Maybe the best way to explain how fascinating and unusual this book is, is to look at the people that wrote it; it's such a curious combination that tMaybe the best way to explain how fascinating and unusual this book is, is to look at the people that wrote it; it's such a curious combination that the book takes time to explain how they even met in its introduction (it was at a conference in Turkey). Simon Kuper is the kind of man you might expect, a sports columnist published in several broadsheets and with two previous books about football under his belt, but Stefan Szymanski holds a PhD in economics, has written about politics and arts for The New Statesmen, and has published essays like Compulsory Competitive Tendering For Public Services In the UK: The Case Of Refuse Collection and Parallel Trade, International Exhaustion And Intellectual Property Rights: A Welfare Analysis. Szymanski actually writes about sport, and in particular football, a lot - a more recent essay is titled The Champions League And The Coase Theorem and he's also written about racial discrimination in the wage structure of English football a few times - but the book's introduction seems to want to downplay this and present itself as the joint work of a football man and an economist.
This might be a half-truth, but the book plays out as if it were fact. There are so many statistics, facts, and figures in this book that it can make your head spin at times, yet when they are analyzed and broken down, they're put into terms that even an Alan Shearer-esque mouthbreather could understand. It's a book that manages to make you feel like you're getting smarter without ever actually challenging you.
The general theme of the book is to take a question about football that doesn't seem to have a simple answer, and then answer it with a judiciously-chosen range of stats. The title 'Why England Lose' - one that's only used to advertise the book in the UK, in the rest of the world it's called Soccernomics - refers to the opening chapter, which presents a range of ways of analyzing England's underachievements and eventually presents the idea that, actually, they overachieve - in the process, it also explains why countries like Turkey and the USA should rise up the FIFA rankings over the next few years, and exactly how Brazil are freaks that defy all logic. Later chapters look at a range of questions, from which country is the most obsessed with football (spoiler alert: it's Norway), to why Newcastle are always guilty of spending too much on players, to whether managers actually make all that much difference in the short term, to how much skill is involved in penalty shootouts and whether they are geuinely all down to luck, to the reasons football as a whole isn't run poperly and why Lyon, with their 'wisdom of the crowd' model, are the best-run football club in the world. There are trains of thought picked up at various points that are fascinating and thought-provoking, like the assertion that England will never win a major trophy until football clubs begin to accept the middle classes, or the convincing psychological analysis of exactly whay Nicolas Anelka missed his penalty in the Champions League final in 2008.
Still, there are some things about the book that are head-scratchers - for instance, it posits (with good evidence) that league position is tied very closely to wages paid, then suggests that football clubs probably shouldn't be viewed as businesses and that glory is more important than profit, and yet throughout it's full of praise for Arsene Wenger. I'm a big fan of Wenger personally, but it seems odd that somebody else would be when they believe clubs should pay big wages (which Wenger never does) and shouldn't be concerned with making a profit (which Wenger always is). There are a couple of basic facts that are wrong too, things you'd expect most football fans to know, but personally I don't think that calls the figures presented into question - for whatever reason, spending so much time on little details that you miss a big one is a fairly common failing, and I believe that's what has happened here.
It's a powerhouse of a book though, one that's almost guaranteed to change the way you think about at least one or two aspects of football. It gets a little heavy-going at a few times, but the most part it's a surprisingly easy read, and one thatpiques your curiosity so mcuh that it becomes hard to put down. Definitely recommended....more