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World Cup Soccer and Policymaking: Strategies for Success

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
January 26, 2018

Winning the World Cup, or merely qualifying, as the United States failed to do for this summer’s competition, requires tactics and principles that can provide lessons for successful policymaking and governmental administration. The United States Men’s National Team’s defeat in Trinidad and Tobago in October was the proximate end they’re of their opportunity to be among the 32 teams vying for the trophy in Russia, but the loss was the result of poor leadership and analytical decisionmaking over the previous months and years. Talent is a component of sporting success, but personnel, procedures, organization and systems win championships.

As the discourse around immigration and border policies permeate the political dialogue in the United States and Europe, promoting and facilitating diversity with cohesion in a soccer squad can improve results on the field. The best modern teams reflect modern globalization. The West German team that won the 1974 World Cup featured only one player who worked for a foreign professional club. The majority of the first post-Cold War unified German team to win the World Cup in 2014 included players on club teams from England, Italy and Spain.

It’s not just the variety of places players plied their trade, but the variety of backgrounds driving the victorious Germans at the last World Cup that’s worthy of policymakers’ considerations. In addition to players from both the former East Germany and West Germany, forwards Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose were born in Poland, reflecting the diminishing borders across the European Union. Beyond Europe, defender Jerome Boateng chose to play for Germany, while his half-brother competed for Ghana, the country of their father’s birth. The United States qualified for the 2014 tournament in Brazil with a German manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, and continues to field players born and raised in Germany with the ongoing American military presence there. National teams across the world reflect new and old immigration patterns coupled with the universal experience of the planet’s most popular sporting pursuit.

With all the differences among the strengths of the players, however, the leadership of these teams, just as is the case for the leadership of countries, must build cohesion and camaraderie into their organizations. Belgium provides an example of a small and heterogeneous nation achieving success in global soccer. Despite placing eightieth in the world for its population size, Belgium currently ranks fifth among national soccer teams and knocked the United States out of the last World Cup. With the language and cultural differences of its Flemish and Walloon citizens, in addition to the ethnic enclaves across the country, manager Roberto Martinez and its soccer federation have bridged the Belgian divides to make themselves cup contenders around common interests and goals. Overcoming social and cultural barriers remains a struggle for our time, but soccer can present a venue to meet and exceed the challenges of the melting pot.

The teams which achieve greatness at the World Cup have the national federations that best understand and grow their own capacity. The systems are in place to ensure the best and the brightest soccer stars have the access to training and resources to develop, ensuring nobody falls through the cracks. This is one area where soccer priorities can differ from national policymaking and the principles of protecting the most vulnerable populations. There can only be eleven players on the field at one time and thus, national team soccer is about allowing the elite to maximize their potential. That does not mean a successful national team is to the detriment of everyone else. Iceland became the least populated country to ever qualify to the World Cup for 2018 through a system that identified and focused on the long-term development of its youth players throughout the frigid island. Studying these management models can provide insights into other areas of human endeavor.

There are also direct interplays between policy and victory in soccer. The United States Women’s National Team won its World Cup in 2015 and, while the women on that team deserve the credit for their fantastic performance in Canada, policies and resources aided their ascent to the world’s superpower in the women’s game. Encoding equality for women’s sports through Title IX and the associated funding has built this success from the elite level down to the grassroots, providing recreation, personal development, teamwork skills and enjoyment across generations.

This summer’s World Cup is an opportunity for the world to come together to engage in dialogue about our common interests and options for our global future, with a positive streak of modern patriotism for participant countries. It is also a fun break from the potential crises and catastrophes that plague international diplomacy, and the games themselves will be a relief from the discussion of the costs, corruption and abuses in the staging of the World Cup in Russia. Perhaps the 2018 World Cup will help us to learn about societal governance, policy and administration, or at least figure out how the United States can qualify in 2022. Let the games begin!

Author: Benjamin H. Deitchman is a policy practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia. His recently published book is Climate and Clean Energy Policy: State Institutions and Economic Implications. Dr. Deitchman’s email is [email protected] and he’s on Twitter @Deitchman.

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