France and the United States seem like they could not be more different. One has a 35 hour work week, socialism, most businesses close on Sundays, and is the winner of the 2018 Men’s World Cup. The other has an overworked population, privatized services, 24 hour everything, and didn’t qualify for the World Cup. However, the two countries have more common that it may appear especially when it comes to an issue that affects society in general and soccer as a sport - immigration.
Politically, the right and even the center in each country constructs immigration as a blank slate on which to project national anxieties by painting immigrants as threats to national security, burdens on social programs, and polluting cultural identity. Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen have made anti-immigrant policies cornerstones of their political projects. Meanwhile, centerist French President Emmanuel Macron’s government recently passed a new immigration law that will curtail asylum seekers and imprison undocumented immigrants for a year as former US President Barack Obama deported more immigrants than any other president and detained immigrant families. The two nations may seem very different, but images of militarized border-control officers, detained migrants, and politicians railing against the threats they pose are common in both countries.
Despite this, immigrants are accepted in France as soccer players. It’s been pointed out since winning the World Cup that 21 of the 23 players are immigrants or the children of immigrant parents. As the US looks to revitalize its struggling men’s soccer team, it would seem like the it would be able to have similar success with the development of players from a similar background to that of France given that both nations are countries with large immigrant populations.
This could be a successful strategy for the US in terms of imitating World Cup champions that has eluded the Stars and Stripes in recent attempts to do so. In the wake of the 2010 tournament, the US tried to have youth team coaches adopt the Spanish tiki-taka style. After 2014, and to some extend prior to the tournament, the US tried to adopt the German possession based system. In both cases the goals were not met with the USA failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup as the most visible example, but the country also did not reach the 2012 or 2016 Summer Olympics with its Men’s U-23 squad.
France seemingly offers a template the US could use to build a side to compete at a higher level internationally. The French playing style of being compact defensively, minimizing mistakes, having steady, with a few exceptions, goalkeeping, and striking on the counter or scoring with set pieces is something the US should absolutely be able to do. Such a style doesn’t require a new set of skills like tiki-taka or buying into an attacking philosophy.
The US has the resources at its disposal to do the same thing, but it probably isn’t going to happen. The structural obstacles that would have to be overcome would involve tearing down and rebuilding the youth development system in the US.
Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, and N’golo Kante formed the core of the French team that won the World Cup. They are also the exact kind of player that the US development system lets fall through the cracks. Each come from the banlieues, Parisian working class and immigrant communities. Many of their teammates also come from similar communities in other cities across the country. Their rise to the French national team included stops at smaller club teams before eventually transferring to some of the biggest clubs in the world.
With its large, soccer loving immigrant communities in the US, it would seem like the country would be well positioned to follow France to World Cup glory - if not respectability. However, the youth development system in the US stands in the way of this. Unlike France, the cost of youth development in the US is paid by players’ families. Costs for registration fees go into the thousands of dollars and that does not account for additional costs like taking time off work or traveling to far flung tournaments several times a year. It quickly adds up and for lower-income families as too great of an expense to justify.
Additionally, the American academies focus on a different goal than turning pro and tend to emphasize individual performance rather than social bonds. Albert Puig, the former director of the Barcelona La Masia youth academy, reflected on the situation of the USMNT failing to qualify for the World Cup and discussed how US development is different than the rest of the world. He noted, “The structure is very different. Without social roots at the base, its objective is transformed from collective to individual. The formation of the player has a clear objective. Get a scholarship for American universities.” Indeed, that applies not only to the individual responsibility to pay for player development, but also the soccer qualities that are instilled in American players.
However, the US Soccer Federation does not seem ready to take the steps needed to make this happen. Former USSF President Sunil Gulati told an audience at the 2018 Youth Soccer Awards, “the soccer space is several billion dollars that the kids pay, several billion dollars the kids pay and their families pay” and in another interview he noted that “what you want to make sure of is that anybody can afford it. But you have millions of kids playing, and the thought that we’re going to end play-to-play is nonsensical.” Given this belief and the unwillingness to challenge it from leaders within the federation, it would be very difficult for the US to develop its own Kyllian Mbappe or Paul Pogba if their choice was to pay thousands of dollars a year to play soccer or find some other activity to do.
One alternative in the US that could help find players like the ones that just won the World Cup is Sueno Alianzia, an organization that has given 8,000 mostly Latino players an opportunity to play in front of scouts in MLS and LigaMX. One player discovered through the organization is Jonathan Gonzalez, a central midfielder who was named to the LigaMX best XI for the past season, had the opportunity to play for either the US or Mexico through his dual national status. Much to the surprise of US Soccer, he chose Mexico. His decision wasn’t a surprise to Brad Rothenberg who runs the organization. In an interview with Soccer America, Rothenberg blamed the federation saying, “I’ve grown tired of watching our federation neglect this community. We didn’t do enough, not nearly enough, to keep him. And the worst part is that it will continue if wholesale changes aren’t made in the approach to finding talent in this community.”
According to him, the reason that the US is not developing players from immigrant communities is a choice that is actively made by USSF. As he describes it, “The Federation has told us not to promote their brand to the 250,000 Latinos who attend our events and Tony Lepore [U.S. Soccer Director of Talent Identification] actually notified us in 2016 that they weren’t interested in participating in Alianza since they haven’t found any elite players.” Indeed, rather than reaching out to the immigrant community in the US, national soccer officials are actively ignoring it.
In addition to ignoring immigrant communities and promoting the pay to play system, youth soccer participation is falling in the country. The New York Times reports that over three years, the number of players between the ages of 6-12 has fallen by 14% while other sports are growing. High costs are keeping players from backgrounds like many of the French players out of being able to play the sport in the US. While the US should be making a greater effort to make the sport more inclusive for immigrants, people of color, and working class families, the opposite is happening and fewer kids are playing soccer.
Obviously, as this World Cup demonstrates, France has been more successful at creating an inclusive soccer team and leveraging its diversity effectively when it comes to the sport than the US. For its part, the US Soccer Federation is not seriously addressing, and may be incapable of doing so, the issue of attracting immigrant communities and players to the US Men’s National Team. The US and France may have more in common than it seems but men’s soccer success will not be a trait both countries share any time soon.