Soccernomics – Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

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Soccernomics – World Cup Edition is an updated version of this book , published to coincide with this year’s World Cup in Brazil.  It’s a fascinating and easy read, engaging despite being crammed full of statistics and facts.  The writers have a lively and informal tone, and support points with pithy anecdotes from soccer around the world.

It’s easy to get carried along by this book – the precise but personal language, the way the writers never talk down to the reader, the rapid pace and the range of interesting topics. It’s a book for anyone interested in soccer, geography, history, economics, statistics, and a hundred other topics related to this analysis of the way football has developed into an international business.

Kuper and Szymanski approach the subject primarily from an English point of view – so chapters about the relative success of different footballing nations, or about the impact that coaches and managers can have on the game, take football in England as a starting point, but go on to consider the implications for the world game.

It was easy to get carried away by the weight of argument, the persuasiveness of the examples and enthusiasm of the writers – especially as so many of the opinions expressed reflect my own. The chapter on the working class influence in the English game touched on one of my long standing gripes about a key failure of English football: its anti-intellectualism.  They mention the way that Graeme LeSaux was pilloried for being a Guardian reader, consider the Dutch approach to football, which is more intellectual and thoughtful, and look at the class system and the role of rugby union in narrowing the pool of athletes open for selection.  They claim that English football has been quite provincial, and stories about Ian Rush’s comments on returning from a spell in Italy support that view.  There is an element of English culture, attracted to parties such as UKIP, that is narrow minded and provincial.  The authors present a convincing analysis of why this approach is likely to work to the detriment of both English football, and English society as a whole.  They argue persuasively that competition from imported players raises the quality of the English national team, and that there is much for the English to gain from other European football cultures.

It would be much easier for a mathematician than for me to evaluate the statistical evidence adduced to support the writers’ views, especially with respect to the relative performance of different national teams.  I have limited knowledge in this area.  However, much of the argument depends on the reader accepting the view that performance can be reduced to numbers by averaging out scores and results over the past 100 years of international soccer.  The statistics are definitely interesting, but make some pretty bold assumptions too: they do try to account for the differences in the quality of the international opponents of each country, but there are big gaps and questions: statistics from the war period – especially the 1940s – may be unreliable; countries tend to play teams of equal ability – especially in friendly games; comparisons between South American and European teams may not be as valid as comparisons within Europe.  These are some questions I would raise, though I’m sure the authors could answer them.

If you are a soccer fan with an interest in the history and the future of the game I’d definitely recommend this book.

FIFA World Cup Site

Manchester City Football Club

 

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