cup to go along with their five men's World Cup titles (the most of any country), and both their men's and women's teams remain a must-watch at any World Cup—and both are always threats to win.
Italy's soccer success emanates from its men's team, having won four men's World Cup titles, and reaching the semi-finals on four other occasions when it did not win. Known for its defensive organization, the Azzurri always have the possibility of competing for a men's world title. However, you need to be watchful, Italy, because the United States is hot on your heels.
Germany, Brazil, and Italy. Those three countries are stronger soccer nations than the United States. But, that's it.
Here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, our soccer prominence is derived from the success of our women's national team, the most successful women's team on the planet. Consistency in the World Cup is remarkably difficult, yet the American women have been dominantly constant, reaching the semi-finals in all 7 women's tournaments. And our men's team has become a rising power, becoming a regular round-of-16 team in the men's World Cup, and frequent champion in the CONCACAF region. We also are on course to have one of the top six best-attended soccer league's IN THE WORLD. But, none of these great things about the men's game in the US really matters right now, for it is due to the remarkable exploits of our women that the United States earns its #4 spot on the global soccer power index.
That leaves a lot of other great soccer countries behind us in the global soccer power index:
- Argentina, thank you for producing two of the three greatest men's players of all time. Messi is an ongoing wondrous soccer savant the likes of whom we may never see again (but will he ever lift an international trophy with Argentina?), and Maradona remains...well, he remains Maradona. But, your women's team hasn't yet made a significant splash on the world scene.
- Uruguay, you were the first world soccer champion, and we still like watching your men play the game. But, what about your women's team?
- England, as the country which invented this game, you still have an outsized influence on it around the globe. We enjoy the grainy film of your controversial 1966 men's World Cup victory over West Germany as much as any student of history, but you have invented and mastered all the unbelievably painful ways to get bounced out of the World Cup—and now your women are in on that narrative.
- France, you won a men's World Cup on home soil and were a head-butt away from another, but can your excellent women's team break through when you host the women's World Cup in 2019?
- Japan, you are the technical team of the women's game, and a pleasure to watch. Your men's team is also a consistent World Cup team. You are on the rise, but can you win more trophies?
- Norway, your single women's World Cup puts you on this list, but will you be able to reclaim your early glory in the women's tournament? And what about your men's team?
- Spain, your men's team may have been the best team ever to play the game between 2008-2012, but can you get back to those heights? And, can your women build on their first-ever World Cup appearance this year?
This list doesn't even include great soccer-playing nations which have come oh-so-close to winning a World Cup, yet have fallen short despite reaching a final: Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Sweden (having reached finals at both the men's and women's tournament), and China. And, other countries that consider themselves soccer powers of some sort, such as Mexico, Portugal, and Belgium, are nowhere to be found because this list is based on world championships.
America, thanks to our terrific women, we now rightly take our place as the fourth best soccer nation in the world, which is appropriate on the weekend we celebrated the Fourth.
It's OK, America, if we still enjoy the soccer played in other countries, and our players still aspire to test their skills in foreign leagues. It's also OK to say we need to improve in various ways across our men's and women's programs. But, let us never doubt our place in the global soccer pantheon again. Let us never apologize for our game, for our success, for our soccer heritage and traditions. They are just as valid, just as meaningful, and just as globally relevant as any other in the world, save for three.
We are a global soccer power, no ands, ifs, or buts. All thanks to the US Women's National Team.