Football is often described as a sport of intangibles. Played at the highest levels, the fluidity and pace of the beautiful game does not lend itself to voluminous playbooks or carefully orchestrated set pieces (even if some teams try). Indeed, not since the most recent success of Barcelona's super squad have statistics like 'percentage of possession' and 'number of passes completed' become so lauded in the imagination of its fans.
From dizzying transfer fees to ideas that the World Cup is a "magic bullet" designed to provide economic prosperity to its host nation, on-the-field intangibles have translated to off-the-field irrationalities. Recent allegations against prominent members of FIFA suggest that certain parts of the football world are ripe with mismanagement, corruption, and unsound policies. For far too long the discourse of modern-day football has been dominated by individuals without any regard for the things that make this game beautiful.
Enter Soccernomics. Co-authored by Simon Kuper and Stefan Symanski, Soccernomics provides an air of level-headedness that challenges commonly held misperceptions prevalent throughout all sectors of football. Using objective, statistical analyses, they put forward a series of arguments, which are as follows:
Football is not a business; England's national team does not underperform but actually over-performs given the size of its population; wages and efforts to help players adjust to their new surroundings are far more important to the success of a club than expensive transfers involving World Cup stars, centre-forwards, Brazilians or players with "sight-based prejudices" (i.e. blondes or the athletic-looking types); poor people are not "hungrier" to succeed in football than rich ones; Norway, not Brazil or England, is the world's most football-loving country; the modern football fan is not a loyalist like Nick Hornby, but a casual, fair-weather fan that usually follows more than one team; football does not cause suicide, but happiness, and, allowing for wealth, population, and income, the Honduran and Iraqi national teams are the best over-performers in the world.
Although Soccernomics forces its reader to challenge many long-standing ideas about the football world, the initial feeling of discomfort quickly transforms into laudable agreement. Why? Because Kuper and Symanski "have the numbers" to back up their seemingly controversial arguments. Their statistical research is exhaustive, and their anecdotes and interviews strongly support their data tables. Yet the text is never bogged down with technical jargon. Kuper, a journalist, ensures that whenever his colleague, an economist, delves into the gritty details of economics, the writing remains clear and witty.
On the off chance that they do discuss a technique like multiple regressions, they make sure to carefully explain their methodology in a language that even the most mathematically inept reader is bound to understand. Thus, if Barcelona is a team that represents all that is good on the football pitch, the cure to anti-football; then Kuper and Symanksi are its unparalleled equivalent off of the pitch, rationalists whose critical approach to football deserves recognition.