Why aren't the great powers dominating the pitch?

As the 2010 World Cup looms, there's an interesting mismatch between the FIFA's rankings of the soccer powers and, er, real power. 

By my metrics , the top seven great powers in the world right now are the United States, China, Germany, Japan, Russia, India and Brazil.    Your results might vary a bit, but I assume everyone will grant that all these countries would fall into their top 10 list. 

According to FIFA, the top seven men's soccer teams in the world are, in order:  Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Argentina. 

There's not a lot of overlap between those two lists.  Indeed, the latter list includes three PIIGS countries plus a few others facing severe debt difficulties.  Even if one expands the FIFA list to the top 20, only two more great powers (Russia and the United States) pop up.   

Why the lack of correlation?  I'd proffer three possible explanations.  First, and most important, is culture.  What the great powers have in common is possessing proud civilizational identities.  While Germany and Brazil might have soccer-mad populations, in the other countries there are other sports -- baseball, hockey , basketball, rugby, and cricket -- that attract more attention and more dollars.  The best athletes from most of the great powers don't go into soccer. 

Related to this are the skewed industrial policies for sport that some countries pursue.  The Washington Post's Keith Richburg looks at why China is ranked 84th in the world, and finds the following:

As in industry, the government picks national "winners" in sports and funnels cash to create champions and win medals. But the support typically goes to individual sports like gymnastics, swimming and diving, and to sports in which Chinese have traditionally excelled, like badminton and table tennis. Soccer teams here are left to look for private sponsorship....

Politics comes into play, several sports journalists and others said, because sports ministry officials, particularly at the local level, would rather invest government money into promising sports prodigies with a quicker guarantee of victory. "It's related to their promotion," said Li Chengpeng, a soccer commentator and author.

Finally, perhaps men's soccer isn't the best metric here.  Consider FIFA's ranking for women's soccer:  U.S., Germany, Brazil, Sweden, Japan, Norway, North Korea and France.  China is 10th and Russia is 15th.  The correlation between political power and women's soccer proficiency is much stronger. 

The true outlier here is India.  Their men's team ranks 133rd, just behind Fiji.  Their women's team is somewhat better, just besting Haiti.  Even if soccer is not that popular in the subcontinent, it's a country with more than a billion people -- sheer numbers suggest they should field a semi-decent team. 

I welcome any South Asian experts to provide some possible answers in the comments. 

UPDATE:  I should have known that team Passport would be all over this already

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Daniel W. Drezner

I'm standing behind my analogy

Ben Smith reports that China is facing mounting pressure because of its refusal to condemn North Korea for its sinking of the Cheonan

For while much about the incident remains unclear, a day of carefully parsed statements from Zhongnanhai and the Foreign Ministry left at least one irrefutable aftershock: With much of the world expressing fury over the attack, the contrast with Beijing's muted response could not have been more striking. 


“The situation is that they’re so isolated right now that it’s not only that we’re the only ones who will stick up for them,” said an Chinese official. “We’re the only ones who believe them – and what they’re saying is true.”

Oh, wait, you know what?  I might have mixed up some of the words in that cut and paste.  Here's the original:

For while much about the incident remains unclear, a day of carefully parsed statements from the White House and State Department left at least one irrefutable aftershock: With much of the world expressing fury over the raid, the contrast with Washington’s muted response could not have been more striking. 


“The situation is that they’re so isolated right now that it’s not only that we’re the only ones who will stick up for them,” said an American official. “We’re the only ones who believe them – and what they’re saying is true.”

Whoops, my bad.  It's a good thing there are no similarities whatsoever between the two situations, or readers could have been confused. 

Look this is bad for Israel, and it's going to get worse.  Stratfor's George Friedman makes a trenchant point here:

With roughly the population of Houston, Texas, Israel is just not large enough to withstand extended isolation, meaning this event has profound geopolitical implications.

