Soccernomics

Journalist Simon Kipur and sports economist Stefan Szymanski team up to dispel myths about the worlds most popular sport.

Soccernomics

“Soccer is full of unexamined clichés,” write Simon Kipur and Stefan Szymanski in the first chapter of “Soccernomics” (Nation Books), a new book that evaluates the validity of many commonly accepted beliefs about the game. Using demographic and economic data to make their arguments, the authors reject much of the traditional lore, including the notion that England underachieves in international tournaments, a controversial conclusion in the British Isles, where the book is provocatively titled “Why England Lose.”

In the following Failure interview, Kipur—the journalist half of the duo—discusses the early response to “Soccernomics,” the inevitable comparisons to “Moneyball,” and why countries like the United States, Japan and Australia may soon take their place among the world’s soccer elite.

What inspired you and Stefan to write “Soccernomics”?
When we met in 2007, we discovered that we had the same skeptical mindset about soccer. The game is riddled with accepted truths—that managers determine performance, that England underperforms, and so forth—and Stefan and I wanted to test these notions. The great thing about meeting Stefan is that he wasn’t just another guy with an opinion about soccer—he had data. We assembled all the reigning clichés and asked: “Are they actually true?” As it turns out, many aren’t.

How has the book been received in the soccer community in Europe?
“Soccernomics” is out in the U.K., North America and Holland, with various other editions due later this year. The North American audience seems more open to the ideas presented. It’s probably because North American sports fans are more attuned to investigating data, as their sports are traditionally more statistic-heavy than soccer. Also, lots of Americans and Canadians are now becoming soccer fans, and being fairly new to the game, they are open to new ideas.

In Britain the response has been largely positive, but we’ve also run up against people who take the view: “I already know everything about soccer because I’ve been following it since I was six, and I just know that what you’re saying must be wrong.”

What about front-office executives? Has there been resistance to the ideas you present?
Stefan and I have spoken to people inside the game who are very receptive to our thinking. They recognize that clubs haven’t been brilliantly run, as witnessed by the turnover of managers and countless overpriced transfers.

More and more English clubs have what are known as “performance directors”—individuals who analyze data to see if it might help the club in any way. For instance, a performance director might try to determine whether the number of tackles a defender makes is a good gauge of his quality. (It isn’t.) These individuals tend to be aware of the “Moneyball” phenomenon in U.S. sports. In this regard, English soccer probably leads the continental game, because the English are copying the Americans.

How do you feel about comparisons between your book and “Moneyball”?
I can see why people make the comparison, but it’s not very exact. I read “Moneyball”—a brilliant book—after we started writing “Soccernomics,” so it wasn’t really an inspiration. Michael Lewis concentrates on one club [Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics] and one man [A’s general manager Billy Beane], whereas we look at the totality of a sport.

Also, “Moneyball” focuses on baseball statistics like on-base percentage, and nobody has yet identified similarly useful stats in soccer. For example, it turns out that possession time is a poor predictor of victory, and the number of kilometers players run in a game doesn’t predict wins either. Our book focuses on selection issues: don’t execute too many transfers, don’t buy certain kinds of players, and don’t be so quick to sack your manager, because managers don’t make much difference.

But Beane is now involved with the San Jose Earthquakes [of Major League Soccer], and it will be fascinating to see if he can do for soccer what he did for baseball.

In terms of international tournaments, which countries seem poised to experience greater success over the course of the next few decades?
Large and wealthy countries where interest in soccer has grown rapidly. That means the U.S., and to a lesser extent Japan and Australia. Further down the road, look at increasingly soccer-mad Canada, as well as China and India. It used to be fashionable to say that an African country would soon win a World Cup, but Japan or the U.S. will likely do so first. I see the U.S.’s strong performances against Spain and Brazil [in the semifinal and final of the 2009 Confederations Cup, respectively] as harbingers of an American rise.

Do you have any thoughts about how England might fare in its upcoming World Cup match against the U.S.?
What I’d say, impressionistically, is that the U.S. has a very decent shot at a tie. When the World Cup is held in Europe, the Europeans teams seem to have a modicum of home-field advantage, but that won’t be the case in South Africa.

Have you considered the World Cup draw? Can you venture a prediction as to which countries will advance to the Round of 16? And which country has the best chance of winning the tournament?
Player wages predict the performance of club teams almost perfectly, but the correlation between a country’s population, gross domestic product (GDP), and soccer experience on the one hand, and its national team’s performance on the other hand, is much weaker. (In the book, we say that population + GDP per capita + experience predicts about twenty-five percent of a country’s success in international soccer.)

What we found researching the Spanish-language edition of the book, though, is that Spain has been the world’s second soccer superpower for some years now. Since 2000, Spain has consistently performed as well as Brazil, losing only 12 percent of its games.

I’m picking Brazil to win the World Cup, as it almost always has the best individual players, and usually wins the tournament when it’s held outside Europe. But the U.S. is my dark horse.