The Future History of Soccer – Predicting the Next Sixty Years
Like a lot of people who went to elementary school in the 1980s, I grew up hearing wondrous tales of what the world would look like in the year 2000. Based on the fictions spread by my various teachers, we faced one of two future outcomes: the Soviet Union (remember them?) would either trigger a thermonuclear war, or we would all be zipping around in jetpacks and flying cars, wearing oddly matching jumpsuits and eating only large pills and colored liquid. Of course, neither of those things happened, and though my car is very much attached to terra firma, the intervening years have brought a number of changes to society, the likes of which nobody would have likely predicted in 1984.
The point, I suppose, is that the prognostication business is at best a crapshoot, and at worst a chance for people to write things that subsequent events will make a mockery of. Soccer is not immune to stupid predictions, as anyone who has followed Pele’s occasional commentary in the press knows all to well. So, wanting to look ahead to the future of soccer, but not wanting to expose myself to the ridicule of being proved wrong, I will look way, way head to the year 2062, and tell you what the footballing world will look like in 54 years. I’ll be 85 by then, which means I’ll either be dead, senile, or so happy that I finally got my flying car that I won’t care that I wrote something 54 years ago that makes me sound foolish! If I’m lucky, I would have just seen my 19th World Cup. So what will 2062 Brian Fobi have seen best soccer predictions today?
1. England still won’t have won another World Cup. At the close of the 2062 World Cup, England fans will look forward to the 2066 Cup, knowing that certainly fate will be on their side as they stare down the 100th anniversary of their last win. England is the consummate quarterfinalist, and can look back at a hundred years of Ronaldinho goals, Beckham red cards, Rooney red cards, and Brookyln Beckham red cards, and believe that they are jinxed, but the truth is that they are just not that good.
2. China will still be the next big thing. Based on everything you read in the news, in 40 years the Chinese will own, run, manufacture, manage, and dominate everything. FIFA expects great things from China, and certainly between then and now China will host at least one World Cup, but more likely two. The Chinese women will continue to do well, but unless a great many things change, I don’t see China putting together the kind of league and national youth system necessary to produce 11 world class players. Also, beware the China bubble. China might continue to grow at 10% for the next 50 years, or we may find out that a managed state and economy cannot bear the burden of its first major economic downturn. That discussion is best served in another venue on another day, but suffice to say that I am not yet sold on China’s perpetually bright future, and this goes doubly for football.
3. CONMEBOL and CONCACAF will merge. A merger of these two regions only makes sense. And, as a child of he 1980s, seeing these parts merge gives me memories of Devastator coming together to work at the behest of Megatron to drive the Autobots… sorry. Back to my point, a merger of the North American and South American confederations makes sense, and it will improve the quality of play all around. First, it would give America and Canada more consistent and meaningful exposure to top competition. Second, it would make the regional championship (Cup of the Americas? Americas’ Cup? Copa de Americas?) a truly first rate event that upstages the Euros and takes its place as the second greatest soccer tournament in the world, after the World Cup. Third, the sheer size of the confederation would necessitate breaking the nations into groups, which would mean fewer games for qualifying for the South American teams.
4. The Caribbean nations will jointly host the greatest World Cup of all time. Building on their joint hosting of the Cricket World Cup, 10 Caribbean nations will treat football fans to the most fun, sun-soaked, and festive World Cup on record. Moving between World Cup venues by cruise boat or airplane, thousands of fans will gather to watch soccer in the daytime, then drink and party at night. The final in Port of Spain will take place to a steel drum soundtrack, and everyone, even the defeated fans, will leave happy.
5. The United States will win a World Cup. I’m not saying when, but in the next 56 years, it will happen. If you are skeptical (ahem, consummate America-hater Luis “Snacks” Bueno, I’m talking to you), you are way too pessimistic. Think about it: if my prediction is true, the grandmother of the team’s captain might be in preschool right now. The USA has built a first rate youth system, has excellent corporate backing, has the best sports science in the world, and dadgummit, we’re Americans and we don’t lose. This the sporting equivalent of the Apollo moon mission. Hell or high water we will get it done.
6. Britain will finally get its act together and field a joint team. I know, this seems unlikely, especially with Scotland getting greater independence and all, but let’s be honest. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have to struggle just to qualify for the World Cup, to say nothing of actually winning it. And, since England is not itself a sovereign nation, it does not make any more sense that they should be a FIFA member than it would for say, Minnesota, to join FIFA. Frustrated by continued failures, and perhaps even a bit chastened by their experience with the Olympics in which the IOC did not allow England to send its own team, they will get their act together and kit up a British squad.
7. Africa will… wow, who knows? This is the toughest one. I have no doubt that Africa will continue to produce top-tier talent, and I expect that in 50 years most of the top players in the world will come from Africa. The real question, though, is whether Africa can begin to develop leagues that can compete at the highest levels and whether their football associations will stop interfering with and destroying their national teams. In the last decade, we have seen he football associations of Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire rightfully accused of theft, massive mismanagement of players, threats of violence, political coercion, and utter and complete incompetence on a scale heretofore unseen in soccer history. To make matters worse, African nations have not dedicated themselves to developing their own coaches, do not adequately prepare youth, and offer the most shoddy and dilapidated facilities in which to train and play.
That said, the continent continues to produce fantastic players, and the march that began with Weah and Milla from Liberia and Cameroon, respectively, continues with true gems like Drogba, Eto’o, Adebayor, Essien, and a bevy of other stars. In the end, the fortunes of African soccer will rise or fall with the continent’s ability or inability to right its economies, to produce wealth, to create infrastructure, and to purge its governments, and thereby its football associations, of the kind of kleptocratic, nepotistic, and capricious bureaucracy that has ground down the continent’s best minds and talents. If the continent can turn itself around, there are a least ten nations that have the potential to become true world soccer powers (Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt, South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, and Togo come to mind). If not, then we will see what we have seen in the last 25 years: stars arise, and every World Cup one or two African nations will impress, but the rest will fall flat.
8. The three best leagues in the world will be 1) The Brazilian league, 2) the MLS, and 3) French Ligue 1. Brazil has increasingly become more sure of itself as a nation, and as its economy grows, it will produce the kind of broad and deep wealth capable of supporting teams who develop and retain the best players in the world. When Santos, Flamengo and Gremio have he bankroll to prevent players like Kaka, Ronaldinho, or Robinho from leaving, the Brazilian teams will improve rapidly and exponentially. As for the MLS, soccer is growing steadily and surely in the United States, and within twenty years or so, the league will be among the best in the world. The United States has a real advantage because, as the world’s cultural center, it will always have a cache and drawing power that other nations cannot match. In other words, once the MLS becomes a viable option, financially and competitively, with European leagues, the marketing potential and luster of the United States will allow the MLS to move past its European rivals. Twenty years might seem too soon, but the league recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and anyone around for the inauspicious opening days of the league can attest to the manner and rate of its growth. As for France, it’s just a hunch, nothing more. The league has long under-performed, and it seems like a nation of France’s wealth and soccer pedigree should have a better league. Also, look out for the J-League.