Who out there hasn’t at some point in their life had the dream of scoring the winning goal in the World Cup or Champions League final? In my case, being English, I’m usually undoing years of incompetence in penalty shootouts by actually scoring and sending a disbelieving German team up to get their runners up medals. Wanting to play at the highest levels of the game is a common motivational theme that keeps people up at night fantasizing or (for the more successful ones) practicing. We’ve all heard the statistics though – you are more likely to get struck by lightning while being eaten by a really ironic shark than to get that elusive contract from Bayern Munich.
But what if that’s not really the case? There are currently close to 20 teams in Major League Soccer, each with rosters of around thirty players. In the National Women’s Soccer League there are nine teams with about twenty players on each. That means close to 600 men and 180 women are getting paid to play soccer (most women are not paid enough to be full time in soccer though). There are second tier teams paying semi-professional wages too so the pool might be bigger than you think. Add in the 92 professional teams in England alone, work your way around the other leagues of Europe, South America and so on and you can begin to see that the are actually a considerable number of players who have made it. FIFPro – the international players union – represents over 50,000 of them, out of an audience estimated by FIFA to be 270 million active soccer players. Assuming that all professional players are in the union – that is close to 0.02% of the total, which has to be better odds than the Jaws scenario.
If you interview a group of professional players you will see that not everyone followed the same path to get where they did, but that there are common themes. These include a work rate and motivation beyond that of their peers, and someone somewhere seeing something in them. Some work their way through high school and college teams, others through academy programs, and still some miss out on everything and get spotted playing on the beach or walking on in open tryouts. Clearly some approaches have higher odds of success than others. The playing field is not even – in most walks of life knowing the right people and having them know you gives you a huge advantage in proving yourself. Persistent people frequently tend to get what they want versus the ones who just hope it might happen. In our interviews with players and coaches who are at the professional level we have heard stories of letters of recommendation, friends pulling in favors with other friends, and even youth coaches getting promoted to becoming the gatekeeper to that next level on the path for their former player. Sadly then, soccer can be as much about building relationships and networks as it can be about technical ability. What separates the game at the highest levels from a typical corrupt dictatorship though is that at that level results and money are all that matter. If you got there and fail to perform, you will be out, so although good players may miss out, bad players can’t survive at the top.
Check out our interviews with current and former professional players, including Sarah Hagen (Bayern Munich), Ella Masar (Houston Dash), Shane O’Neill (Colorado Rapids), Nikki Marshall (Portland Thorns), Wes Knight (FC Edmonton).
FIFA Player’s Agent Jennifer Mendelewitsch (French Football Federation Agent)
And with coaches and staff from professional teams and academies, including Matt Beard (Liverpool FC), Joao Sacramento (AS Monaco), Job Dragtsma (FC Inter), Peter Wennberg (AIK Stockholm), Tim Hankinson (Tampa Bay Mutiny, San Antonio), Luc Sanders (KAA Gent), Brian Crookham (Colorado Rapids), Romeo Jozak (Croatia), Luis Fernando Paes de Barros (Santos FC), Raymond Verheijen (Manchester City), Keith Boanas (Estonia)