05 August 2013

Book review: Soccernomics

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, 2009.

This book is basically Moneyball for soccer. Kuper is a sports writer, and Szymanski is a sport economist. Together, they write a clever, easy-to-read book that is packed full of statistical analyses, anecdotes, and typical English dry wit.

The introductory chapter focuses on why England loses, despite every English soccer fan firmly believing that they're fated to win everything all the time, because they invented the game.

The first part covers bad transfer decisions, racism (which they use a very clever cost effectiveness analysis to determine played a huge role up until about 1991 in England), whether people who take penalty kicks have a set preference (they don't), why the smaller towns like Manchester have more titles than any of the London clubs, and whether American football will overtake soccer in popularity.

The chapter on smaller towns includes this bit:
Life in Manchester then [1878] was neither fun nor healthy, [Jim White] writes. "In the middle of the nineteenth century the average life expectancy in Little Ireland, the notorious part of Manchester...was as low as seventeen." This was still the same brutal Manchester where a few decades before Karl Marx's pal Friedrich Engels had run his father's factory, the industrial city so awful it inspired communism.

Part two covers the fans: which country loves soccer the most, whether fans are one-club loyalists, whether fans commit suicide if their teams lose, and why hosting a World Cup is a horrible economic decision but it makes people happy.

Part three is about national economies: why poor countries aren't competitive, which small country overperforms the most and which big country underperforms the most, and how in the future, the peripheral countries (ie outside of Europe) will dominate.

The over/underperformance stat is based on a model Szymanski built using multiple regression, to determine how much various factors account for in a win. Home games, rich countries, population size, etc, are all factors included in the model. It's some really cool statistical stuff.

If you're a soccer fan, you should definitely read the book. Most of the club examples come from the English Premier League, which I only know through osmosis and Twitter, but they were still fairly understandable.

I have trouble, as a soccer fan, guessing whether people who aren't interested in the beautiful game will enjoy reading a book about soccer. If you enjoy statistical analyses, if you liked reading Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com blog, if you liked Moneyball, you'll probably get some enjoyment out of this.

No comments: