Category Archives: Wednesday Book Review

Wednesday Book Review: Soccer Against the Enemy

Kuper, Simon. Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power. New York: Nation Books, 2006 (1994).

An Argentine general, upon meeting Simon Kuper and learning the subject of his book said, “Soccer and politics! What an original theme!” (208) In reality, Kuper’s book, Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power, is not about soccer and politics. It’s more about soccer and life, or soccer and one particular subculture. To be sure, Kuper’s stories are entertaining, but he sometimes wanders off his point. I’m quite sure that most people can connect soccer to the sectarian violence in Scotland associated with the Old Firm or in the Balkans after the most recent war there. But there are precious few revolutions and even fewer dictators in Kuper’s book. There are, however, a lot of gangsters, superfans, and poor examples set by the English.

Kuper’s book is a product of a year-long journey around the world to various soccer hotspots (and some that were not such soccer hotspots). As a result the book is part travelogue, part match day description, and part investigative report. It is the third part on which Kuper wants the reader to focus. It is true that in some places soccer has assumed a different importance. For example, in Kiev, Dinamo Kiev was more powerful than the city government in the early 1990s. In Argentina, using soccer to cover up the nation’s problems is a tactic that dates to at least 1978. The generals in the 1990s simply used soccer more efficiently. In Africa, soccer was used as a representative example of the dysfunctional nation-state. True, soccer was used by people for various reasons, but there were not a lot of dictators to be found. Kuper wanders off his main point when discussing Croatian fans and the meaning of any Holland-Germany game (like many others, he associated it with World War II). Accidentally, he proved that soccer was a means of defining oneself as a nation.

In the last two chapters, Kuper hammers home his point by jumping around the Middle East and the Balkans. In both areas, soccer is viewed as an expression of nationalism. Like Camp Nou during the Franco era, it is perhaps the only way for people to express anti-regime feelings. Soccer, then, is capable of bringing people together and dividing them. Terrorists, as well, want to use soccer’s global reach for their own awful gains. Kuper paints a horrifying portrait of bombs at the World Cup (this section was clearly revised for the second edition, because it references 11 September 2001). To be sure, soccer is a weapon used by people in power all over the world to keep people in line. National teams, for example, take on an importance in other parts of the world – especially Africa, or new states like Croatia – that is unknown in the United States. Even the Dutch national team, in Kuper’s estimation, are a proxy for the nation itself. Playing Germany is a little war, in which the Dutch can express their resistance, once again. In the end, soccer is simply another political tool for some people, which is not an especially new thesis, but Kuper’s presentation – a comparative perspective – is eye-opening.

Simon Kuper is an excellent writer. He is engaging and eloquent, with often funny asides (though some non-sequiturs are rather pointless; then again, who am I to judge?). He never explicitly connects the dots between areas of the world, but leaves that to the reader. As a result, things can be interpreted in different ways. There are a number of small mistakes throughout the book; some are grammatical while others are factual. It’s also a shame he didn’t have time to visit Central America or Asia (in his defense, soccer wasn’t big in Asia in the early 1990s and South American soccer was more important than Central American soccer).

With all that said, Soccer Against the Enemy is an impressive book. I can see why it won awards, but I wish he had tied everything more concretely to his thesis. Nevertheless, this is a book all soccer fans should own.

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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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Wednesday Book Review: Soccer in Sun and Shadow

Galeano, Eduardo. Soccer in Sun and Shadow. Translated by Mark Fried. New York and London: Verso, 2003.

Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano writes an engaging, entertaining memoir of his life-long love affair with soccer. Along the way, he treats the reader to several excellent anecdotes and more than a few surprising number. His thesis, such as it is, is to explain why soccer is important, in the grand scheme of things, and how the sport brings people together. He cannot resist as few potshots at both FIFA and UEFA for excluding the Americas, Africa, and Asia (though that changed, to a small degree, in 1994, which he notes. The book, of course, was published seven years ago so it cannot take into account the 2010 World Cup in South Africa).

Galeano has an informal style of writing that lends itself to the book’s structure, which is a series of small one to five page chapters. Each chapter has a theme that highlights a particularly important point in soccer’s history. Soccer as religion is a particularly important theme throughout, as players and fans pray, coaches invoke God or the Virgin Mary (p. 65-67), and priests bless home pitches for good luck. Of course, that also leads to people placing curses on rival teams (p. 62). From the real to the absurd, Galeano has an excellent feel for why soccer is important not only to Latin Americans (and Uruguayans) but also the world.

To his credit, Galeano avoids connecting soccer to class, as so many authors do, while simultaneously noting the joie de vivre that some teams have and others don’t. That, he writes, has more to do with culture than with class. It’s like comparing the grim machinations of today’s Chelsea or Manchester United side with the unadulterated joy of FC Barcelona. Soccer, Galeano believes, should be enjoyed because if it’s not, it becomes nothing more than a business. And that’s his point: soccer wasn’t always a multi-billion dollar business and now that it is, that doesn’t mean that all the joy needs to be sucked out of it. Soccer in Sun and Shadow is a love letter to the game itself, which is a joyful experience despite the best efforts of those who see it in purely economic terms.

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