Book Review: Soccernomics: 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
by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (New York: Nation Books, 2009. 328 pp)
Simon Kuper writes weekly sports columns for the Financial Times. Of his many books written on soccer from an anthropological perspective, Kuper’s Soccer Against the Enemy won the William Hill Prize for sports book of the year. Kuper lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.
Stefan Szymanski is a professor of economics and the director of Sports Network Research Center at Cass Business School in London. He has published many articles on the business of sport with a special interest in soccer and the Olympics. Szymanski lives in London.
Book review by Donovan Richards
With the World Cup in full swing, soccer clichés slide from the mouths of devoted supporters and objective commentators
Read any World Cup match report or listen to a sports-talk radio station and you will inevitably hear points documented in Kuper’s book: “… The penalty looks like the most unfair device in all of sports” (p. 114); “… Whenever a country bids to host a World Cup or an Olympics, its politicians prophesy an ‘economic bonanza’” (p. 236); or “… An African country would ‘soon’ win the World Cup” (p. 306).
Since these sayings and many others like them become recognized as true in virtue of their logic alone, Kuper and Szymanski offer Soccernomics as a remedy to heal the biases that keep fans, players, and management in a bedridden state of clichés and superficial knowledge.
Written along the lines of Moneyball by Michael Lewis, Kuper and Szymanski suggest that soccer ought to be evaluated not by well-trodden clichés but by the data. With the wit of a creative writer and the statistical graphs of an economist, Soccernomics splits into three sections that seek to find answers debunking common sayings.
The Clubs: Racism, Stupidity, Bad Transfers, Capital Cities, the Mirage of the NFL, and What Actually Happened in That Penalty Shoot-Out in Moscow
This portion of the book dives into the business of soccer. It describes the continually poor decisions made by most clubs, and provides anecdotes of successful people bucking the trend of unwise financial decisions such as Arsѐne Wenger, a trained economist and the manager of the North London soccer club Arsenal, and Jean-Michel Aulas, a former software entrepreneur who is now the president of the soccer club Olympique Lyon located in the French city of Lyon.
Aulas in particular became notable for his process of purchasing players in their early 20s when they were cheaper and selling them for top Euro as they hit their prime ages of 27 to 29.
The Fans: Loyalty, Suicides, Happiness, and the Country with the Best Supporters
After outlining the soccer business, Kuper and Szymanski proceed to the consumer, where the authors seek to learn more about the buying practices of the fans. Are people life-long fans of one team or do they support many? Is the passion for soccer so great that when teams lose fans commit suicide?
Countries: Rich and Poor, Tom Thumb, Guus Ghiddink, Saddam, and the Champions of the Future
Although the sections on The Clubs and The Fans provide fascinating information on how professional soccer leagues worldwide run their “businesses” and how people respond to the product on the pitch — a term used in soccer to refer to the playing field — I was particularly interested in the Countries section.
Most soccer fans share a common conception, something along the lines of “since a large percentage of athletes come from poor or working-class backgrounds, poor nations will eventually become the world powers of soccer.”
At first glance, this reasoning seems to be correct. Wayne Rooney, who is the 2010 season’s leading scorer in the English Premier League, (widely considered the most prestigious league in the world) grew up in a home with a father who was often unemployed. While most middle-class parents encouraged their children to put down the soccer ball and get back to arithmetic, Wayne Rooney’s situation allowed him to continue practicing dribbling, passing, and shooting the soccer ball.
Of course, Soccernomics is not generalizing that all poor families are indifferent to education. Instead, the idea is that poor children are more likely to see sports as an avenue out of poverty.
Based in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, the writers argue that it takes 10,000 hours to become world-class at a certain skill. If living conditions allowed Rooney to practice more and become more skilled at a faster pace than children putting time in other activities, many figure that the same should apply to the youth in impoverished nations.
Poverty as a Game Changer
However, the data prove this concept to be false. Kuper and Szymanski write, “Growing tall is not just a matter of what you eat. When children become ill, their growth is interrupted, and because poor children tend to get ill more often than rich ones, they usually end up shorter … The ghost of apartheid will bug the Bafana [The nickname of the South African national soccer team] at the World Cup. One reason South Africans are so bad at soccer is that most of them didn’t get enough good food.” (p. 266)
Considering the population of South Africa and popularity of the sport, the South African soccer team should be one of the dominant nations. However, the argument of the writers becomes even more convincing when we see that in this current World Cup, not only has South Africa become the first host nation in history to not advance from the group stages to the knockout stages, but also out of the five African nations represented in the tournament, only Ghana advanced to the playoff rounds.
In addition to a 10,000-hour rule, Kuper and Szymanski propose a “fifteen-thousand-dollar rule” as the minimum per capita income for a nation to succeed at international sports. Although Wayne Rooney grew up in a poor neighborhood relative to the rest of England, he still had nourishing meals and access to medical care. For many prospective soccer players around the world, the reality of poverty will deny them the goals of international athletic stardom.
While we watch the World Cup, it is imperative for Christians to remember the disadvantages people in poor countries must endure
Although the common sentiment in the sports world is that international sporting events give poor countries a chance to compete on equal ground with rich countries, the facts tell us that poverty provides a crippling shortcoming in competition. Poverty has devastating consequences. Not only does it alter the quality of life by limiting basic necessities, but also rids poor countries of the ability to experience the unifying joy of bringing home a world championship.
As a soccer fan, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. A reader might need a minimal understanding of how soccer works, but Kuper and Szymanski have an inviting prose that is open to those outside of soccer fandom. Considering that it is a World Cup year, I would recommend Soccernomics to anyone who has even the slightest interest in soccer. Since the writers do a fantastic job of breaking down the fiscal side of creating a strong professional club as well as a strong national team, I would also suggest this book to anyone who is interested in the economics of sport.
Although soccer brings a gentle reminder of the devastating impact of poverty in our broken world, the sport carries a unifying aspect illustrated every four years at the World Cup.
Donovan Richards earned an M.A. in Business and Applied Theology from SPU and works as a consulting analyst for See Seven. You can read more reviews on Donovan's blog.
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