Time for U.S. Soccer to come out of the closet
Even though Sweden failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, it has a thing or two it could teach to U.S. Soccer.
By Chipp Reid
As Denni Avdic grew up in Jönköping, he knew he was different from the other kids. His dark hair, different religion and different customs set him apart from other Swedish children. His parents moved to Sweden from Bosnia in 1988. Denni was born in 1989 in Sweden,
“I grew up in Sweden. I am Swedish,” Avdic said. “My parents are Bosnian but I have always thought of myself as Swedish.”
Growing up, Avdic had the same opportunities, the same benefits of being Swedish as any other Swede. Now 21, he is a star for Allsvenskan power Elfsborg, a member of the Under-21 Swedish national team and recently made his debut for the full national side.
It’s a familiar story in Sweden, where one in nine people are either immigrants or first-generation Swedes. It’s a familiar story in the United States, as well, except when it comes to soccer.
Despite having more Hispanic citizens or residents than most countries in South America, more African immigrants than Ghana has people, U.S. Soccer, the governing body of the sport in America, refuses to accept these people as anything more than ready-made fans.
Major League Soccer for the chosen
One look at the U.S. side that recently bowed out of the 2010 World Cup shows the attitude U.S. Soccer has toward the immigrant community. Other than a handful of black players, the players on the American team were upper-middle class white kids that attended some of the biggest universities in the U.S.
Denni Avdic didn’t need a university to propel him into the spotlight. He made his debut at 17 after rising through the ranks of the Elfsborg youth teams. Major League Soccer, the U.S. pro league, makes no allowance for players such as Avdic.
The question is why. It smacks of the kind of closet racism that plagued other sports, most notably hockey. It also explains why the United States, with its 310 million people, can’t field a team that can truly compete on the international stage.
Sweden, for all its foible, long ago solved its selection process by simply taking the best players. It doesn’t matter if those players are in the Allsvenskan, the Superettan or if the coach discovers a prodigy in the forests around Kiruna. U.S. Soccer, it seems, only wants players that can bring in support from either wealthy alumni or big corporations, which, unfortunately, means upper-middle class white kids.
Money more important than sport
Football is supposed to be the world game, but U.S. Soccer remains mired in the 1950s, believing money is more important than sport and only those on the “inside” are really good enough to be a part of its fraternity. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati ought to take a good, hard look at how Swedish football operates. Unlike MLS or the national program, Swedish football is inclusive. There is no standard of being blond-haired or blue-eyed or speaking perfect Swedish. Instead, the only requirement is to be a good football player.
The end result of U.S. Soccer’s policy of exclusion is the elimination of millions of people that could contribute a wealth of knowledge, ability, passion, and yes, money, to the sport here in America. It also keeps this country from fielding a truly national, national team and makes MLS little more than the play thing of its wealthy owners.
Who selects the chosen?
Before Bob Simpson took over as head coach of the U.S. national team, Carlos Queiroz, the current coach of Portugal, and current Finnish national coach Stuart Baxter were both in the running for the job. Baxter was especially interested, until he learned a committee would select his players, not him. After a brief visit, Baxter said he believed he could travel several cities―New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Saint Louis―and easily find 23 players that would not only smack around the best team in MLS, but would also hammer the U.S. national team.
The problem, he said, was most of those players would speak English with an accent, whether Polish, Spanish or Caribbean. They are the players any team in Sweden would welcome and the players U.S. Soccer keeps in the dark.
It’s time for that to change. Gulati and company should either open the doors to every football player or at least come clean and tell the soccer-playing public that football in this country has nothing to do with sport and everything to do with money.
How many Denni Avdices are out there waiting, praying for a chance in U.S. soccer? How many of them will never get the chance because they didn't go to college or because of their ethnic backgrounds.
Football is all about inclusion. It’s a lesson Sweden can teach, if only the Americans would learn.