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Soccer by the numbers: Soccernomics book review

soccernomicsOver 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.

Soccernomics is available from all fine booksellers including Amazon ($10.17 as of press time). You can also buy Soccernomics on Kindle.

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  1. rod

    November 4, 2010 at 4:19 am

    Unfortunately all aspects of football success internationally cannot just be explained by numbers.
    Economics does play a role in footballing success as with many poorer nations the only way out of the ghettos is prowess at soccer as a good education is beyond their means.
    These such countries will continue to churn out many of the worlds finest, i am Australian and like the U.S. we have many sports that attract athletes and our young soccer players generally do not have the ingrained determination to succeed.

  2. Arsenal66

    June 20, 2010 at 2:29 am

    While this book is handicapped by the lack of statistical data that baseball has for example there are some very interesting chapters and conclusions. Where this book lost me however is that many of their conclusions, while based on stats, seemed loose and entirely unconvincing. When compared with Freakonomics (clearly was their inspiration) which is convincing in almost all aspects, this left me feeling that the writers were trying too hard to make conclusions where none may exist. Worth a read with some enlightening parts but hardly paradigm shifting which seemed the point.

  3. Don Thomson

    February 28, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    As I write this , the Winter Olympics in Vancouver are just concluding and Canada has just won the men’s hockey gold medal; in so doing Canada has set a record for the most gold medals in the Winter Olmpics by any country. Nowhere on your list of sporting nations is Canada even shown. Pardon my national pride,but to suggest that Canada is not a sporting nation is ludicrous. Significantly, most of the countries listed in the book had a very hard time finding the podium let alone winning gold medals.
    I did enjoy the first part of the book, as it dealt with the problems of teams in the premiership and other major leagues. Any thoughts of investing in a team such as Tottemhan were quickly quashed. The first chapters were very good but the latter chapters had less and less to do with football and more and more to do with social issues.
    overall rating 6

    • Salvador Alfaro

      April 27, 2010 at 3:31 pm

      The winter Olympics?

      Those are not sports. Those are hobbies!- (except for hockey).

  4. Shawn

    December 1, 2009 at 2:16 am

    Ovalball said: “I hope no one is holding his breath waiting for us (U.S.) to become the “NEW KINGS OF THE WORLD’S MOST POPULAR SPORT”. It is never going to happen.”

    Never is a long time my friend. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “Professional soccer would never make it in the USA” or “Toronto FC will never have more 3,000 fans per match” I would be a very rich man.

    The US doesn’t have to be the new kings of soccer – they only have to make a deep run every 8 years. Sort of like the Netherlands.

  5. Jleau

    December 1, 2009 at 1:00 am

    I read the book and would recommend it. Not fantastic but enjoying if you enjoy statistics and numbers.

  6. Zola612

    November 30, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Quality book. I am a fan of this sort of writing (about sports, or not).
    I have thoroughly enjoyed it and passed it on already.

  7. ovalball

    November 30, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    I hope no one is holding his breath waiting for us (U.S.) to become the “NEW KINGS OF THE WORLD’S MOST POPULAR SPORT”. It is never going to happen.

    Given the overwhelming draw of the NFL, NBA and MLB, soccer can barely get the attention of our best Junior High School and High School athletes. With no real feeder programs I am afraid U.S. soccer is doomed to an eternity of second tier world status, despite our wealth and population. We may on occasion field a good international team, but, barring a fluke, I never see us fielding a great one.

    Just the opinion of a former Jr. & Sr. High School coach…who would love to be proved wrong. 🙂

    • Scott Alexander

      July 11, 2010 at 8:58 pm

      Wouldn’t you expect soccer to become progressively more and more important as the USA gets closer and closer and then finally is a majority Hispanic country?

  8. Grant

    November 30, 2009 at 11:41 am

    I hate to break it to you, but the majority of the analysis in Moneyball is done by Billy Beane, not Michael Lewis.

  9. Bishopville Red

    November 30, 2009 at 9:33 am

    This one is on my Christmas list, but I don’t plan on taking it too seriously. I expect an interesting read of stuff that would otherwise come up in a good pub chat among knowledgeable punters. Really, it offers theories and a process to see it through. More importantly, it offers readers a few formulas to try out on their own and see if they fit the individual fans’ circumstance. Finally, it also appears to offer some framework to figure out their own predictions. Im my eyes, more of a rough guide, using examples, to try to predict where things will go.

    Ultimately, if a room of economists can get together and fail to agree whether on not the global economy is still in recession, bottomed out, or already out of trouble, this book is far from definitive. Just food for thought and fodder for cannons at pubs all over the world. Good fun!

    At least I hope so.


  10. Gaz

    November 30, 2009 at 8:45 am

    I read How Soccer Explains the World a few years ago and thought it was mediocre at best. I recently read Inverting the Pyramid and thought it was absolutely dull to the core. However, I just started reading this book and I think it is excellent so far (I am, admittedly, only 50 pages in so far).

    I welcome a little bit of intellectual thought into the game but so few of these books spark interest. The premise always sounds promising but the topics aren’t what most football fans want to read about. I think this one is one of the few that do, though. It takes some interesting subjects and then applies the rule of numbers to explain the truth or debunk the myth (an example is the the myth of England as underachievers being debunked by way of statistics).

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