Football, or soccer, as it is called only in the United States, is played by more people globally than any other sport. It is, in fact, the most popular sport on the planet. An estimated five billion people watched the last World Cup, the sport’s premiere event, which is more than half the world’s population. America’s Super Bowl pales in number of viewers at 115 million in 2023.
Football is one of the world’s oldest sports. An international game like soccer was played between teams from China and Japan around 60 B.C. Games similar to football were played as early as 200 B.C. in the U.K. According to the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world’s first internationally recognized football match was played in 1872. FIFA has 209 member countries, and every country has the chance to compete.
The low cost of playing contributes to football’s popularity. Some children in developing nations turn any sort of kickable item into soccer balls. Rocks, sticks or anything else that can delineate a space can be used as goal markers. It is played outdoors anywhere there is a relatively flat, open space. Indoor games are possible, as well. Player equipment is minimal, usually consisting of cleats and shin guards. There are fewer rules than in other sports, and the game is easy to learn. It is less dangerous than many sports. Moreover, a football match typically is 90 minutes, which is shorter than most sports’ match times. And viewer tickets generally cost less than for other sports. Its accessibility is furthered by the fact that there is no minimum height or maximum weight required to be a good player.
I started playing the game at age eight. At the time, in the 1970s, it was one of the few sports available for girls. While the men’s U.S. national team has won no World Cup tournaments, the U.S. Women’s National Team has won four World Cups. Today, almost 18 million people play soccer in the U.S.
Soccer often is the entry sport for children in the U.S. Youth soccer is popular in the U.S., with approximately three million children playing the sport. Youth soccer has experienced 300% growth in the U.S. in the last 40 years.
So why is football not as popular in the U.S. as it is in other countries? Some commentators posit that it is because Americans are not the best at the sport. The U.S. men’s team made the best showing at the World Cup in 1930, when it made third place. The most popular sports in the country are American football, baseball and basketball, and the U.S. teams are the best at each of these sports. Americans strive to be the best at everything, so perhaps this is why soccer takes a back seat in sports in the U.S.
Advertising dollars also are a factor. Soccer is not as ad-friendly as the other big three sports in the U.S. It does not draw as large a viewing audience, and the sport does not allow for as many breaks for commercials as American football, baseball and basketball. Because the U.S. will host 2026’s World Cup tournament, this situation may change.
Only eight countries have won the World Cup, with Brazil having won the most times. Germany, Italy, France, Uruguay, Spain, England and Argentina also have taken home the prize. Mexico has qualified for 16 World Cup tournaments without ever winning it.
I was fortunate to be in Buenos Aires this December when Argentina won the World Cup. It had been 36 years since Argentina last won the coveted tournament. The entire city was paralyzed during the game and then erupted in jubilation at its conclusion, of a magnitude I had not previously witnessed. The victory was a matter of national pride, and the team’s stars were regarded as heroes. People cried, and strangers embraced on the streets. The joy and unification were palpable and continued throughout my month-long stay in the city. The entire country seemed to identify with their football team, evidenced in part by the team jerseys worn by everyone from infants to grandparents. The win unified the country at a time when the economy was suffering.
Football star, Lionel Messi, captained Argentina’s national team. He is the country’s all-time leading goal scorer and is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. The 2022 World Cup match was Messi’s swan song at age 35. Despite his immense popularity and wealth as a result of his football career as the product of a working-class family, he remains humble. He champions many charitable causes and is seen as a role model to many.
Football is a passionate game with nonstop action. The time clock infrequently tolls. Controlling the ball requires grace, skill and artful techniques. Families have loyalty to specific teams that can be traced back generations, and rivalries remain fierce. Almost everyone has played some version of soccer over the course of their lives. The game transcends borders, cultures, race and language barriers. Football promotes diversity and is accessible. It evokes powerful emotions in its fans and among its players.
Football has been nicknamed “The Beautiful Game” by many. Watch one game, and you will see why.