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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