The Immortal "Best Athletes" Myth

This is not Lionel Messi. Why not?

It's as predictable as the sunrise or sunset: every World Cup, some American will ask "What if our best athletes played soccer?" This year is no exception and Andrew Sharp and Spencer Hall have stepped forward to make sure SBNation isn't left out of this venerable tradition.

As is the custom, they pick a bunch of football, basketball, and baseball players (and, for variety I suppose, Andy Roddick) and proclaim how much ass they would kick in soccer had they decided to play it professionally. I guess this exercise must be amusing if you follow American sports, otherwise it wouldn't keep coming back over and over like a stubborn fungal infection. The problem, of course, is the question itself is based on faulty premises.

The first highly flawed idea is that athleticism is something you can translate from sport to sport. It just simply isn't. Anyone remember Michael Jordan, baseball superstar? Yeah, me neither. The legendary basketball star just plain sucked at baseball. Furthermore, the particular physical gifts that make a particular athlete great at one sport might hamper him in another. An extreme example would be basketball players and jockeys. Those two kinds of athletes have no overlap at all in the kinds of physical gifts required to be the best. The physical qualities that make for a great basketball player actively make for a crappy jockey and vice versa.

In the case of soccer, height and bulk are useful to an extent, but not nearly to the extent that those attributes are to a football or baseball player. So most American athletes are much, much bigger and heavier than any world-class soccer player. A soccer player runs more than three miles per game, usually a lot more, and soccer has one of the highest ratios of time spent in active game play to game time of any sport.In a normal game of officially 90 minutes, 60 minutes or more is spent with the ball and players in motion.

This is a big contrast to football, baseball, basketball and tennis where there are plenty of breaks in the action for a player to catch a breather. As one commenter to the original article noted, these guys would have to drop 20 to 80 pounds to sustain all that running, and that would take them out of the mode of what we think of America's "best athletes".

The second flawed premise is the idea that America's soccer players are overmatched physically against the rest of the world. Anyone who's actually looked at the numbers can see that America's soccer players are on a par physically with any team playing in the World Cup. We have the same mix of body types with the same physical characteristics as pretty much every other team. It's a bizarre experience to have this discussion over and over, and to have to point this fact out again and again. Whatever problems the US has, physical size and strength are not among them. This makes all this "best athletes" talk a massive "deck chairs on the Titanic" exercise.

To give a specific example, take last year's Confederations Cup. In the first half, the US jumped out to a two-goal lead on Brazil by playing good soccer and exploiting the spaces left in the back as Brazil pushed their attack. Both of those goals were scored through soccer skills, not by overpowering the opponent. In the second half, Brazil came back to score three goals and in the same way, each of those goals was the result of skilled players applying their skills.

The winning goal in particular, highlights this perfectly. Elano took the corner from the right side and arced a cross to just in front of the front left corner of the six-yard box. Lucio, who was unmarked, needed to take just two short steps to smash in a header. That's not athleticism, that's skill.

The final wrong idea behind this question is the idea that other countries aren't fielding guys like the authors suggested because they don't have them, and that the US would have some insurmountable advantage if we could get these guys to play soccer. In actual fact, other countries do have people like these residing there and the real reason they're not fielding them in their soccer teams is that they'd make bad soccer players.

Brazil, for example, has two-thirds the population of the US and soccer is far and away the most popular and accessible sport in the country. Almost everybody plays a little bit at one point or other, and there are hundreds of professional clubs constantly looking out for talent to develop. It's an environment that produces thousands of professional soccer players, and an environment that's produced some of the best players ever to strike a ball.

Every four years, 23 athletes are selected out of that pool of thousands to represent Brazil in the World Cup. If football, baseball, or basketball body types really were "the best", then that's what you'd see on the Seleção. You don't see that, though, and it's for the very simple reason that those body types aren't particularly helpful in soccer.

Think of the best players in the world and throughout history. Top of my head examples: Maradona is 5'4", Messi is 5'7", Wesley Sneijder is 5'7", Pelé is 5'8". Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Ronaldo the Elder, and Ronaldo the Younger are taller at 5'11", 5'11½, 6'0", and 6'1", respectively. That's a crowd of guys who range from below average to a bit above average on the worldwide height scale. And most of these guys are a lot less bulky than your average professional football, baseball, or basketball player.

In the end, the real question to ask isn't about "best athletes" it's about "best soccer players". And in asking that question, you have to ask why isn't Landon Donovan (5'8") as good as Lionel Messi or Clint Dempsey (6'1") as good as Cristiano Ronaldo. The answers to those questions will show the path to realizing the US's World Cup ambitions.

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