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Soccernomics: Why England Lose and Other Curious Phenomena Explained, co-written by journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski, is a book which applies economic principles and the impartial analysis of data to the different areas of football to gain new insight about the past and make reasonable predictions for the future. Put simply, it is Freakonomics for soccer. Undoubtedly heavily influenced by Levitt and Dubner’s popular work, it is also a child of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, referencing Lewis’ writing on Baseball coach Billy Beane frequently and following Lewis’ pursuit for smashing the conventional wisdom at every corner.

The book is a densely-packed anthology of football’s social, political and economic roots and effects, meticulously researched and stylishly written. For much of the book it is a joy to read, giving us the evidence and intellectual power to argue coherently against those clichés which are banded around so lazily in pubs and living rooms. Soccernomics contains fifteen chapters, tackling issues such as England’s underachievement, racial discrimination and suicide rates in the game, clubs as business, fans as consumers, what makes a country successful at soccer and which country’s fans love the game the most. The book tells countless stories, from the rise of Olympique Lyonnais to the intricacies of every Brian Clough transfer at Derby County to Stephen Pienaar’s flat in Amsterdam. The range of research and anecdotes are as extensive as they are relevant to their arguments.  

The authors treat contrarian figures, like the Wisconsin academic Rob Baade, as knights in shining armour, bravely fighting the power of the conventional wisdom, like England’s Brave John Terry fights away foreigners. But despite the amount of analytical sophistication throughout Soccernomics, it does sometimes feel as if the authors aim to dispose as many truisms as it can on every page. The importance of taking the Freakonomics approach is a lack of an agenda or a conclusion before the evidence and data has been considered, but often it seems as if the authors of Soccernomics are determined to arrive at a contrarian conclusion without having quite justified it.

For example, the authors use the fact that England’s performance in qualifiers before a successful tournament has been the same as before a less successful tournament to claim that England’s performances in tournaments are ‘entirely unpredictable’. This is an example of a headline-grabbing conclusion which has no grounding – England’s performance may not always correlate with qualifying success, but can all the other factors, such as squad, formation and manager not inform a sensible prediction of success?

When considering whether soccer fans do in fact dislike the hegemony of the big clubs in European leagues, the authors reference the sustained attendances of the big leagues fleetingly before asserting that, therefore, ‘fans enjoy unbalanced soccer’. Later, the authors jump to the conclusion that the loyal, devoted, Nick Hornby-esque football fan is in fact a ‘rare species’ compared to most fans, who change their allegiances frequently, despite evidence to the contrary. Often the issues they consider are more complicated than the conventional wisdom or cliché being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – sometimes, these truisms do in fact contain some truth in them.

Zonal Marking’s recent piece on whether Bolton do indeed play ‘attractive football’, as the conventional wisdom goes, or not, doesn’t jump hastily to smash that cliché as soon as it has considered a few graphs and statistics. ZM writes that “The true level of attractiveness can only be considered by an individual when viewing the side, and the fact that Bolton supporters appear happy with the quality of football is far more important than any graph”.

One of the great strengths of Soccernomics is the fact that the authors are two academics looking at the game from the outside. While for most of the book this gives a refreshingly original and unbiased view of the game’s issues, the authors occasionally don’t quite grasp some of the finer points of what the game is like on the inside. The psychology and mindset of the football fanatic can’t always be examined by numbers, and thus it is wrong to speak with great confidence about how fans behave by simply looking at attendance figures. When examining the effect of dominance in soccer leagues on fans, they argue that ‘if fans want all teams to be equal, they will shun games in which results are predictable’, and that ‘a thrilling title race does little to improve attendances’, so, therefore, equality in leagues is not in fact desirable by fans. However, it is a lot more complicated than that. Most fans aren’t concerned with the title race of a league, nor would they choose not to attend a game in which a certain result is likely. Soccer fans don’t operate like film-goers or shopping-addicts, as the authors treat them.

I wouldn’t want to comment on the mathematical techniques used by the authors, given they probably have actual qualifications in isolating fixed effects and incidental factors in a group of statistics, and I don’t. Suffice to say that not many people have made use of multiple regression when looking at soccer like Kuper and Szymanski, and so these intellectual tools are a useful introduction to this field.

So often, the authors set the background of a topic for the reader through a concise but detailed description of historical and social context, before going into its relevance and importance within the footballing world. The authors discuss the proximity of scientific networks in 17th century Europe, John von Neumann’s contribution to noncooperative games in game theory, and how industrialisation produced the growth of provincial cities in the 19th century, before explaining how this is linked to Arrigo Sacchi, Nicolas Anelka and the European Cup. Soccernomics is an a must-read anthology for any aspiring thinker of the game who wants to boost their intellectual armoury with an extensive knowledge of social history, rigorous analysis, and provoking opinions on the game we love.

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