Book Review: Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

A book review ofone of teh best football books out there, Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.

First published as Why England LoseSoccernomics proudly flaunts on its cover The Guardian’s opinion that it is, in fact, ‘Fantastic Freakonomics for Football’. And that is also largely what the book offers. A collection of observations and hypotheses that will seem counter-intuitive, but are supported by statistics, examples and anecdotes that will make you mumble mild expletives. For someone who has a keen understanding of the game and has closely followed the recent happenings in the footballing world, the book will present roughly an equal number occasions when you will utter an emphatic what as opposed to an exactly. For the uninitiated football fan, the book presents a treasure trove of facts, anecdotes and perspectives to get you completely hooked on to the sport. If  Soccernomics doesn’t, I don’t know what will.

Currently a Life and Arts columnist for the Financial Times, Simon Kuper, apart from having written Soccernomics, has also authored several sport related books. Wikipedia expertly cites a line from his bio – that he writes from an ‘anthropological perspective’. You understand exactly what this means once you read Soccernomics. Stefan Szymanski’s current research interests as stated by the University of Michigan, where he is currently the Co-Director for the Centre of Sports Management, are

Sports management and economics; sport history, culture and society; European sport and the internationalization of sport; international sports federations and the governance of sport.’

This might as well be a short introduction to Soccernomics and does a fair job of setting expectations of what you can expect from the book. So when a sports journalist with an anthropological view and a statistician with a particular inclination towards the sports and their confluence with society come together, research and write, it turns out to be a wonderland for any inquisitive reader who follows sport or has a burgeoning interest in it.

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

As one would expect, the book pulls references to Moneyball by Michael Lewis, quotes Billy Beane at regular intervals and also draws parallels between football and baseball. I’m not someone who follows baseball, but you do get the context of what they’re saying. Also, if you haven’t read or heard anything about Moneyball, you are living under a rock and should probably go and watch the movie based on the book to get yourself started. Alternatively, Soccernomics is another good place to start. The small anecdotes sprinkled with bullet points and fun facts make light reading and leave you feeling more intelligent about football than you earlier were. Whether or not you are actually a notch better aside, it will at least definitely change the way you played Football Manager.

Simon and Stefan call football a rather small, bad and sad business. Not all together, but one by one they explain why they say so and you’re compelled to believe them. They go on to state that people managing the sport are in fact stupid from a business point of view and then they profess that the aim of a football club should not be to generate profits but to win games. This is an ‘exactly’ moment for all of us. But it is closely followed by a ‘what’moment as they go further to explain how the cause behind all of this is also the reason why communism fails. This is just an example of the rollercoaster ride that the book offers.

The book is written as if it is narrated by a third entity, probably, and this narrator refers to Simon and Stefan just as it refers to countless other managers, players, economists, fans, authors, pundits and other paraphernalia. For someone who doesn’t have any clue about statistics, the book may seem dry in patches, but they more than make up for it by humour served with some exquisite London Dry and tonic. What deserves notable mention though is the masterful effort at making the book readable to almost everyone. Tearing down some detailed statistical analysis, block by block, and converting it into pure text with a special emphasis on conveying the methodology while also mentioning the constraints and significance of the analysis without causing Death by Jargon is indeed a marvelous feat.

The book proves the racism against black footballers in the football world and also how it has steadily gone down as opposed to the racism that black managers have to face even today. The facts will come as a shock to you even as someone who is aware of racism in the world and in football. In this interview with Football Paradise, John Barnes says about this covert racism,

“You’ll just have to look at the situation, as you’ve mentioned with the lack of black managers – but you can’t prove that sort of covert agenda, even though it’s apparent. Back in the old days, it was out in the open, throwing a banana at you was accepted, as were racist chants…But if they still don’t like you, and won’t give you an opportunity at the helm of a football club, or owe you an explanation, then racism is still there, but you can’t prove it. That for me is the biggest hurdle to overcome in football – not overt racism, but the unconscious racism that’s still prevalent in all walks of society. It’s understandable that it creeps into football. You can’t separate football from society – what goes on in society will permeate through the sport.”

JB says that you can’t really prove the agenda of covert racism, but Soccernomics pretty much does that by means of statistics. Just this passage of the book mandates that everyone related even remotely to football reads it because isn’t awareness of an existing problem the first step towards actually solving it? Soccernomics also mentions the effects of Apartheid on South African football, or rather South African sport in general. It is unnerving to see how easily mankind lets evils root into itself. As an afterthought, I’m left wondering if there is also discrimination against black referees in football. Would be an interesting exercise for Stefan I believe, if he doesn’t already have the answer to it.

Another important theme in the book is the cause and effect relationship between football and, broadly speaking, two other factors – Economic Prosperity and Well Being of the people. These ideas come forth in various chapters in different forms. The effect of hosting a World cup on the economy of a country and on the morale of its citizens is quite fascinating to assess, especially through the lens of economics and statistics. The book, very tactfully, also handles the subject of football suicides. Those fans jumping off roofs and shooting themselves because their team lost – are they the only ones or are there others affected by football that we don’t really know about? Football is indeed much more than  “a matter of life and death”. Soccernomics also questions the number of Nick Hornbyesque fans (read our review of Fever Pitch here) today in the world and what sort of an impact they have on the sport.

The most sardonic passage in the book is the opening of the chapter titled ‘Why England Lose’; perhaps the most entertaining part of the book. It starts off as a mockery of the English campaign World Cup after World Cup, but goes on to identify the contributors to the success of countries at the world stage. The role of geography in building up a successful footballing legacy and how it affects the football knowledge network is astounding. There is also the correlation of economic development with success in football and I will leave it to Simon and Stefan to unravel it for you.

All in all, the book tackles the footballing ecosystem in a way that nobody else has before, and churns out answers to questions you’ve either always wanted or to those that you need to know. And if any of the anecdotes don’t fit into these, they will in the very least be entertaining. But what Soccernomics does for every football fan is open up channels of thought that enables them to critically think and question the everyday happenings in the world of their chosen sport. It hands over a framework to the reader about how to think systematically about topics as varied as ‘Why your club falters at the fag end of the season?’ to ‘Will China’s monetary spending lead to its ascendancy in the football world?’ Above all else (and this is the reason why I urge every football fan to read it), you’ll  be a better fan than you were before you read it.

But what is a better fan anyway?

Yeah, Soccernomics will probably help you answer that too.

Vikrant Hatwalne

Liverpool FC supporter. Reveres Steven Gerrard. Electronics Engineer. Copywriter. Poet. Passionate about Football, Writing and Marketing.