Inside Story

Soccer by numbers

Scott Ewing reviews Soccernomics, which promises to show “why England loses, why Germany and Brazil win, and why the US, Japan, Australia, Turkey – and even Iraq – are destined to become the kings of the world’s most popular sport”

Scott Ewing 15 March 2010 1706 words

By Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski | Nation Books | US$14.95

A BLURB on the front cover of Soccernomics calls it a “blend of Freakonomics and Fever Pitch…” Frankly, that sounds like a bit of a nightmare – young, brash, know-it-all American meets self-obsessed, maudlin Brit with literary pretensions. But despite this, the book is good fun even if its arguments aren’t always convincing.

Freakonomics and Fever Pitch are called on as examples – bestselling examples – of two recent popular writing genres that Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s book attempts to straddle. The first of these is best described as statistical myth-busting, whereby authors unleash an armoury of statistical tools on perplexing, if at times rather trivial, problems, proving that while people commonly think X, when you look at the data it actually shows Y.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics introduced a broad readership to the genre in 2005. That work was essentially a collection of essays in which the economist, now “celebrity economist,” Steven Levitt played the numbers, while New York Times journalist Stephen Dubner provided the praise. The results were both entertaining and illuminating – so much so that a movie of the same name is now in production. The book spawned a number of imitators who, like Kuper and Szymanski, have incorporated “onomics” into their titles. In 2007 Australia got its very own with Ozonomics: Inside the Myth of Australia’s Economic Superheroes, written by Andrew Charlton, who is now one of Kevin Rudd’s advisers.

The other tradition that Soccernomics draws on is the longer-standing rise and rise of writing exploring the culture of the world game. “New Soccer writing,” for want of a better term, is often traced to the publication of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch in 1992, although the influential fanzine When Saturday Comes predates it, as does Pete Davies’s All Played Out: The Full Story of Italia ’90, which Hornby describes as “the first football book I thought was any good.”

(Hornby’s reference to “football” raises an interesting issue. According to Kuper and Szymanski it is only recently that “soccer” fell into disrepute among British supporters as a nasty American usage. Until the 1970s, when the game took off in the States, soccer was the most popular term for the game in Britain. Armed with this new knowledge I don’t feel provincial calling football “soccer” and will do so throughout this review.)

This surge in writing was an important part of British soccer’s renaissance, its shift from a game associated with hooligans, cramped stadiums and general working-class “oikiness” to a more mainstream entertainment capable of being discussed in polite company. The writing was often nostalgic and suspicious of corporate involvement in the game, but perhaps most importantly it treated football culture seriously and was interested in exploring football’s role in wider cultures.

The authors certainly pay their respects to this genre (in which Simon Kuper himself is a key figure) and Soccernomics includes an excellent bibliography of examples of this writing, including Alex Bellos’s superb Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life. The first chapter of Bellos’s book is perhaps my favourite piece of sports writing, documenting the importation of a job-lot of Brazilians by clubs playing in the Faroe Islands league. Here we have what all economists love, a win–win situation: the Faroe Islanders wanted some Brazilian magic to adorn their competition; the Brazilian players wanted to be able to tell people back home that they played in Europe. The story of these men plying their trade in such an alien environment is engrossing. (I particularly enjoyed the story of Robson, the player who wasn’t good enough to make the team to which he’d been assigned but did manage to get a steady job at the local fish factory, meet and marry a local girl and raise a family.)

The application of Freakonomics-style data analysis to soccer seems an obvious move. Soccer inspires great passion and debate giving rise to many untested views and theories and there is a great deal of data available to test these theories. Soccernomics makes full use of this material and puts forward some terrific analysis. Very much like Freakonomics, the book is a series of essays exploring various topics and issues. The pieces are of varying length and, it must be said, varying quality, at least as far as the statistical analysis goes.

