United States is a brilliant nation. It has the capacity to connect its citizens to a shared vision. From science to technology, literature to military, America has always set the global benchmarks. But in one specific sports, soccer (yes, football in anywhere else), America continues to struggle. This year, a very small country, Trinidad and Tobago, extinguished the U.S.’s plan to play in Russia 2018 World Cup. That is it: U.S. Men Soccer lost to Trinidad and Tobago and will not play in the next World Cup.
The U.S. men’s national soccer team is not going to the World Cup next year. Let that sink in for a moment.
A U.S. squad that had qualified for soccer’s global spectacle every four years since last missing out in 1986 will watch the Russian-hosted tournament from home.
All it needed to do was defeat or tie last-place Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night.
Instead, the Americans played a shameful first half and lost, 2-1, before a few thousand observers in a lonely little stadium 25 miles from the capital
What has been happening in the U.S. Men Soccer can teach us some basic things in our developmental journeys in Nigeria. There are three key features I will like to examine:
- Opportunity: The U.S. Soccer has opportunities for sportspeople. But it is not as exciting as American Football and Basketball. The hockey and baseball are also there. In the order of things, for most talented young men in U.S., soccer is not among the top three options. While a football player can sign millions of dollars in contract, some soccer players earn less than $40,000 per year playing for teams. So, the opportunity may be there, but for most players, they are not seeing them at individual levels. You can relate this scenario with our country: there are opportunities everywhere in Nigeria but people, the citizens, are not experiencing them.
Beginning and lower-echelon players in Major League Soccer make a minimum of $35,125 a year, by far the lowest minimum salary of major professional team sports in America. As of the end of the 2013 season, 154 players made less than $50,000 a year. The average salary in the MLS, however, was $160,000, and the median salary was $100,000. About 45 percent of MLS players — that’s 249 — made over $100,000.
- Talent: With the individual lack of clear opportunity in U.S soccer, the U.S. struggles to find talent. With lack of talent, they have nothing to develop, at scale. Why play soccer and earn $40,000 yearly when football can make you a multi-millionaire? Talent moves into areas of opportunities. And it teaches us a major lesson as a nation: you need the right talent to unlock developmental big gains. Yes, unless you have the talent, the nation will struggle. Nigeria needs the talent in emerging technologies, banking, insurance and other areas to compete globally. That talent is expected to be seeded in the universities for the markets and the economy. Where the university is not doing that, markets and our economy cannot necessarily do much. There is a limitation on what can be done without a solid talent pipeline from the universities. U.S. is doing everything it can on soccer, but talented American kids do not want to waste time on sports they will be paid $40,000 per year. The Nigerian case is that markets have limited talent to expand because our schools are not supplying talent. So, in business, small countries are knocking us out of business world cups.
- Outcome: The outcome in U.S. Men Soccer is similar to what we have in Nigeria. Everyone knows that Nigeria has huge opportunities but we are yet to experience the real outcome collectively. The developmental results have not been extremely stellar. American soccer has the same issue, internally and globally: it is not popular at home compared with other sports and the team continues to struggle at global level.
U.S. will continue to experiment on how to fix its soccer. A possible option will be to entice talented foreigners to join the team. That is an option Nigeria may not have. But for U.S. to follow that model, the soccer teams must also pay well. (From those teams, they can form a national team.) But they cannot pay well without revenue coming from TV rights and ticket sales. With not many people interested in seeing soccer games, that is a challenge. But at the root cause of this issue is that the boys that can make soccer exciting in U.S. are not interested to participate because they prefer other sports. U.S. has a talent problem there. And when that happens, the result is always poor whether it is a nation or a sports commission.
Nigeria should learn that nothing is magical because even America can struggle big time due to its lack of capacity to unlock the talent it requires to develop its soccer game. For Nigeria, the stakes are even higher: it needs to develop its economy and markets. It needs talent for those and it’s high time for the universities to make the talent available. Indeed, there are things which cannot be leapfrogged: you must deal with the basis before you can improve the outcome.