Posted by: mdegeorge | October 3, 2010

Summer Reading: “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

One of the great joys of childhood was always summer vacation. And like any proud intellectual (read: nerd), one of the highlights of that eight-week nirvana of a hiatus was the plethora of time available for tearing into my summer reading list. The days spent sprawled out on lounge chairs in the shade delving into the offerings of the local library are one of the great joys of adolescence lost.

Now, as an underemployed college grad with plenty of time on my hands, what better way to while away the days then by giving my library card a work out? My grandparents’ suburban home and spacious decks have been replaced by a sweaty one-bedroom apartment, but the aim is the same. So, all summer, I’ll be posting brief synopses of the latest book to tickle my fancy.

Soccer is a pretty simple game. There are 11 players on the field trying to use their feet, knees, heads, chests, and anything else that isn’t their hands and arms to put the ball in their opponent’s net and prevent them from doing the same.

But like any other game—and regardless of its size, scope, or history, no contest is immune—soccer is subject to the immutable laws of mathematics. Using these precepts, columnist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski dig deep to uncover the hidden truths behind the world’s game in Soccernomics.

Perhaps the best way to describe Soccernomics as the Freakonomics for the world of football. Better still is this suggestion: if you’ve ever sat through a full soccer game and enjoyed reading Freakonomics, you absolutely must pick up this book.Through their varied approaches, Kuper (a passionate chronicler of soccer worldwide) and Szymanski (an economist specializing in sports-related inquiries) decode the meaning behind the endless milieu affixed to soccer in its century and change reign as the world’s favorite sport.

Kuper and Szymanski take both descriptive and proscriptive approaches to the mountain of myth, misinformation and (rarely yet most importantly) reliable info at their disposal.

They first tackle rampant legend in the soccer globe. Does England really underachieve as much as people perceive? Are “good business” and good soccer incompatible? Which country loves soccer the most? Which countries overachieve and underachieve the most? (The results will shock you!)

Kuper and Szymanski also delve into the vagaries of the transfer market and its various inefficiencies with a chapter resembling (and heavily drawing upon) Michael Lewis’ Moneyball that reveals many of the same fallacies exploited by Billy Beane and his gang of sabermetricians.

The duo leave almost no stone unturned. They explore the game theory behind penalty kicks, the connection between provincial, industrial towns and on-pitch success, and the surprisingly fickle tendencies of fans.

They also spend time forecasting future tendencies. By teasing out the relative contribution of certain factors (such as nation’s gross domestic product, number of games played, etc.) in determining the results of past matches (down to the hundredth of a goal per game), they can offer speculation as to the most statistically likely titans of tomorrow.

Perhaps the most appealing and digestible aspect of the book is espoused in the second chapter when Kuper and Szymanski outline the eight phases of England’s quadrennial World Cup exit. Written in late 2009, the prognostication seems downright prophetic in light of the Three Lions briefer-than-expected South African expedition.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room: the math. Much like Freakonomics, the details of the differential calculus behind the data elucidation is never allowed to bog down the reader. Their explanation of the most sophisticated statistical metric used, multiple regression, is described in concise enough terms as to be understandable without requiring re-enrollment in college.

Even with World Cup fever long since worn off, this book was one I couldn’t put down. And one that would make a great Christmas present for the studious soccer fan on your gift list.

If you’re looking for some of the book’s spoilers, check out this NY Times review.

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