Know and accept this fact: your country is a world soccer power.
I know we Americans have been conditioned to think of other countries, far to the east or south, as the true heavyweights of the sport. Yet, of all those other soccer-playing countries around the world, there are actually only two that surpass the Red, White, and Blue on the global soccer power index. That's right, only two countries in the world outpace our beloved United States as soccer powers.
Let's cut to the chase. There may be lots of ways to measure a country's position in the global soccer pecking order, but here's one that is simple to compute and objective: rank order all the countries in the world based on the number of FIFA World Cup championships each has won. To lift a World Cup trophy is an extraordinary achievement for a country and its soccer enterprise, and rarely (if ever) does it happen as a fluke. Winning a World Cup is the result of a country's domestic soccer talent, its ability to develop that talent, and its organizational coherence to form a team capable of enduring the marathon that is a World Cup cycle. So, comparing the total number of World Cups each country has won is a measure of global soccer power because, "you are what your record says you are."
In the history of global soccer, 29 official FIFA World Cups have been held for senior men's and women's teams. 21 on the men's side and 8 on the women's side, and only 11 countries (out of FIFA's 211 member countries) have ever lifted one of those FIFA world championship trophies. Yes, it is factually true the Men's World Cup is older and produces more revenue, but the Women's World Cup is equally valuable as a measure of a country's soccer prowess. There is zero rational reason to weight a Men's World Cup championship any more than a Women's World Cup championship as a measure of a country's global ranking in soccer.
So, adding up the total number of FIFA World Cups each country has won produces our global soccer power index. And here it is:
|Nation||Total FIFA World Cups||Men's Championships||Women's Championships|
Perhaps not surprisingly, Germany is the world's greatest soccer country. As the only country to win both Women's and Men's World Cups (in fact, it has multiple of each), the Germans have the most FIFA trophies in their display case, and they truly represent the pinnacle of global soccer. They remain a serious threat at any World Cup (women's or men's) to appear in the final and win the trophy. The old adage from Gary Lineker is almost always true (except when the American women are on the field): "Football is a simple game. Twenty-two [players] chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win."
The next team on the global soccer power index is Brazil, the spiritual home of the beautiful game. Brazil has produced geniuses on the ball, both male and female. They've come close to winning a Women's World Cup to go along with their five Men's World Cup titles (the most of any country), but it seems their women's team has hit its high water mark (at least with this generation of players), and their men will be 20 years removed from their last World Cup title when the next tournament begins in 2022. If Brazil doesn't win another trophy soon, the United States will tie them on the global soccer power index with one more title.
Germany and Brazil. Those two countries are stronger soccer nations than the United States. But, that's it.
Here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, our soccer prominence is derived from the success of our women's national team, the most successful women's team on the planet—by far. Consistency in the World Cup is remarkably difficult, yet the American women have been dominantly constant, reaching the semifinals in all 8 women's tournaments. Our men have a lot of work to do right now to prove they can once again be a dominant power in CONCACAF, let alone a team which regularly advances out of the World Cup group stage to challenge for a World Cup title. But soccer in all its forms is on the rise in the US, and the US men need to be better and should be better to reflect this overall improvement in the American soccer landscape and to match their counterparts on the US women's team. But, none of this about the US Men's National Team really matters right now, for it is due to the remarkable exploits of our women that the United States earns its #3 spot on the global soccer power index.
At this point, we will acknowledge that Italy is tied with the United States for third on the global soccer power index. Italy's soccer success emanates from its men's team, having won four Men's World Cup titles, and reaching the semifinals on four other occasions when it did not win. Known for its defensive organization, the Azzurri are traditionally a threat to compete for a Men's World Cup title, but they did not make the tournament in 2018—so they will have to prove they can get back to their winning ways. The Italian women's team did make the quarterfinals at this most recent Women's World Cup, but they will have to prove they can be a championship-level team in a rapidly improving UEFA women's landscape.
That leaves a lot of other great soccer countries behind us in the global soccer power index:
- Argentina, thank you for producing two of the three greatest men's players of all time. Messi is an ongoing wondrous soccer savant the likes of whom we may never see again (but it seems less and less likely he will ever lift an international trophy with Argentina), and Maradona remains...well, he remains Maradona. But, your women's team hasn't yet made a significant splash on the world scene as it was bounced in the group stage of this year's Women's World Cup.
- France, you won a Men's World Cup on home soil in 1998, were a head-butt away from another in 2006, and you lifted a second trophy last year in Russia, but your excellent women's team failed to break through and win a World Cup trophy despite hosting this most recent tournament. If France's women's team can ever live up to their talent and expectations, and their men remain a regular contender, France seems primed to move up the global soccer power index in the years ahead.
- Uruguay, you were the first world soccer champion, and we still like watching your men play the game. But, what about your women's team which has never qualified for a Women's World Cup?
- England, as the country which invented this game, you still have an outsized influence on it around the globe. We enjoy the grainy film of your controversial 1966 Men's World Cup victory over West Germany as much as any student of history, and the World Cup fortunes of both your women's team and your men's team (and your youth teams) are on the rise as you've been to the semifinals in the past two women's tournaments and the last men's tournament. It appears you've cracked the code on converting the terrific financial resources of the FA into success on the field, but will that actually lead to either of your teams lifting a World Cup trophy in the coming years?
- Japan, you are the technical wizards of the women's game, and a pleasure to watch. Your men's team is also a consistent World Cup team. But is either really a threat to win a world cup trophy in the upcoming cycles?
- Norway, your single Women's World Cup puts you on this list, but will you ever be able to reclaim your early glory in the women's tournament? It certainly doesn't help when Ada Hegerberg, considered by many to be the best women's player in the world, doesn't want to suit up for your team. And what about your men's team? They haven't made a World Cup since 1998.
- Spain, your men's team may have been the best team ever to play the game between 2008-2012, but can you get back to those heights? Your women definitely seem to be on the rise as well, and it will be fun to watch whether they can become a world championship side in the years ahead.
This list doesn't even include great soccer-playing nations which have come oh-so-close to winning a World Cup, yet have fallen short despite reaching a final: Netherlands and Sweden (both having reached finals at both the men's and women's tournament), Czechoslovakia, Hungary, China, and Croatia. And, other countries that consider themselves soccer powers of some sort, such as Mexico, Portugal, and Belgium, are nowhere to be found because this list is based on world championships.
America, thanks to our terrific women, we now rightly take our place as the third best soccer nation in the world, standing shoulder-to-shoulder beside our Italian equals.
It's OK, America, if we still enjoy the soccer played in other countries, and our players still aspire to test their skills in foreign leagues. It's also OK to say we need to improve in various ways across our men's and women's programs. But, let us never doubt our place in the global soccer pantheon again. Let us never apologize for our game, for our success, for our soccer heritage and traditions. They are just as valid, just as meaningful, and just as globally relevant as any other in the world, save for two.
We are a global soccer power, no ands, ifs, or buts. All thanks to the US Women's National Team.
Four years ago, after Carli Lloyd led the United States Women's National Team past Japan in the 2015 Women's World Cup final, I shared an earlier version of this post with the good people over at Black and Red United, SB Nation's D.C. United blog. Today, I post an updated version of this blog in light of the America's outstanding women winning our fourth FIFA World Cup trophy, and singlehandedly moving the United States into third position on the table of soccer-playing nations.