It’s hard to truly estimate the population of those who play the sport. But, in 2007, FIFA did its best. The world body approximated roughly 265 million people actively play the sport. No doubt, soccer earns its reputation as the world’s game.

That number undoubtedly bounces up or down with time and trends. For example, in the United States, soccer is rising in popularity and participation. Young adults own an interest in soccer at higher rates than any other age group available. Additionally, soccer represents one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Compared to other major American sports, soccer is the third-most-popular sport to play for children aged 13 to 17.

Nothing needs to be said about the popularity of the world’s game elsewhere. The 2018 World Cup Final peaked at 1.1 billion viewers, averaging over 500 million throughout the contest.

There is a certain beauty to the game that makes it such a pleasure to watch and play. An argument can be made that soccer is, at its core, the best sport to grace the planet. The world’s game is not just something fun, it defines what makes the sport special.

Outside of the moniker, soccer’s characteristics and global reach define what makes it the greatest sport on Earth.

World’s game transcends cultures

Nationalism in sport happens in two instances. One is the Olympics, the ultimate competition of athleticism between countries. The other is through soccer. No other sport has competition between every continent like soccer.

The club level has certain aspects of nationalism, but international tournaments see entire countries support a 23-player squad of men or women.

Looking at recent renditions of the World Cup, teams representing nations in Africa, North America, Asia, South America and Europe all made deep runs into the tournament. Despite the fact that a European country won four-straight World Cups, international storylines dominate. There are always players from throughout the world that play the best in a given tournament.

Domestically, soccer is an outlet for fans to express themselves. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the temporary removal of fans from stadiums led to a profound impact on the experience of watching a game. Throughout the world, fans make the experience as special as it can be.

The one fault with soccer, which FIFA and the individual federations work to eliminate, is discrimination.

Racism, sexism and homophobia persist throughout the world, despite the more developed and progressive nations possessing more popular and profitable leagues.

While the discrimination rages, the world’s game acts as a way to combat the toxicity. The billions of fans worldwide work to recognize areas of issue in the game, and thus remove them to allow availibility to all who wish to play or watch the sport.

Different areas and nations may play or watch the game differently, but the aim of the game remains the same. The simple nature is also a contributing factor to what makes the game the best in the world.

Simplicity in sport

Some sports can get confusing with the different point values possible. Basketball has chances to score one, two or three points at once.

Other sports can score just once, but have certain rules to prevent that. Lacrosse has limits on the amount of people inside a certain zone. Hockey’s rapid changes make it hard to keep track of where players are and what positions they play.

The world’s game is both beautifully simple and complex. The aim of the game is to outscore your opponent. That’s it. No special equipment is required, outside of shin guards. The rules make sense, with offside being the only confusing one. Also, the introduction and development of video assistance does not simplify that facet of the game.

Regardless, soccer is easy to pick up for those who are unfamiliar with the sport.

Even with how simple the game is, modifications to the rules are seldom. Offside is always a topic of debate, golden goal made a brief appearance before being removed and video assistance is now at the forefront of discussion.

It is surprising to consider the intricacies of the sport knowing how simple it is. The multitude of formations that can be applied and switched throughout a game are numerous. Different managers from different nations employ strategies using players possessing their own special skill sets. Entire clubs devoted to a certain style because they like the way it looks. Tiki-Taka at Barcelona and the Samba flair in Brazil and Latin America.

All these players, coaches and styles of play exist within the same game. However, they create the world’s game through making one sport seem so different.

Opportunity for all

Plenty of sports are pay-to-play. Essentially, sports like hockey, golf or American football require high equipment expenses. With soccer, at least at young ages, all that is required is a ball.

Sure, it is nice to have a goal of some quality to shoot into or some fancy cleats to increase agility. However, when we look at poorer countries, soccer’s nature allows talent to show through.

Take any of the soccer icons to play the game. Diego Maradona played for a neighborhood team in Argentina before being discovered. Lionel Messi played for Newell’s Old Boys’ youth team before a scout saw his talents. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic described, “Pele became a champion without anything, he played with a ball made of rags.”

The wealth of players for the world’s game does not come from rich parents providing opportunities to their children. Instead, it comes from pure desire, and perhaps the hope of glory.

This contributes to the size of the game. In turn, the popularity provides levels of success and opportunity.

In each country, there is usually a top-tier professional league. Underneath that league, there are subdivisions and other competitions throughout an eight-month span each year. For example, in England, everyone wants to play in the Premier League, as it is the top division of the English pyramid. Beneath that, there are three professional leagues, and even more semi-professional leagues. Players can ascend through these ranks depending on their performances to reach the top.

Theoretically, a player and/or club could slowly rise from the bottom of any league system in the world, and make their way to the world stage.

There’s a beauty about that. It’s just one of the many things we love about The Beautiful Game.