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Book Review: Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefon Szymanski

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By the time you've picked up this book, you probably already understand that it's trying to apply the interesting (and financially successful) analytical methods of Freakonomics to soccer. But it will continue to tell you over and over without actually breaking any rules. It's a plain white book except for orange title text and a circular object in the middle. It's written by a spectacular tag team of economist and journalist. The first blurb on the back of the book simply says, "Quite magnificent, a sort of Freakonomics for soccer." We get it.

Regardless, the comparison is apt. This book is not as relentlessly interesting as Freakonomics, but it did narrow its subject matter a bit, so that's understandable. If you love soccer, that drawback is negated immediately. There just aren't that many interesting, intelligent, analytical books about the world's most popular game, but this is one. If you're not sold on it by now, you probably aren't going to be.

The unreasonably long subtitle to the book is "Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey — and Even Iraq — Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport." That teases just one of the questions examined in the book, though certainly the most expansive and far-reaching one: Why are certain countries better than others at international soccer? Clearly, it's not just about overall population (though it might be one day). The book even goes as far as to calculate exactly how well each country should do based on a number of factors, then calculates who the most over-achieving national team is. A lot of this analysis focuses on the England national team, which it turns out has actually over-achieved somewhat for its resources.

An especially interesting chapter is the one on the penalty kick, which centers around the Champions League Final shootout between Manchester United and Chelsea in 2008. What seems like a pure game of chance to most outsiders (and some players, surely) gains some extra significance, and will make every penalty kick you see for the rest of your life more interesting. An economist had examined past penalty shootout behavior between the two teams and had sent in advice to Chelsea about how to kick it past Man U's goalie Edwin van der Sar. They followed the advice to great success, but managed to lose when one player slipped and fell and another one changed his mind at the last minute. The YouTube video of the shootout becomes hilarious to watch after you've read the chapter.

The book has slow moments as well, which probably get worst on the chapter about which country has the greatest fans. It's not really a scientific topic, and the economic analysis doesn't add a lot to it. The descriptions in Kuper and Szymanski's analysis are only as interesting as the subject matter, but it's a quick read, regardless.

But, yes, as the publisher clearly wanted you to think, this is Freakonomics applied to soccer. If you're the kind of person who likes that concept, the book delivers plenty well. The statistics, the analysis, and sometimes the pure editorializing on a topic are all interesting, at least to any soccer fan. You'll come out of it with a better understanding for why soccer is the way it is. There aren't enough books that do that.

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