Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stephen Szymanski

First, a brief DNBR Day report:

I did okay. I finished three books, and started a fourth. Two of those three were from the Bone series, so it's absolutely not that they don't count; it's just that they are short. And quick to read. So I feel I could have read a lot more, except that partway through the fourth book I hit the wall. I hit it like an excited, floppy-eared dog hits a sliding glass door. I hit a book that I expected to enjoy, I was really looking forward to, and was horrified to discover around the fifth chapter that I wasn't enjoying it at all. I was bored and incredulous. I tried to pick up anything else I have lying around here and just couldn't find anything to engage me at all. So... the short of it is, I did more than just read yesterday. I did still thoroughly enjoy my reading, at least up until the last five chapters, so I consider the day a success; next time I'm going to bring home a much wider range of books in case I hit another wall.

And now! On to the review. Of note: this book has a different title across the pond, of course. There, it's titled Why England Loses. I prefer our title, I think it has more of a ring to it; but the English particularly are rather picky about not calling the game soccer.

I have World Cup fever. I get it every four years or so, and this year I got it hard. I put myself in charge of a World Cup display at work, and have been keeping the game scores updated and asking people which team they support, and charting that on a little graph. So far we have equal and large numbers of England/Brazil/Netherlands supporters, with a few smatterings of other countries: Italy (poor things), France (ouch), Portugal and Spain and Argentina and Germany (would have thought more than two supporters each), Japan (they were my pick, and sooooo close they were) and Ghana among those.

So, as I was watching some excellent soccer, I decided it was time for me to pick up Soccernomics, which is a book I've had my eye on for some time. I've heard Simon Kuper interviewed a couple of times and he always seems like a really intelligent guy, not to mention interesting and funny. If I'm going to read a book about sport and statistics, he's the kind of guy I'd want writing it. Turns out, my intuition on this point was correct: Soccernomics is really interesting, often funny, and enlightening on both soccer and the human condition. Kuper and co-author, sports economist Stephen Szymanski, have managed to write a book analyzing soccer and its fans that is loving, enlightening, and eminently readable.

The whole thing is pretty fascinating, but the part I found most interesting was the dissection of England's national side and England's national expectations. The whole section is pretty scathing without being nasty. It was particularly fascinating watching the reaction pour in to England's defeat at the hands of Germany; Soccernomics (published in 2009) predicted almost all of the fan and commentator reaction I caught on BBC's live commentary pages, in some cases in exact words. Soccer being invented by the English, and dominated by the English at the start, the English believe that they should always be the best. That is the players, the media, the fans, the soccer establishment: there's a manifest destiny-style feeling about soccer in England. Kuper and Szymanski systematically and logically dismantle this: no matter what anyone believes or feel should be the case, the numbers say that England actually overachieves in current-day international play. This is not to say that they are the best that they could be -- Kuper and Szymanski also offer several points that hamper England, including systemic if largely unconscious discrimination against middle- and upper-class and foreign players/managers, and consistent refusal by the vast majority of suits in England's soccer establishment to use the numbers and think logically about the game, and instead swearing by traditional "wisdom." Nothing about international or professional soccer is given a free pass with this book -- it's all put under the statistical microscope, examined, and explained.

I think part of the reason I found this whole discussion so engaging, aside from the fact that it's so well-written, is that I recognized a lot of the advantages and problems with English soccer from Canadian hockey. Ice hockey is in no way the international sport that soccer is, and never will be, but it's a lot more international than it used to be. And the exact same problems -- and advantages -- of English soccer can be identified in Canadian hockey. We have the same feeling of entitlement and when the Canadian international team loses we feel the same sort of outrage and shock that English soccer fans feel when the English team loses. You also see the same kinds of ugly anti-foreign sentiment, the sort of thing that makes me embarrassed to say I'm a hockey fan, the sort of thing that would be considered racism anywhere else but gets a pass in our respective "national" sports. The traditional management "knowledge" versus actual science. It's all there.

In the interests of not going on too long, I'll hold most of my other thoughts there. Aside from the content, the bones of this book are solid. The mathematics are clearly explained and not at all confusing or overdone; for someone who isn't always particularly fond of math, I had no trouble with it here and even enjoyed the way the statistics was explained. Every once in a while there is a bit of repetition that seems needless, sometimes across chapters and sometimes it is worded so closely that it almost seems like an editing mishap -- the one I'm thinking of is the discussion of etymology, whether or not the word "soccer" is actually an Americanization (it's not; apparently before the 1970s the English tended to call it soccer, too, which puts lie to the argument that North Americans call the game "soccer" to differentiate it from American football.) There are other areas where connections and comparisons could have been drawn a little tighter, as in the discussion of the Premier League standings near the beginning of the book and then the international standings further on. But overall, I thought this was an excellent book.

One doesn't need to be a soccer fan to enjoy it, although it certainly helps to know some of the names of people and teams. I think being a sports fan, though, is probably a prereq. Though there is some anthropological discussion (what is a "fan"; big sports tournaments save lives, by reducing the number of suicides in the countries that have teams participating; and there's a discussion of how and why poverty-stricken countries will never do particularly well at sport despite traditional arguments to the contrary) there is not enough to engage someone who isn't already at least peripherally interested in sport as an institution. But any fan of any team sport will probably find something in here, and enjoy the read.

I'm very keen to read a couple of Kuper's other soccer-related books now, including one about soccer in Europe during World War II and another about the social and cultural implications and ties of soccer, called Football Against the Enemy which sounds absolutely fascinating. Szymanski's other work seems to be primarily economics-related, which while I'm sure some people would enjoy, is not exactly my thing.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a soccer match on.


Jeanne said...

I became a bit of a soccer fan because my son played, but now that he's in high school, it's either all soccer all the time or none. I wish there were recreational soccer opportunities for older kids in the U.S., but there are not.

kiirstin said...

Jeanne - one of the things Kuper talks about is who plays the most soccer. Recreational soccer isn't really played a lot around here, either. Rec leagues for teens/adults are around in Canada, here and there -- there are intramural leagues at most universities, for example -- but they are often much harder to sniff out than the rep leagues -- the ones requiring a couple games a week, lots of travel, and practice on the days that there are no games. Whereas many other countries, people just play no matter what their age or skill level. I imagine eventually we, in Canada and the US, will start to see enough people who wish they could play soccer recreationally that house leagues will become more popular for older ages.

Jeanne said...

That will be a good thing!