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Review: Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski

Brazilian striker Ronaldo (left): One of the greatest players ever, but statistics suggest he'd be a poor choice for a team in the English Premier League.

MAURICIO LIMA/2009 AFP

There's a growing canon of soccer literature. From Nick Hornby's very English, "Bloke-ish" Fever Pitch and his soccer essays to David Goldblatt's witty and eclectic The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, soccer writing in English is moving close to matching the urbane writing about the game that has flourished in Spanish, Italian and Dutch.

Now, along comes Soccernomics, a sharply written and provocative examination of the world's game seen through the prism of economics and statistical data. It demolishes almost everything that most soccer fans believe about the game and how professional soccer teams should operate.

It also cockily asserts that, soon, the United States, Japan, China and Turkey might challenge the traditional powers in Europe and South America for dominance at the elite level of the sport. This is largely based on population size, interest in soccer and improving levels of wealth and health.

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It is in this area that book might inspire the cry of "lies, damned lies and statistics." There's a huge interest in soccer in China, but the Chinese soccer leagues are famously corrupt. The authors could be correct about the United States, though, and next summer's World Cup will prove or disprove the notion.

The co-authors make an ideal couple. Simon Kuper is the author of Football Against the Enemy, a 1994 book that chronicled his nine-month journey around the world to examine links between soccer and politics. It is now considered a classic, one of the best sports books ever written. Stefan Szymanski is a professor of economics and director of the MBA program at the City University, London. He's a number-cruncher of some note. And it's number-crunching that matters here. No nostalgia for soccer's past appears, no feel-good story about upset victories and players overcoming injury. It's about numbers, patterns and business models.

The acknowledged inspiration is Michael Lewis's Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the 2003 book that explained how Billy Beane, general manager of baseball's Oakland A's, used statistical data rather than traditional baseball methods to turn his team into a powerhouse.





The country that loves soccer the most is Norway




A major theme in Soccernomics is the burden of tradition on how soccer clubs are run. Managers are hired too soon, barely interviewed and usually proceed to buy big-name players to resolve a crisis. This, the authors point out, keeps the fans happy, but is a suicidal pattern.

Among the glaring points they make is the absurdity of signing players who have shone at a World Cup or European Championship. Such players never recapture that level of excellence and cannot be expected to be that outstanding on a day-in, day-out basis playing for a club rather than their national team. (Step forward Milan Baros, the Czech player who scored more goals than anyone at Euro 2004. Since then, he has played for Aston Villa and Portsmouth in England, Olympique Lyonnais in France and Galatasaray in Turkey, costing each club a fortune to procure, and never reaching those Euro 2004 heights again.)

They also point out that there's usually an over-abundance of blond players being recommended by club scouts. This happens, they say, because scouts scanning a game involving 22 similar-looking players notice the blond-haired players more, because they stand out.

Startling facts abound in Soccernomics. The country that loves soccer the most is Norway. This is based on looking at the population size, number of registered players and clubs, and attendance at games. England, often derided for under-performing on the international level, actually performs better than the numbers - again, population, number of registered professional players - would suggest was logical.

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Also, the French club Olympique Lyonnais is used as a case study. Much like the Oakland A's in baseball, Lyonnais relies less on the knowledge and planning of short-term coaches, and more on the skills of a long-term sporting director. His policy has been to buy good players at a low price and sell them when their value rises dramatically. But a player is never sold before a replacement is ready, no matter how much is offered. Lyonnais, a provincial club, has dominated French football in recent years, thanks to its business-like strategy. It has won the French League seven times in nine years.

Some of the authors' points seem stunningly obvious to an outsider, but are, apparently, beyond the knowledge of coaches and executives at big soccer clubs. They underline what everyone familiar with the English Premier League knows: Although Brazilians tend to be the most skilled players in the world, they rarely transfer and play well in England.

It is pointed out here that even a club as rich and successful as Chelsea did not, until recently, have a relocation adviser for players coming from other countries. Tens of millions have been spent on players who under-perform because they have language and housing difficulties and their children have problems at school. No major corporation would spend that amount of money on a staff member and leave him to fend for himself. But in soccer, that has always been the way it has been done. Toughen up the players by making the relocation difficult.

As an addition to the growing list of good books about soccer, this one is subversive, calling for a radical but rational approach to how soccer operates as a business and as a game. It's more of an eye-opener than England qualifying for the World Cup.

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's TV columnist and writes widely about soccer. His book The World is a Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer will be published in the spring.

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