I was surfing the web late the other night and stumbled on an interesting article in the New York Times. Entitled No Babies?, it is a lengthy and fascinating look at demographic trends in Europe. There was no mention of football or any other sport. Instead, the article’s author examined the reasons for low European birth rates and offered a rather unsettling suggestion of what the continent might be like in coming decades. (Think of a depopulated place that resembles a theme park, like Venice). Yesterday morning, after the first critical sips of coffee had worked their magic, a serious question popped into my head: Does this mean that European football will be irrelevant by mid-century?
It’s fairly well-known that Europe’s birth rate has declined drastically in the past fifteen years or so. But compared to the replacement birth rate of 2.1 children per woman, the current Italian and Spanish rates of 1.3 are especially low. In some parts of Italy, it hovers around 1.0, a rate that is deemed “pathological.” And it’s not just Italy and Spain. Birth rates throughout eastern and southern Europe are equally low. Dutch and Scandanavian birth rates are somewhat higher, though at 1.7-1.8 they remain below replacement level. In Germany, well over a quarter of women born in 1960 have remained childless, far more than in any other European country. In fact, Germany’s population actually declines by around 100,000 per year and a very high percentage of German women believe that the optimal number of children is zero.
There are lots more statistics to mull over. In Spain only 22% of the population will be 24 or younger by 2025, compared to 42% in India. And Europe’s share of world population has been steadily declining: it was 12.5% in 1960, 7.2% today, and is projected to fall to 5% by 2050. A quick visit to Wikipedia (where else?), provides a basis for comparison. Argentina’s fertility rate is a healthy 2.4 children per woman, even though most Argentinians are of Italian and Spanish ancestry and its GDP is currently comparable to Poland’s. (Note, however, that the Argentinian rate is expected to decline to 2.09 for 2008). Other projected 2008 fertility rates: 2.10 for the US, 1.86 for Brazil, and 1.85 for both the UK and Ireland.
Let’s have some fun with idle speculation. The demographers remind us that the first place the population bust will be noticed is–obviously–on the playground. But what about the football pitch? Soccer skills can’t be learned, let alone perfected, in isolation. There may be some value in juggling a soccer ball, or practicing spot-kicks into an empty net. But it’s much better to practice with other kids. Isn’t that why the Europeans and South Americans and Africans–pretty much the rest of the world–are so much better at soccer than Americans? There are plenty of kids to play pick-up games with all day long, while our young players spend hours in the back of mom’s mini-van getting shuttled from one highly-structured practice to another. Will the disappearance of Europe’s children from streets and playgrounds mean that European player development will begin to resemble the American pattern?
The interaction of economic factors and cultural attitudes lies behind the collapsing European birth rate. Those families who take the plunge and produce a child tend to be wealthier. Do these families view football as a priority? I ask this because it has often been noted that in America the socioeconomic profile of the sport is very different from what it has historically been in the rest of the world. Here it’s a pastime of middle and upper-middle-class suburban children, whereas players in Europe and elsewhere are usually from less privileged backgrounds. If child-rearing in Europe ultimately becomes the sole province of the upper classes, will soccer practice be just another activity for busy kids, along with piano practice, swimming, tennis, and golf? Worse yet, might this demographic simply abandon football? A football career does seem to be incompatible with a European university education.
Football’s European roots and traditions are so deep that there will always be Spanish and Italian and German children who live for the sport. But will there be enough of them? Today, Europe’s presence in world football–both international competition and the prestige of its domestic leagues–is a commanding one. Its teams have won exactly half of the eighteen World Cup finals, with South American sides victorious in the other nine. Italy and (West) Germany lead the way among European teams with four and three World Cup titles, respectively. Three of the five most recent World Cups have been won by European teams.
But demographic changes work their way through society very slowly. The drastic decline in birth rates began in the 1990s, so for now we can only guess about the eventual effects of European depopulation on the world balance of power in football. Questions, questions…