Monday, 7 March 2011

Book Review: SOCCERNOMICS by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

By Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski
Nation Books / Paperback
328 pages / $28.89 / Harris Books

This review was published in The Sunday Times on 6 March 2011.

As they say, “There are lies, damned lies… and statistics.” This very interesting read blows the lids off widely accepted misconceptions and urban legends about soccer, the world’s most popular sport. Widely travelled soccer journalist Simon Kuper and sports economist Stefan Szymanski, taking a leaf from Malcolm Gladwell and the authors of Freakonomics, present a highly coherent account based on data collected in some highly unusual research. As football fans will note, what makes the sport so infuriating also makes it absorbing.

Their first chapter is intentionally contentious, on why the English (forefathers of soccer, above) has never won a World Cup since 1966 despite having the most highly subscribed football league. Influx of foreign imports has been blamed, but studies proved otherwise. The reasons have to do more with geography and population rather than merely falling short of hubristic expectations. In fact, England has over-achieved given its resources or lack of.

Equally interesting is the study on why the major European capitals of London, Paris, Moscow and Rome have never produced a single winner in the Champions League (and the earlier European Cup), with the honours going to industrial cities or ports like Liverpool, Manchester, Turin, Munich, Oporto and Rotterdam. Their reasoning: the capitals have less to prove and tend to be more blasé about sporting achievements.

Is there a science in taking penalty kicks? And how did Chelsea lose to Manchester United in the 2008 Champions League Final (above) despite having a specialist penalty kick consultant? Why is the annual suicide rate less in countries when they host the World Cup? Which is the world’s most football-crazy nation? This throws up some fascinating figures based on fandom, TV viewership and turnstile numbers, with Singapore and Indonesia appearing among the world’s top 20.

Without being politically incorrect, both authors dismiss the possibility of any African state lifting the World Cup, while casting a ray of hope to emerging football nations such as the USA, Australia, China, Georgia, and (gasp) Iraq (above). Anything is possible, as long as the ball is round.

If you like this, read:
By Franklin Foer
Published by HarperCollins
Available at
About the globalisation of soccer and how the modern sport affects politics, economics and worldwide social phenomena.

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