Sunday, August 30, 2009

Football In a Cold, Harsh Light

I finished reading Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski a few weeks ago and meant to post on it before now but I let it drag. It's an interesting meeting of one of the best sportswriters in the English language and a sports economist who has already published widely on the economics of sport and football in particular. The model is quite consciously Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics (and its US title is Soccernomics) and just as that book dealt with social phenomena, it plumbs the faultlines of football to explain some of the quirkier phenomena and also disprove some of the sports' more received wisdom. But the book's more immediate influences are Bill James, the Kansan factory manager whose annual Baseball Abstracts revolutionised thinking about the game, and Michael Lewis, who adapted James' findings in his book Moneyball. Both men used their lateral thinking to propel themselves into positions of influence, and some success, in major-league baseball.

Kuper has been using the sceptical approach taken in this book in his Financial Times sports column for the past few years, with many pieces, such as on the need in football for 'relocation agents' to help foreign signings settle in unfamiliar surroundings, and the reason why richer countries are generally more successful at sport, functioning as dry runs for the book. I played Saturday-morning football with him here in Paris for a couple of seasons before we each slunk off into our respective 'retirements' and back then there was a similar scepticism in his thinking on the sport, one time he cast cold water on the claims, expressed in L'Équipe that week that Helenio Herrera's alleged doping of his Inter and Roma teams in the 1960s might have led to a abnormally large number of early deaths among former players. It reminds me also of a passage from his excellent first book Football Against the Enemy, where he described his first visit to Cameroon:

On my first morning in Yaoundé, I discovered why Cameroonians are good at football; they play a lot. Forget all that nonsense about African suppleness... all you need to know is that at lunchtime, in the evening and all weekend, Yaoundé turns into a football pitch. Some kickarounds draw dozens of spectators, and the quality of play is rare.

This unstinting empirical tendency is allied with the statistical rigour brought to the subject by Szymanski. And the results are interesting, if sometimes less revelatory than some might imagine. Early in the book, they apologise in advance if the harsh objectivity of their findings destroy some of the romance of the game for readers. And their main target is received wisdom. And the country whose football suffers most from the dominance of received wisdom is the country that invented (or, rather, formalised) it, England.

England's miserable record in international football is the subject of the title essay, and Kuper and Szymanski demonstrate that England's record has, in fact been improving over the past fifty years, and that, contrary to popular opinion, and with a number of variables taken into account, England do relatively well. But, of course the birthright of English football does not allow for this, and even if one acknowledges the simplest economic reality of sport - that there are few winners and many losers - English football fans are unlikely to be placated by the authors' conclusion: 'The sad fact is that England are a good team that does better than most. This means they are not likely to win many tournaments, and they don't.' The statistical surveys reveal one vital truth, that England and Germany have similar records in international play but the Germans tend to win more games that matter rather than meaningless - if sometimes prestigious - friendlies. But it is England's isolation from the hub of continental football - an isolation that is only slowly eroding thanks to the globalisation of football - its insistence on clinging to long outdated training and footballing techniques, and its over-reliance on a shrinking working-class base that means it is unlikely to ever be the force in world football it imagines itself to be.

The book is particularly good on the transfer market, and finds Olympique Lyonnais chairman Jean-Michel Aulas and Arsène Wenger to be the real geniuses here (and OL's recent brilliant acquisition of Lisandro López looks like further confirmation of this) and it also throws up a hilarious finding about football scouts: they overwhelmingly value blonde players above others. More controversially, the book questions the worth of a manager, claiming that 92% of the time, the fate of a team is dependent on the salaries it pays its players rather than who is in the hot seat. James Hamilton over at More Than Mind Games has disputed the generalisation of this finding, noting that the remaining 8% is an unquantifiable value, which does indeed make the difference between a good and a bad manager. That's debatable but it's hard to argue with Kuper and Szymanski's findings that new managers are prone to make bad signings and to needlessly dispose of perfectly good players.

There are some findings in the book that are merely confirmation of adventurous rumination on the game. We are told that a racist signing policy - as practised by a number of English tems up until the late 1990s - is generally punished by poor results. Something that would not come as news to Celtic fans: the late Jock Stein always said that, given the choice between signing a Catholic and a Protestant player, he would go for the latter as he knew Rangers' sectarian signing policy would disbar them from taking on Catholics. For much of the time from Stein on, Rangers floundered second or third to Celtic, and later Aberdeen and Dundee United. It was only when Graeme Souness put an end to the signing policy in the late 1980s that Rangers became a force in Scottish football once again. Irish fans will not be surprised to learn that the Republic are ranked the 10th most overachieving team in world football (even if few of us are happy with performances and continual failures to reach finals of major tournaments). It is similarly not too shocking to discover that hardcore, season-ticket-holding fans form a minority within their clubs' following. In fact it's more mystifying that the myth of the diehard fan persists, especially in an age where the pricing of tickets has moved football out of the reach of its traditional working-class demographic.

All in all, Why England Lose is an engaging read that doesn't quite manage to destroy one's faith in the romanticism of the game, most football supporters secretly know the general predestination of much of footballing fortune is a fact. That they prefer not to admit this is more out of loyalty to the theatre of football and the culture of resignation that goes with it, a footballing fado, one might say. There is however one major lacuna in the book. Though there is a chapter devoted to penalties, I would have preferred if the authors had focussed on the 'justice' of the penalty shoot-out and confirm something that I have long suspected: that the penalty-shoot-out, far from being a 'lottery' is actually a fair reflection of the gap in mental strength between the teams and also of the match which has gone before it. It's not for nothing that national teams with strong mental personae, such as Brazil, Germany and Argentina are often successful in shoot-outs where mentally brittle teams, such as England, Spain, Italy and Holland do well less often. An interesting thing would be to examine on a much larger scale the results of penalty shoot-outs and see what this throws up. It was certainly something that preyed on the minds of Italy in the World Cup semi-final against Germany three years ago, thrusting them to score two goals in the final moments of extra-time, desperate to avoid a penalty shoot-out against their hosts that they were almost certain to lose. As Kuper and Szymanski say in the book, the plural of anecdote is called data. I think there might be something in this little observation, in my own humble opinion...

On a sidenote, Kuper has an amusing, and largely true piece on dealing with Parisian rudeness, co-written with Pauline Harris, in today's FT.