Latest News

Athletes play best what they care about most. In America, it's not soccer

Question: What do Iceland, Tunisia, Senegal, Croatia, Costa Rica, Panama and Nigeria all have in common?

Answer: All those countries qualified for – and are playing in – the World Cup, the world championship of soccer.

Here's the kicker: The United States is not. We. Did. Not. Qualify.

We weren't good enough. The rest of the world doesn't have us – as in U.S. – to kick around this year. Where the World Cup is concerned, we are on the outside looking in.

Thus, we will keep our record perfect. Our men have never won the World Cup. Tiny Uruguay, a country of 3.4 million people, has won it twice. The United States, with a population of 325 million, has never been in the finals.

Should we be embarrassed?

Perhaps we should just point to our women, who have represented us quite well on the World Cup stage. We have won the women's World Cup three times, more than any other country. Our women can kick with the best of them. In fact, our women have been the best of them.

Our men? Not so much. Actually, not any.

The men's World Cup began in 1930. The U.S. finished third. And that's the best we've ever done. Since then, our best showing was in 1992 when we made the quarterfinals.


Ask the experts and you'll get a lot of reasons. Some say our boys play an unsophisticated style of soccer compared to the rest of the world. We supposedly rely on counterattacks, while the rest of the world plays a tactically advanced, attacking style.

Frankly, that's above my soccer I.Q.

I think it's much simpler than that. I think we don't care as much. About soccer, I mean.

The vast majority of American males grow up wanting to be football, baseball or basketball stars. That's where the money is. That's where fame and fortune are.

This is just my opinion but I think if Billy Hamilton, centerfielder of the Cincinnati Reds, had been born in Uruguay, he might have become the greatest soccer player in the history of the world.

Instead, he was born in Taylorsville, Mississippi.

You ask me, Hamilton could have been an NBA point guard. He could have been an NFL wide receiver or cornerback. He could have been an Olympic sprinter.

And he possesses the foot speed and the athleticism to have become a soccer phenom. Instead, he makes $4.6 million to play center field and steal bases for the Reds while he's still trying to learn to hit a curve ball.

There are Billy Hamiltons all over America who could have made this country a World Cup powerhouse.

But they don't play soccer.

Let's just go back through Mississippi sports history and take a peek. You think Walter Payton wouldn't have been one of the greatest soccer players of all-time? I do.

Or how about Lance Alworth? Or Monta Ellis? Or Harold Jackson? Or Calvin Smith? Or Ray Guy? Oh my gosh, Ray Guy on the soccer pitch? Can you even imagine?

In America, when a male child is born, Daddy often puts a baseball, football or basketball in the cradle. In Mexico, I'm guessing, it's a soccer ball. That's why Mexico defeated defending champion Germany in the first round of the World Cup while Americans watched.

Willie Morris once told me that writers write best about what they care about most.

By the same token, athletes play best what they care about most.

In America, that's not soccer.

Email Rick Cleveland at