Public opinion matters where issues are not of fundamental interest to a nation. Israel is not a fundamental interest to other nations. The ability to generate public antipathy to Israel can therefore reshape Israeli relations with countries critical to Israel. For example, a redefinition of U.S.-Israeli relations will have much less effect on the United States than on Israel. The Obama administration, already irritated by the Israelis, might now see a shift in U.S. public opinion that will open the way to a new U.S.-Israeli relationship disadvantageous to Israel.

The Israelis will argue that this is all unfair, as they were provoked... they seem to think that the issue is whose logic is correct. But the issue actually is, whose logic will be heard? As with a tank battle or an airstrike, this sort of warfare has nothing to do with fairness. It has to do with controlling public perception and using that public perception to shape foreign policy around the world. In this case, the issue will be whether the deaths were necessary. The Israeli argument of provocation will have limited traction.

Internationally, there is little doubt that the incident will generate a firestorm. Certainly, Turkey will break cooperation with Israel. Opinion in Europe will likely harden. And public opinion in the United States — by far the most important in the equation — might shift to a “plague-on-both-your-houses” position.

This is serious, because you have people like Jim Henley minimizing the threat to Israel

Israel not only no longer faces any enemies who pose an existential threat, it doesn’t even have enemies who can thwart any strongly held Israeli policy aim.  No state is going to go to war to “destroy Israel.” I doubt any state particularly wants to. Certainly no state that might want to can do so. But beyond that, no state is going to go to war on behalf of the Palestinians and the Palestinians lack the power to launch an effective war on their own behalf.

Henley is  correct about the current military balance of power, but the notion that Israel has no existential threats to worry about is absurd.  The people who control Gaza don't recognize Israel's right to exist, and there's a government in the region that keeps talking about wanting to wipe the country off the face of the map.  They're not powerful enough at present to take action -- but that hardly means that they won't take such action in the future should they acquire greater capabilities. 

All of this is taking place at a moment when Turkey is pivoting against Israel and IDF tactics are exposed as counterproductive.  As Judah Grunstein notes:

This creates a vicious circle with regard to the emphasis on liberty of action, since the IDF's deterrence is no longer based on its Entebbe-era veneer of Mission Impossible-like efficiency, but rather on the knowledge that the Israeli government is willing to use overwhelming and disproportionate force against all provocations, regardless of their threat level.

In conclusion, I agree with an awful lot of what Max Boot says on this: 

Israel cannot afford to become another South Africa, Burma, or North Korea. Come to think of it, even South Africa couldn’t afford to become South Africa: an international pariah regime. It was too democratic and too Western to bear such isolation indefinitely in the way that absolute dictatorships like Burma or North Korea can. The international embargo ultimately led to a crisis of confidence within Afrikaner leadership circles and to the negotiated end to the racist regime. Israel, I stress, is no South Africa: it is not an apartheid regime. It is in fact the most liberal and democratic regime in the region, offering Arabs more rights than they are offered in any of its immediate neighbors. And Israel is, mercifully, not yet subject to the kind of international opprobrium that South Africa (rightly) received. Unfortunately, it is heading in that direction....

That doesn’t mean [Israel] should refrain from legitimate acts of self-defense (such as killing Hamas big shots or retaliating for Hamas rocket strikes), but it should be ultra careful to manage public perceptions of its actions. Unfortunately, the Israeli Defense Forces have always shown more competence at tactical kinetic operations than at information operations. That deficiency was revealed during the 2006 war with Hezbollah and now more recently in the botched raid on the Gaza ships. Granted, Israel is getting better about managing the consequences of its actions; the IDF gets kudos for posting video of the raid online quickly and making some naval commandos available for interviews. But if Israel were strategically smarter, it would have avoided the raid altogether, with all the possibilities of something going wrong, and used more stealthy means to prevent the Hamas activists from reaching their objective. The IDF should be mindful of the French experience in Algeria and the American experience in Vietnam: it is possible to win every battle and still lose the war.

Developing.... in a precipitously bad way for Israel.