Book Review: Why England Lose (Soccernomics)

Posted by on Aug 20, 2009 in Book Review, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Why England Lose
By Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
Published by Harper Collins
August 2009, £15.99, ISBN: 978-0-00-730111-9

This book has been eagerly anticipated on a range of fronts. Simon Kuper’s freshman effort, Football Against the Enemy was widely admired on its publication back in 1994 and his involvement in this new venture would always attract attention; but Stefan Szymanski’s rise to prominence, while less noticeable to the public at large, is perhaps equally as significant. Ever since Michael Lewis detailed how Oakland Athletics General manager Billy Beane revolutionized baseball with a brand of statistical analysis christened “sabermetrics” in the book Moneyball, a groundswell of people within football have been calling for the same mode of thinking to be brought to bear on their sport. It’s high time, the economists and mathematicians say, to cease the old reluctance on gut instinct and prejudice; it’s time to “do the math.”

Although the authors heavily name check Beane and are clearly in thrall to his methods, it’s with another book that more apt comparisons can be drawn. The text in question is that unlikeliest of best sellers, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics. Like Dubner with Levitt, Kuper acts as journalistic muse to Szymanski, the ideas man behind the operation. A rising academic with a pool of influential journal articles behind him, the Cass Business School man is, with Bill Gerrard, probably the highest profile sports economist in the UK, a counterweight to the other key players in the field, nearly all of whom are American.

I must confess that I entered upon the reading of Why England Lose with a heavy heart. Although I enjoyed the playful tone and sharp conclusions of Freakonomics, I found it to be a somewhat glib volume that exercised extreme selectivity with its data in order to “prove” its points. For the world of football to be afforded the same treatment by an economics profession that has largely lost touch with the real world, been instrumental in bringing about global crisis, and carried it all out with a smug, “we know best because we are rational thinkers” grin, was a prospect that held little appeal. A recent book by Ben Fine and Dimitris Milonakis effectively debunked the Freakonomics myth and even the mainstream of the discipline has now largely moved on.

I thus read the text with an eagle eye to see if Szymanski remains beholden to the now discredited theories of straightforward neoclassical economics. Without question, he likes playing around with numbers. There is little econometrics in the text and mathematical content is kept to a minimum, but it’s very clear that statistics provide the foundation on which the central theses are built. Refreshingly, however, the limitations of standard economics are tacitly admitted and new currents of thinking abound. That hottest of new fields, behavioural economics is omnipresent, with issues such as fairness and reciprocity freely debated. Equally, the institutional context is in the foreground: habits, norms, values and cultural factors are all given their space in the book’s models. In addition, and all too rarely in these times, history isn’t ignored either: football has only been properly organised for a century and a half and the coverage of Why England Lose covers the whole period. Towards the end, notions of happiness are explored in the context of staging major events such as Olympics and World Cups, a much talked about benchmark of society’s wellbeing popularized by economists such as Andrew Oswald and Richard Layard.

So Szymanski is steeped in modern economics and has moved adroitly with the times. What of the football?

It’s actually pretty good. The dual author team display much knowledge and keen research and their claims are generally very plausible, even if the criteria and framing of their models is necessarily limited on occasion. As a fervent lower league supporter, I didn’t much enjoy the discussion of fair weather fans, but we all know that Kuper and Szymanski are right to point out how widespread they are. The prediction of which nations are likely to be world football powers soon – Turkey, China, Australia etc. – was fascinating, and the 12 Point plan the authors devise to avoid mistakes in the transfer market is superbly argued. Blond players are overvalued apparently: step forward Rob Hulse. The same goes for older players: step forward Dele Adebola. Buy players with personal problems and help them work on them: step forward Owen Coyle and Clarke Carlisle. Stars of World Cups and European Championships can be over rated: step forward Amir Karič. A new manager wastes money on transfer fees: step forward (maybe) Billy Davies.

The only major problem with the book is the highly misleading title which actually only refers to the first chapter: a fact underlined by David Runciman in his masterly review in The Observer. The book isn’t very much about England at all and the news that Peter Crouch’s Dad is the Creative Director of an International Advertising Agency apart, provides little in the way of interest concerning the Three Lions. “Soccernomics”, albeit clichéd and too resonant of Steve Shmanske’s Golfonomics, would have been a choice more appropriate to the book’s content. Nevertheless, overall, Kuper and Szymanski provide much to chew on for football folk and the general public alike. It’s just a shame that the title may prevent the latter from picking the book up.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

5 Comments

  1. Lloyd
    August 23, 2009

    Lovely stuff.

    I see that the Publisher is introducing your suggested 'Soccernomics' as the title for its US paperback edition, which also seems set to be released over here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Soccernomics-England-Germany-Australia-Destined/dp/1568584253/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251034027&sr=1-2.

    Reply
  2. Lanterne Rouge
    November 29, 2009

    It should be noted that this book has been renamed Soccernomics (as I suggested) for its US release and this may also be the case for when a paperback appears in the UK.

    Reply
  3. William Abbs
    March 24, 2011

    I must admit, I am intrigued by books that take football out of its sporting context and attempt to apply another framework to it. That said, it's usually more of a case of my interest being piqued on a metaphorical level rather than having a strong belief in the findings of any such book. With Soccernomics and its precursors, I admire the authors' ambition if nothing else. Turning football into a numbers game, though, is hardly in tune with the game's romantic side.

    Reply
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