The Nobel-prizewinning economist Paul Krugman has long been an outspoken fellow, both as an economist, and as a political polemicist. (Full disclosure: I mostly agree with this political views; but this article doesn't depend on his politics--even if you think he's a left-wing nutjob, read on). Twenty years ago, he wrote a short article entitled Supply, Demand, and English food, which attempted to explain, albeit in a very non-scientific fashion, why English food was so stereo-typically awful. Krugman's thesis was that because England urbanized earlier than much of the rest of the world (as large numbers of peasants were driven off the land by what was known as "enclosure", and moved to London and other cities to work in factories), the problem of feeding this large urban population arose. At the time, refrigeration was not available, so a cuisine was developed based on cured meats, root vegetables, whatever could be caught out of the water, and (later) canned goods.
Of course, this explained why English food was awful back in 1880, most food was awful. It didn't explain why it was so awful back in 1980, when refrigeration and modern supply chains were available. Krugman's theory was that of a "bad equilibrium", of a market that didn't know what good food tasted like and didn't demand it, and of a restaurant industry that wasn't interested in selling what customers didn't want.
Of course, English food now is another story. Krugman's column was written in 1998, while France was hosting the World Cup (gotta tie this into soccer after all), and he noted that in the post-industrial economy, the food available in London (including the English cuisine) was getting better. And today, England has restaurants that can stack up to any in the world, and has produced notable chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Jamie Oliver, and even good old Gordon Ramsey. (Ramsey may be an obnoxious TV personality, but he has a veritable galaxy of Michelin stars. Dude can cook). Even long-mocked English dishes like bangers and mash or fish and chips have been rehabilitated--these things can be tasty if expertly-prepared. (And English beer has always been good).
Which brings us to American soccer.
To put it bluntly, American soccer has been stuck in a "bad equilibrium" for a very long time. Interest in the sport waned in the early 20th century, as baseball and American football captured the sporting public's attention, with basketball and ice hockey not far behind. Soccer was a niche sport for a very long time here, mainly the interest of immigrant communities and a few diehards, as well as a sport for children (right up there with stickball or kickball or similar playground games). But most of the public didn't care. Interest in the sport did start to pick up in the 1970s with the old NASL and guys like Pele playing on US soil, but that folded, and a right-wing cultural backlash in the 1980s probably did it in.
It wasn't until 1994 and the World Cup that Americans started to pay any attention--and gosh darn it, that plucky American side knocked off one South American team and managed to make the knockout round, giving up a respectable 1-0 loss to a powerful Brazilian team lead by the real Ronaldo. :) Soon after, MLS started.
The problem was--Americans had no idea what world class soccer looked like. Many thought they had achieved it as Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Alexi Lalas, Alexi Lalas's hair, and the rest of Team USA managed to make the eventual champs sweat. Not knowing what world-class soccer looked like, it wasn't demanded--and as the sport become more popular in the US, a club infrastructure arose that pretended to supply world-class soccer (but didn't) to a public that didn't know any better.
So what happened in England?
So what happened in England that caused English food to no longer be terrible? (Or to be less terrible--some people simply won't eat things like kidney pie, no matter how good the chef is). Krugman theorized that increased immigration (as England integrated with Europe and saw many Indians and other migrants from countries with renowned cuisines) is a big part--some of these immigrants started to demand better food, and the market occasionally complied. (They also brought their own cuisines with them--curry stands have been a popular alternative to English fare for a very long time). Another possibility is more rich people--one downside of socialist economies (as England had between World War II and the election of Margaret Thatcher) is they don't encourage production of high culture, including haute cuisine--many of these things require wealthy patrons with lots of money to burn. But market equilibriums occur when the cost to supply something new and better far exceeds the additional profit to be made from supplying it. Often time, there's a chicken and egg problem involved.
Consider electric cars. The technology has been around for a while--indeed, a century ago it was wondered whether or not electricity would power our automobiles instead of gasoline. As it happened, gasoline was the better choice of the time, and a large infrastructure of refineries, pipelines, and filling stations was put in place to make sure that cars could travel anywhere and be able to refuel. No such infrastructure existed for electric cars--it took a lot of investment in charging stations from Telsa, GM, and the government to make electric vehicles an acceptable substitute.
In the restaruant business, logistics also limits what the chef can do. If there's no fresh fruits or vegetables available, if Sysco isn't driving its trucks around making deliveries every day--then no matter how good the chef is, there are things he cannot prepare.
And this is where we have been with American soccer.
It's all about the infrastructure
Consider what "infrastructure" exists in a country like England, France, of Germany--modern democracies with robust middle-class economies, that are regarded as soccer powers.
- A populace that understands, knows, and appreciates the game, and knows what good soccer looks like (and doesn't look like).
- A robust set of professional clubs and teams, financed by the folks in #1 who are willing to pay big money on tickets, merchandise, and beer at the stadium, but will refuse to pay for substandard stuff.
- A robust set of academy teams operated by #2, for training elite players
- A large supply of talented coaches, both professional and volunteer, drawn from the general population, to coach all levels of the game
- Lots of places to play (whether full-sized pitches, futsal parks, or open spaces with a goal). These don't have to be free to play, but they should be inexpensive (think of playing hoops at the YMCA).
- A robust and inexpensive grassroots game, consisting of many local (NON-TRAVEL youth clubs, organized and coached by #1.
- In many places, a robust pickup culture.
So what does this mean?
After all, if English cooking can become good... then why can't American soccer?
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