Daily Archives: 2 June 2010

Wednesday Book Review: Soccernomics

Kuper, Simon and Stefan Szymanski. Soccernomics: Why England loses, why Germany and Brazil win, and why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey – and even Iraq – are destined to become the kings of the world’s most popular sport. New York: Nation Books, 2009.

There is a trend, in the United States and elsewhere, to quantify sports through statistics. The statistical revolution looks at old stats in new ways and invents new ones to measure new things. It started in baseball, which is pretty much defined by statistics anyway, and has reached into basketball. New stats in those sports try to determine a player’s value by how much he produces, either offensively or defensively, relative to other players. Authors have taken notice, with the best example being Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. To date, though, soccer has remained aloof from this revolution. Perhaps that’s changing.

In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski use economic theory to look at soccer. As the subheading declares, they want to find out “Why England loses, why Germany and Brazil win, and why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey – and even Iraq – are destined to become the kings of the world’s most popular sport.” The main problem, as they see it, is a refusal to modernize, which manifests itself in gut feelings. Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, is a trained economist who is addicted to statistics. The authors suggest that he is more enlightened than old school managers who think with their guts. Rational analysis, they say, is the best way to find good players, either already on your team or in the transfer market.

Kuper and Szymanski use that idea to touch on clubs, fans, and countries. Applying economic concepts, the authors explain why some teams make such horrendous transfer decisions, why penalty kicks unfold the way they do, and why some teams succeed where others fail. In each case, they rationally present their evidence and suggest ways forward. When discussing fans, the authors’ examination revolves around happiness. To be sure, some go too far and literally live and die by their team’s results but, for the most part, Kuper and Szymanski destroy the Nick Hornby model of fanhood. In Hornby’s best-selling memoir, Fever Pitch, he describes how fell in love with Arsenal and how he remains committed to the club, above all other relationships. To many people, that fidelity defines a true fan and idealized by many sports writers, including ESPN’s Bill Simmons. Kuper and Szymanski show that most fans are not like that; they have either constantly shifting loyalties or are loyal to two or more teams, or a combination of both. Hornby, then, is the exception, rather than the rule because fans are, above all else, consumers.

Although this is a book that uses economic theory, there is not a lot of economics in it. That’s a good thing. The book remains accessible to the non-specialist, although the authors assume the reader is reasonably well-read. The authors also encourage the reader to be open-minded. I didn’t find any of their conclusions too off-the-wall, though they sometimes took a circuitous route to get there. I like that they re-visited the idea of hosting large sporting events, a favorite whipping boy of the good people at The Sports Economist (to which Szymanski is a contributor). Although there will be little to no economic benefit for South Africa’s hosting the World Cup, there will be an intangible benefit, which is happiness. Hosting an event of that magnitude, and hosting visitors from all over the world, makes people happy. And South Africa will, hopefully, reap the benefits of that happiness.

Soccernomics is an excellent book. It helps bridge the gap between the old school and the new school. Soccer is more resistant to Moneyball-style analysis because there are limited uses for statistics. Wenger, for example, places a lot of stock in kilometers run. But he also focuses on technical skills which take years to hone (hence his bias toward buying young players). Thus even in the Soccernomics hero exists the dueling old and new schools. Drawing that out, and showing that can and can’t be explained, is Kuper and Szymanski’s real contribution.

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Now we’re bringing out the heavy hitters

Brad Pitt joins the US World Cup bid

Brad Pitt has joined the US bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup. I’m reasonably certain that the bid committee will be more impressed by him than any of the other big wigs (including Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Henry “The Kiss” Kissinger, and Drew Carey [so the US has that crucial European blue collar demographic sewn up]). And I’m being serious.

Though he needs to shave before the presentation on 2 December 2010.

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World Cup 2010: Group D jerseys

On to Group D, which is a very colorful group of home jerseys.

Australia home jersey in the 2010 World Cup

Australia goes to South Africa in its traditional gold and green shirt. I’m not sure about the green shoulder pads but the simplicity is to be admired. It seems as though Nike is looking to simplify things with only a few strong lines in its jerseys (Brazil is an exception, but I’ll get to them later). Australia’s shirt works, for the most part, shoulder pads aside.

Germany home jersey for the 2010 World Cup

Germany’s home jersey is very, very traditional. There’s really nothing wrong with it, though the one stripe is somewhat interesting. Perhaps the one stripe is Adidas’s desperation move for at least one piece of flair. Fortunately, the German tradition means that Adidas can’t screw with them.

Ghana away jersey for the 2010 World Cup

Just to switch things up, I’m posting Ghana’s away jersey for the World Cup (the home jersey is white and very uninspired). I like Ghana’s away shirt (by Puma) even though it’s the same template as Algeria’s shirt (though without the awesome Desert Fox on the shoulder). In this case, the shoulder is empty but the red and gold stripes more than make up for it. I like the color scheme and think it will look fantastic on the pitch.

Serbia home jersey for the 2010 World Cup

This shirt vaguely recalls England’s from a few years ago, when it had a stylized Cross of St. George on the shoulder. In this case, the cross is off-centre and, once again, demonstrates Nike’s renewed commitment to clean lines. For that, the company should be commended. But back to Serbia. I like the colors and I like how the FA’s patch reflects the shirt’s design. I think that’s a rather subtle addition that gives the shirt some more character.

Until next time…

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