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Zachary Karabell Headshot

You Can be Great at Soccer or Globally Dominant -- You Can't be Both

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So the United States lost to Brazil in the final of the FIFA Confederations cup, in that thrilling but painful tale of two halves, with the U.S. up 2-0 only to see Brazil roar back (or rather dance and prance and glide with balletic ferocity) and win 3-2. All I can say is, thank god.
For the past sixty years, the powerhouses of international soccer (a.k.a. football) either have been empires past their prime and on the decline or countries that dream fruitlessly of empire - England, France, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, and Spain. To bestride the world as a soccer power is to not bestride it as an economic or military power. In its period of global hegemony, the United States was manifestly not a global powerhouse in soccer. It was mighty in everything but the sport that is played by more people in every corner of the world than any other. And so if the United States had magically defied the odds and the gods and beaten Brazil, it would have been the final sign that American is indeed in decline.

Of course, the United States may already be in irreversible relative decline, its near miss against Brazil notwithstanding. But for a moment at least, order was maintained. The other rising global power, namely China, shares with the United States an historical ineptitude for the game. In fact, making fun of the Chinese national team is one of the few outlets for uncensored political expression in China, and indeed the team has been inept. It may be no coincidence that it was once coached by the same coach who struggled valiantly but in vain to remake Americans soccer, Bora Milutinovic (now the coach of the Iraq national team). China even failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, which is a feat that will probably elude the United States.

Argentina - with its rich tradition of World Cup prowess, its intellectual sophistication and its astonishing natural resources - was once thought of a hemispheric challenger to the United States, before Juan Peron and Evita cemented the country's fate as a montage for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Its victories in soccer are in almost inverse proportion to its political and economic stability.

Yet, there is the case of Brazil, which has been defying the odds and has started to demonstrate real leadership and success in today's globalized economy. It has a confident and thriving middle class, energy independence and cutting edge use of biofuels, as well as decreasing corruption. That may explain why the national team has struggled of late, as Brazil attempts the rare feat of having both an ascendant national economy and a dominant football team.

For now, the world order is not yet dramatically upended, but as the game demonstrated and as the last year has proven, that order is in flux and the old hierarchies are unlikely to remain in place for long.