Over the past decade or so, there has been an odd trend of political and financial analysts, economists and behaviorists writing books analyzing sports. Some of these books have shifted the paradigm in those sports like Michael Lewis’ baseball analysis Moneyball. Some of these books found very creative ways to portray obvious truisms (the more you practice, the better you get) like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Some of these books looked like great ways for the author to write off the opportunity to travel the world watching sports, like Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World. And some of these books were so unbearable, like George Will’s baseball book Men at Work, that reading it aloud has been declared as torture under the Geneva Convention.
Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski have entered this fray with Soccernomics, which was published in the UK under the much more compelling title Why England Lose. Kuper is an anthropologist who has written several books about soccer and Syzmanski is an economics professor, and they have teamed up to use economic data and statistics to unearth new perspectives about an old game.
This is a hard task. Of all the sports in the world, soccer is the most stat averse, and gives Kuper and Syzmanski a much more barren field to till than Lewis had when he wrote Moneyball. It is only in the most recent years that people have bothered to track statistics about the game itself, and those stats are rarely made available for the public. Over the past decade, a few consultancy firms have emerged to statistically categorize what happens during a game, and those firms sell their data to the major clubs. Statistics about successful pass completion, miles run, ground covered, quality attempts on goal and other forms of analysis are hard to come by for the average soccer fan.
This is a shame because there are many age-old soccer debates which stats could help resolve, but those numbers are rarely tracked, available and deeply analyzed. Which makes a bigger contribution to success, a great back line or terrific strikers? Is it better to have your wingers play more forward or support the defense? If you want to lower the quantity of goals your team gives up, is it better to invest in a great goal keeper, a great central defender or a great holding mid-fielder?
Soccer does not provide the data to provide insights to such basic questions, so Kuper and Syzmanski often have to look at issues that are more peripheral to the game. Their analysis of why England won the World Cup in 1966 (home field advantage) and have not gotten close since (because so few English players play for non-English clubs) is compelling. Similarly, their theory on why capital cities rarely produce Champions League winners, while not entirely convincing, is very intriguing. Their most compelling analysis may be their look at how a few executives (Brian Clough, Arsene Wenger, Lyons’s Bernard Lacombe) bring a calculated analysis to their player selections to get extraordinary results.
On the other hand, there are sections of the book where Kuper and Syzmanski use elaborate statistical models to prove theories that are blindingly obvious. Do we really need regression analysis to know that English football used to discriminate against black players, but is no longer very bigoted? Do you need to make a lot of calculations to know that when a team is more successful on the pitch, they are more popular and sell more tickets, and the loyal fans who stick with a team through thick and thin are rarer?
The most compelling sections of the books are their first and their last chapters, where they look at what it takes for a national team to be great. Essentially, Kuper and Syzmanski postulate that national greatness is a combination of three factors – population size, wealth and experience. Brazil is the wealthiest of the emerging third world countries with a very large population whose players gain experience playing in the great leagues all over the world – the perfect combination. France is similarly wealthy, populated and experienced. What Holland loses in population is made up for both in wealth and their players’ ability to ply their trade all over Europe. Conversely, England has cursed itself by having its national team play almost exclusively for clubs in England. Without that valuable experience in other leagues, Kuper and Syzmanski feel England is permanently doomed to disappoint their rabid fans.
Conversely, Kuper and Syzmanski project great things for the US, China and Japan. With their combination of wealth and population, these countries are on the verge of becoming dominant soccer nations. All they need is to export more of their players to Europe and import more coaches from Europe, and these nations will be ready to rule the soccer world.
Of course, someone like Malcolm Gladwell would counter by questioning whether potential players from these countries could get the 10,000 hours of practice necessary to become truly extraordinary players. With Japan’s emphasis on time spent in the classroom, China’s general disdain for recreational activities that do not add to their economic boom and the way American athletes end up dividing their time among different sports, Gladwell would say it will be hard for these countries to develop the kind of outliers that can lead a nation to greatness.
As more of these big-brained tomes appear, it might be interesting to watch a debate between Kuper & Syzmanski and Gladwell about what it takes to make a truly great soccer team. On the other hand, it also might be a lot more interesting to dispense with all the statistics and calculations and simply go out and watch a really good game of soccer.