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Book Review: Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

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Soccernomics, (full title, SoccernomicsWhy 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, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski) as the mashed-up name implies, has much to recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about sports and its relationship to other parts of social life.

There are, however, two big problems with the book. You will find their names listed on the front cover.

It is not that the two authors of Soccernomics are bad writers, bad people, fans of the wrong club, or even bad scholars, rather it is the simple fact that they are who they are that constitutes their major failing(-s).

They are (strike 1) academics, (strike 2) economists, and (strike 3) Englishmen (one by birth and one by choice . . . “in spite of all temptations,” etc).

In the first instance, academics are generally used to writing for their fellow pointy-heads. That usually means leavening their work with citations to the work of other academics (it’s kind of an endless feedback loop really) with the goal of demonstrating the weight of the argument.

In Soccernomics, the two authors cite the work of others . . . a lot.

In fact, thanks to the unending references to, and lengthy quotations from, Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby probably should have been named as at least the third author of Soccernomics.

Given the authors’ status as scholars rather than hackey bloggers, unending citation of the work of others can be excused as what they do and how they do it.

Similarly, what economists do is to reduce every human activity to data and then run statistical analyses on that data. They then use those statistics to “prove” or support whatever point they intended to make even before they produced the data.

So it is with Soccernomics.

For example, the book suggests that there is a single statistical relationship which can explain both Brazil’s terrific record of success in international soccer, as well as England’s nearly constant disappointment of her fans.

Statistics are also used by the authors to examine the social and economic impacts of hosting a World Cup, leading to the conclusion that it would be better for governments to try and stamp out poverty among their national populations rather than pursue the status and good feelings that accompany hosting international athletic competitions.

In the first case one thinks, well, whatever helps you to sleep at night; in the second, well, who amongst us is going to stand up for poverty?

But it’s actually when the book steps outside of statistics and tries to become anecdotal that it is most “English”, a condition that is both a curse and a blessing for the readers of Soccernomics.

For whatever reason, whenever Englanders decide to write a book about soccer, at least a full third of the book must be given over to dreamy explanations about how the “stiff-upper-lips” of the world invented the game, spread the game over the face of the planet, and (as here) will inherit the Earth as a result.

Like the small print on the last five pages of a car rental agreement, the implications of this boilerplate colonialism are probably very great (to the detriment of the consumer), but you just can’t bring yourself to read it with any kind of interest and it’s probably just as “legally binding”.

In Soccernomics, this propensity comes to a head with an entire chapter on how the Arthurian English Premier League (“EPL”) will/has slay/slain the dragon of the US’ National Football League in terms of worldwide popularity.

The NFL is no more equivalent to the entirety of US (or even North American) football than the EPL is English, strictly speaking.

In fact, equating the EPL to English soccer, is a bit like equating Wal-Mart’s in-store sales figures to US manufacturing: there’s very little “inside” of Wal-Mart that was manufactured in the USA, and there may be even less that is English inside the EPL.

Still, if one can get past the chauvanistic nature of such “anecdotal proofs” in Soccernomics, the book does contain several observations that fans on both sides of the Atlantic could do with knowing:

North American football is too expensive for most nations to adopt on any widespread basis; stadium-building is pretty obviously the “boondoggle-de-jour” in the USA (as it is all over the rest of the world); US national soccer ought to choose players based on ability if it wants to get better results; and, in the final analysis, the most important “social” truth that soccer and sports in general can be used to prove, is that people are all basically the same, for good or for ill.

In spite of its authors, any fan of the game should read Soccernomics.

In fact, it is the perfect book to read in that “special place”, the one where you read to pass the time that would otherwise be wasted.

Whether that’s “wc” or otherwise, get the book . . . and don’t forget to flush.

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About Wredchard

  • http://www.kjh.com Khalid J Hosein

    Dang, I was really interested in reading this book, until this review. Now it’s probably going to end towards the end of my very long wishlist.

  • Wredchard

    Then my work here is done! ;-}