When it works it really works. The chapter exploring whether English soccer discriminates against black people presents work done by one of the co-authors (Szymanski). Having previously established that there is a strong relationship between total player payments and success (though not between transfer fees paid and success) he undertakes regression analysis to isolate the impact of player payments and the number of black players in a team. What he finds is that if you hold player payments constant then the teams with more black players outperformed those with fewer blacks, which implies that the black players are better value than their white counterparts – most likely because of systemic discrimination. Encouragingly, the research demonstrates that as more clubs hired black players the costs of not doing so increased to the point where hold-out clubs were all but forced to fall into line.

Perhaps an even starker example of discrimination in soccer and the corresponding potential for gaming by participants is the Celtic–Rangers rivalry in Scotland. The Rangers didn’t hire a single Catholic player between the end of the second world war and 1989. Yet in the words of Sean Fallon, assistant manager of Celtic from 1965 to 1980, “We could sign Catholics or Protestants, even Coloureds.” Legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein claimed to discriminate in favour of Protestants knowing that their arch-rivals would not take any Catholics left behind. The match results suggest that Celtic did well out of this arrangement.

While overall this book is a diverting romp – it has some great anecdotes and throws up interesting ideas and statistics – the tone of the analysis is at times a little self-important and too quick to yell “myth busted.” The authors are keen to talk up the virtues of the scientific method when it suits them but are sometimes eager to try passing off statistical relationships as causal ones. Too often we get one possible explanation for a phenomenon presented as the only explanation. Take this paragraph early in the book, for example:

Another harbinger of the impending Jamesian takeover of soccer is the Milan Lab. Early on, AC Milan’s in-house medical outfit found that just by studying a player’s jump, it could predict with 70 per cent accuracy whether he would get injured. It then collected millions of data on each of the team’s players on computers, and in the process stumbled upon the secret of eternal youth. (It’s still a secret: no other club has a Milan Lab, and the Lab won’t divulge its finding, which is why players at other clubs are generally finished by their early thirties.)

This is then supported by pointing out that most of Milan’s starting eleven in the 2007 Champion’s League Final were aged thirty-one or over. Now that might be exceptional: I don’t know, because no comparative data is presented. A quick internet search suggests that top Italian teams have higher average ages than the top Spanish and English ones and that Milan has the oldest of these. But one Champion’s League victory isn’t enough evidence to prove the Lab’s efficacy anyway. While later we get lectured on the role of chance in one-off victories, here a one-off is presented as irrefutable evidence of the Lab’s success.

As for the more general claims about Milan Lab, I’m frankly sceptical. Does its claim of a 70 per cent rate in predicting injury mean that the injury will happen in the next five minutes or over the course of a game, a season or a career? We don’t know. And just for good measure this is called the “secret of eternal youth,” a term not usually associated with scientific analysis. Milan Lab marketing is clearly not impressing fans, however, as the age of the squad is seen more as a concern rather than a cause for pride; clearly the club needs the help of the authors to disabuse their fans of outmoded ideas.

In the closing chapter the authors’ thesis that Guus Hiddink introduced Australian players to “European soccer” would have made sense to me if not for the fact that the entire squad had already plied their trade in Europe. Sure, he may have tinkered with match tactics but it’s hard to believe that in the short time he was with the players they learnt much they hadn’t learnt in a decade or more playing in European leagues.

In many places the statistical analysis in the book does cast a new light on an old problem, but sometimes it simply demonstrates that statisticians see the world in a different way from the general population. An example of the latter is contained in the chapter titled “The Economist’s Fear of the Penalty Kick,” which includes a quite bizarre analysis intended to demonstrate that penalty kicks make no difference to the overall pattern of results between home and away teams and between favourites and underdogs. Now there are many issues debated by soccer fans the world over, but in my experience the overall pattern of results and the awarding of penalty kicks is not one of them.

These quibbles aside, Soccernomics is interesting and entertaining. Read it and discover why Australia is destined to become a world soccer power and why hosting a World Cup won’t make you rich but will make you happy. Despite its anachronistic name, the Football Federation of Australia must be licking its lips. •