As the US tied England in the World Cup, I was struck by the fact that the US has a solid chance of making it to the Round of 16. This would be great news for Americans though much of the world would be disappointed to see that they can no longer take easy jabs at the US's soccer ("football" to the rest of the world) accomplishments. When Ghana defeated the US in 2006, my Ghanaian friends were happy to send me emails asking why the world's wealthiest country can't put up a great soccer team.
Most of us realize that the US doesn't have the same soccer culture of Europe or parts of Latin America in spite of the pronouncement about every 10 years or so that soccer will become a major spectator sport in the US. Many of the US's top athletes are drawn to other sports or simply don't get great soccer coaching as youths, but the disconnect between performance in the Summer Olympics and performance in the World Cup is an interesting topic.
Success at the Olympics has always been a major source of national pride from the Nazi regime's Berlin Olympics to the Cold War showdowns between the US and Soviet Union to the Chinese determination to excel at the 2008 Olympics. Countries with enough talent, enough quality instruction and enough money focused on winning can excel at the Olympics. As a result, while the Summer Olympics results often reflect the world's most dominant economies, the World Cup is often a time for the largest economic powers to be humbled.
The dominance of wealthy countries at the last Olympics was readily apparent. Of the 12 top performers (measured by winning most gold medals), all but one belonged to the elite club of top 15 economies in the world. The two most dominant countries by far in the last Olympics were the mega-economies of the United States and China.
The world's three largest economics have a very different story to tell at the World Cup. China did not qualify this year and, while it's not clear how far the US or Japan will advance, the odds are reasonably good that I'll be receiving another nagging email from Ghana in a couple of weeks. I'll be happy to respond that the US soccer team is constantly improving and look out for us in the next Olympics where we will invest more of our top athletic talent, top coaching and money in our preferred sports contest with the Chinese, Russians, Japanese and rest of the world