The World Cup and the global economic battle
America's scrappy team could teach the U.S. how to keep its competitive edge on the world stage.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Soccer's World Cup starts Friday, and I will spend way too much time watching it on TV (with all the weekday games airing during East Coast working hours, this may cause problems). My son and I will even fly to Germany for a couple of games, and I could easily fill page after Web page with half-informed rantings about the Netherlands' inscrutably brilliant coach, England's dorky new star, and the USA's balding-but-spry goalie. But I won't.
That's partly because such matters are better left to actual professionals like the people at si.com or truly committed amateurs like the writer of my favorite soccer blog, Du Nord. But it's also because there is an important economic lesson to be drawn from the World Cup.
It's about U.S. competitiveness. Lots of Americans are worried about the economic rise of China and of India. Economic success is not a zero sum game. Hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians can rise to prosperity without necessarily robbing Americans of theirs. But economic competitiveness does matter - to the extent that we as a people are complacent, lazy, misgoverned, and maleducated, we will lose out.
This is, as you may know, the dominant theme of the recent work of bestselling author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, whom I spent a lot of time studying last summer for a FORTUNE article.
Friedman has even put the argument in sporting terms. "America today reminds me of our last Olympic basketball team - that lackadaisical group that brought home the bronze medal, " he wrote just over a year ago in the Times. "We think that all we need to do is show up and everyone else will fold - because, after all, we're just competing with ourselves."
It's a fair analogy. But basketball isn't the only sport on the planet, and the United States is not fated to decline and fall.
The 23 young men who flew to Germany last week to represent the United States in soccer's World Cup have had to look beyond our borders their entire lives. Their childhood sports idols were of necessity foreigners, superstars like Michel Platini of France and Diego Maradona of Argentina. Most of them went overseas to hone their games and make decent money.
They've bonded with each other in trips to intensely hostile stadiums in places like Mexico City and San Salvador as they secured qualification for this, the country's fifth World Cup in a row.
Along the way, the Americans have gotten to be pretty good. Not great, mind you. The four-nation group they've landed in this time around is so brutally competitive that there's a good chance the U.S. team even won't make it to the second round. But the Yanks did get to the quarterfinals four years ago, and but for a really bad referee's call against Germany might have been among the final four.
It is only a matter of time, just about everybody in international soccer is convinced, before the Americans win it all - and then do it again, and again.
Assuming that one is willing to draw economic lessons from the performance of a sports team (hey, Tom Friedman was!) here are a few that seem to follow from the soccer team's experience: First, as described above, Americans are perfectly capable of being the sort of scrappy, outward-looking go-getters who can succeed in Friedman's flat world.
Second, good management counts: Under Bruce Arena the U.S. team has been among the best-coached on the planet.
Finally, infrastructure investment and even a bit of industrial policy do seem to help.
The crucial infrastructure - in addition to the youth soccer teams and college programs that have been around for decades - was Major League Soccer. The U.S. professional league began play in 1996, bankrolled largely by billionaires Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt. It's still a minor league by international standards, but it's becoming an increasingly effective training ground for American players.
The industrial policy was the U.S. Soccer Federation's audacious decision in 1999, described in a fascinating article by Grant Wahl in this week's Sports Illustrated, to bring the 20 best young American soccer players to Florida to live in a dorm together for 10 months and train for that year's Under-17 World Championship.
That team made it to the semifinals; two of its members (DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan) starred in the last World Cup, and two more (Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu) are likely to play major roles this month in Germany.
I'll be there in Kaiserslautern June 17, when the U.S. takes on the most complacent, insular team at the World Cup, Italy. Not one member of the Italian team plays professionally outside his home country, and Italy's pro league - once indisputably the world's best - is plagued these days by corruption, half-empty stadiums, and increasingly thuggish fans.