I was going to post this in one of the current soccer threads, but it seemed way too long. As I look at it now, it still seems way too long for a forum post as well. My apologies.
An argument that always seems to surface when soccer is the topic is that the US would be better at it if our best athletes played soccer rather than, say, football or basketball. Maybe, but maybe not. While speed, strength, and agility --the typical toolbox of an excellent athlete-- are certainly assets for any soccer player, on their own they do not make for even a decent soccer player, where at least a great one. Instead, all those typical attributes of an athlete are put in service to a different set of attributes, touch, endurance, and vision.
Exhibit A is, of course, Lionel Messi. For any who don't know, Messi is plain and simply the best player in the world, sorry Ronaldo. He is also about 5'7" and 150 lbs. This does not mean that Argentina is a country of little half-men, nor does it mean that Manu Ginobli would have been a better soccer player than Messi had he chosen to play soccer instead of basketball, and it certainly does not mean that Messi isn't a great athlete. What it means is that you don't have to be Bo Jackson to excel in soccer and that, in fact, being built like Bo Jackson doesn't guarantee any success in soccer.
So, what makes a great soccer player? The first and most obvious answer is endurance. You have to be able to run and run, and run some more. When I played soccer, the warm up for each practice was a two-mile run. The cool down? Another two-mile run. Phillip (Freaking) Lahm making a 60 yard dash in the 94th minute to save the win for Germany in Thursday's game should serve as a fine example of the sort of endurance necessary for soccer. Could Braxton Miller beat Phillip Lahm in a 60 yard dash? Undoubtedly. But I have plenty of doubt whether he could do it in the 94th minute of a soccer game.
Touch is the trickiest and most essential skill for a soccer player to develop which is why, if you've ever watched one of your kids at soccer practice, young players spend so much time just juggling the ball. For those of you who have never played soccer, but maybe have played golf, just think about what it takes to make par. The biggest, strongest guy might drive the ball a mile (if he manages to actually make contact with the ball) but that mile might be slicing or hooking. It might end up in the sand or the water or the shopping cart of some woman in a nearby parking lot. This same guy gets even more useless when you put him on the green. If you want to know what soccer touch looks like, check out Van Persie's diving header against Spain, or lousy, stinking Ronaldo's cross to tie the game for Portugal, or Clint Dempsey's little outside- inside-into the corner for the first goal against Ghana. Benching 400 pounds doesn't help you do that, nor does running the 40 in 4.3 seconds. You have to develop that touch, and not everybody can do it.
Finally, to excel at any sport requires an understanding of the game. We see this every year in college football when some heralded recruit seems to be having trouble figuring out what to do on the field with all his athletic skill. I want to proceed carefully here and emphasize that I have a ton of respect for the intelligence required to understand one's positional obligations in football. Recognizing all the different formations and knowing your responsibility within those formations would be daunting to anyone from any sports background and is an often underappreciated aspect of football. Although it might seem an odd comparison, I think of football as classical music. The playbook is like an elaborate score and the coach is the conductor. Soccer is like jazz. Like jazz it starts from a standard spot, in a certain key, but where it goes from there is up to the players abilities to improvise off of each other. Also, like jazz, it can seem to break down into chaos at times. To stretch the metaphor just a little further, not every classical musician, regardless of skill, can learn to improvise. To make things more direct, the ability for a WR to run a great route does not automatically translate into the ability to sniff out the offside trap when timing one's run.
I'm not saying that a great football player couldn't also have been a great futbol player had he chosen that route. What I am saying is that just as clearly as Messi would fail to excel in a sport like basketball, there are great athletes out there who would fail miserably even if had they tried their hand, or feet, at soccer.