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MIT ranks most popular people in 20th century. 1,064 soccer players qualify vs. 1 football player (It’s O.J.)

Mar 17, 2014, 10:43 PM EDT

Club Tijuana v Los Angeles Galaxy Getty Images

Alternate headline: “Clint Dempsey‘s more famous than Maya Angelou.”

Fame feels like a pretty arbitrary term, but MIT is trying to make it a bit more concrete. Using an elaborate system, the elite American school has put together a list of the most famous people in the entire world.

Not that it’s foolproof, but it is MIT. And it includes two American soccer players.

MIT ranks nearly everything in a project called Pantheon, and the New York Times can help you place the study in context before we get to the soccer player part.

“It has collected and analyzed data on cultural production from 4,000 B.C. to 2010. With a few clicks on its website, which just went live, you can swing through time and geography, making plain the output of, say, Brazil (largely soccer players) or Belarus (politicians). It also ranks professions from chemists to jurists to porn stars.”

Take your own trip through Pantheon here. Now, on to soccer:

The headline above is a little sensationalized. As far as my limited mind can gather from the article, Pantheon takes history into account and one of its qualifiers is someone’s Wikipedia page is translated into 25 languages or more. In other words, the NFL’s popularity bloomed a tad bit later than soccer, and it’s doubtful that “Bruce Smith” has qualified for a Tamil Wikipedia translation. But here’s the list of the most popular soccer players in the world:

1. Cristiano Ronaldo

2. Pelé

3. Lionel Messi

4. Ronaldo

5. Ronaldinho

6. Diego Maradona

7. Zinedine Zidane

8. David Beckham

Number of Soccer Players on the List: 1,064

Number of American-Football Players: 1 (O.J. Simpson)

Surely there are rational reasons for C-Ron being ahead of Pele aside from the hits generated by “Teen Beat: Portugal,” but it’s still odd to consider. How do those rankings play out in your mind? If sexuality or attractiveness was such a big factor, why wouldn’t Becks be higher on the list?

Doing just a cursory look over the site does find some American players qualify, which means Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey rank while Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are nowhere to be found? For people living in America, this is mystifying. It’s not that anyone thinks American football is anywhere near soccer’s level, but 1,064 to 1 (who’s likely on there for a combo of football, movies and crime)? Wild stuff. Like “Marta is more worldwide famous than Joe Montana” level wild.

And get these totals: 71 basketball players, five baseball players and two hockey players.

The details on the Yank soccer players:

Dempsey: 858th ranked soccer player, 78th ranked 1983 birth, 2,028 ranked American birth (ranked between Betty Ford and Maya Angelou).

Donovan: 660th ranked soccer player, 73rd ranked 1982 birth, 1,816 ranked American birth (ranked between Henry Harrison and Hank Aaron).

For those keeping score of player vs. coach, Jurgen Klinsmann is the 101st most famous soccer player, the 17th most famous 1964 birth and 298th ranked German birth (got some work to do to catch Martin Niemoller).

  1. talgrath - Mar 18, 2014 at 2:56 PM

    Take a wander to Europe or South America sometime and you’ll understand exactly how regional and small American football is worldwide; there’s no NFL jerseys or t-shirts, no coverage of the game even at the height of the playoffs. The most coverage the NFL sees outside of North America is in England, but that’s pretty much just a who won the Superbowl article and a brief blip about the NFL games being played in London a bit beforehand. Baseball, of course, is big in the Caribbean and Central America, basketball has a growing fan base in China and Europe and the NHL gets attention in Scandinavian countries and the countries of the former USSR. This is why the NFL wants to get a team into London, they know that as sports become more global they need to expand the sport outside of the US and Canada. The Superbowl may be the biggest sporting event in the US on a given year, but elsewhere nobody cares, that’s why the global listing only has a football player that is more famous for killing his wife than anything else.

    • bishopofblunder - Mar 19, 2014 at 5:52 PM

      You mean, allegedly killing his wife, right? ;)

      • talgrath - Mar 20, 2014 at 4:36 PM

        Well, that depends on how you look at it. Criminally he was cleared, but he lost the wrongful death suit…

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