Book Review: Soccernomics

Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, Soccernomics: 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, Nation Books, 2009. [Amazon link]

There has been a lot of interest in sports from "the geeks" over the past three decades. Baseball has led the way as sabermetricians processed match data to improve conventional statistics and develop new ones, in the process obtaining valuable insights into the game and its players and challenging (and in some cases, overhauling) the conventional wisdom.  Sabermetrics hasn't been without its critics within the game and without, but in recent years the practice has gained a foothold in Major League Baseball front offices. This kind of statistical analysis has spread to other sports with varying degrees of success and acceptance, especially in the first decade of the 21st century.  Soccer, meanwhile, has been the most resistant to advanced statistical analysis, in part because of the sparsity of current statistics and a strong cultural resistance to a more quantitative analysis in the sport.  There have been scholarly articles on different subjects in soccer over the years, mostly from the economics, finance, and physiology departments.  There have been few, if any, books that have addressed various issues and trends in the world of soccer from a statistical perspective.  Kuper and Szymanski fill that gap with this work.

Simon Kuper is a sports columnist with the Financial Times of London, and Stefan Szymanski is a professor of economics in the Cass Business School at City University London.  The book reads just like one of the columns from the FT — authoritative, worldly, slightly detached, and very European.  Despite dealing with a technical topic, the book is accessible to the general public and reads very quickly at 306 pages (including a bibliography of cited books and articles).  There are some statistical results presented along with a top-level explanation of the data analysis, but math phobes have no reason to fear this book.  Soccernomics serves as a good example of how to present technical information to a general audience without being condescending or overwhelming.

The Eurocentrism is presented without apology; in fact, one of the main theses of the book is that major advances in soccer have been driven by western Europe and the cross-pollination between the countries in that region.  The countries that have established the most links with western Europe are shown to have been the most successful at international competitions recently. Those with fewer links have been less successful; the authors use this observation as part of their explanation for England's lack of success in international football.  Kuper and Szymanski defend their point well, and provide support to it through a linear regression analysis of match data (more on that later).  But the Eurocentric perspective ends up limiting the book in a couple of areas.

One area where the Eurocentrism proves limiting is in the case of Brazil.  It is the one country that has proven to be the big exception in international soccer.  Brazil only returned to prominence in 1994 after they adopted more of a European approach to their soccer, after which appeared in two more World Cup finals (winning one).  So Brazil is the exception that proves the rule.  When I was starting to read the book, I was hoping to find an in-depth explanation for Brazil's success; it is a common misconception that Brazilian soccer is carefree and improvised when in fact there is a strong tradition of a systematic and scientific approach to the game there.  Unfortunately I did not find such an in-depth explanation in the book.  Perhaps Kuper and Szymanski don't know enough about Brazilian soccer to delve too deeply into it, and perhaps data are hard to find (they state in the book that match data are spotty and untrustworthy outside of western Europe and a few other locations).  I guess I'll have to read Alex Bellos' work on Brazilian soccer to obtain that explanation that is missing here.

Brazil's success in the international arena dovetails with the other thesis in the book: that the successful national teams benefit from a combination of a large population pool, a strong economy, and a high level of match experience at the highest levels of the game.  Kuper and Szymanski use this thesis to argue provocatively that England actually overperforms slightly in international soccer, relative to its size, economic strength, and experience.  They also use it to argue why Africa, despite the predictions from many pundits, has not threatened to win a World Cup, and may not do so in the not-so-near future.  Of the emerging soccer countries, their future success depends on either a growing economy that improves the income of more of its citizens (China) or more exposure to the highest levels of soccer (Japan, Australia, and USA). 

Given that this is a book written by two people trained in economics, it makes sense that they pull in references from economic or financial circles.  There are in fact some parallels between the statistical and performance analyses in soccer and quantitative analysis in finance.  The first one is the idea of arbitrage, that there exist small discrepancies or inefficiencies in the market that can be exploited to make profits without risk. Currency market pricing imbalances are one example, Warren Buffet's investment strategy is another.  In soccer, small countries like the Netherlands and Uruguay, and provincial clubs like Ajax and Nottingham Forest have used their knowledge of the game and the transfer markets to carve out an advantage on the field.  Another sports example is the appearance of ground effect in Formula 1 in the late 1970s — Mario Andretti won his world championship thanks in large part to the ground-breaking Lotus 79.  The second parallel is the idea of market efficiency, which is that any inefficiencies in the market don't persist for very long.  If there's an advantage to be taken of in the market, soon everyone will seek that advantage, and it disappears.  The Netherlands and Uruguay are not as dominant as they used to be in international soccer, and the days of provincial clubs winning the UEFA Champions League appear to be over.

These two parallels between sport and finance are illustrated in the chapters on the transfer market and the 2008 Champions League final.  In my opinion this is the strongest section of the book, and the one where the most parallels to Moneyball are drawn.  The authors do not shy away from comparisons to Michael Lewis' book, as the book is peppered with references to Billy Beane and his efforts to impose his vision for player selection on the Oakland A's front office.  As is the case with the A's, it is the clubs from the more provincial cities that have been able to exploit the market to their advantage, like Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor and Olympique Lyon under football director Bernard Lacombe.  Market efficiency is illustrated by the larger clubs adopting the approaches of the provincial clubs, such as the Boston Red Sox in baseball and, in soccer, Arsenal under Arsene Wenger.  The chapter on the Champions League final is essentially a vivid illustration of game theory and how the "crapshoot" of the penalty kick shootout really isn't.  I found it interesting that many of the top penalty takers use a randomized mixed strategy, which turns out to be the best strategy for the penalty kick "game".  I found that chapter to be the best practical explanation of game theory that I've ever read.

Soccernomics is written primarily for a British audience, but in the acknowledgments the authors stated that some revisions were made to make the book relevant to US readers as well.  It is with these efforts that the book falls short from an American point of view.  There are plenty of references to American sports (with a chapter devoted to NFL "parity" not being all it seems in reality), but very few references to soccer in the USA.  Kuper and Szymanski said in interviews that the USA could become more successful on the international stage if they were less isolated with respect to western Europe (especially in coaching), which is one conclusion that you could draw from the USA being one of the more underachieving soccer countries according to their population-economy-experience metric.  But that point was not fleshed out further in the book.  It gave the impression that Kuper and Szymanski were relying on second- or third-hand information and anecdotes (the line about the reasons for suburban moms preferring soccer to other sports could have come straight out of the Guardian or Le Monde), which weakened the book in my opinion.  I also found it odd that after presenting results throughout the book with a touch of "proof by intimidation", the authors began to doubt their results when they found that Honduras was the most overachieving soccer nation.  It was nice to see some healthy s
kepticism about their own model, but perhaps if they had known about the resurgence of Honduran soccer over the past ten years they might not have been so surprised.

In the end, Soccernomics skewers some conventional wisdom surrounding the game, delivers pointed and provocative opinions on a variety of issues from performance to selection to management, and applies math and statistical analysis in the course of doing the latter two.  All of this is put together in an informative and entertaining read.  It doesn't cover everything nor does it answer everything definitively, but it serves as an opening salvo for what I believe is a growing interest in soccer analytics.  The main themes presented in this book will be examined, studied, critiqued, and extended for months and years to come.