How well has Soccernomics aged?

I try to avoid posting NYT links because that publication sucks but I spotted this interview called ‘Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics and ‘Soccernomics’‘ from 2009 and thought it was interesting.

Soccernomics is a book by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski that examines the beautiful game through an economical and analytical lens. It achieved great success and formed the basis of many Moneyball saves on Championship Manager and Football Manager (including a few of mine). But after a while, I realised that some of it seemed a bit… off? These thoughts came thick and fast after I read into the wider criticism of a similar book, Freakonomics (can you spot the trend?) and a few days ago, I wondered what else people had said about Soccernomics. Instead of a critque, I found the aforementioned interview and wondered how well some of the opinions had aged:

“The heart of the matter,” Kuper said in a telephone interview from his home in Paris, “is that the thinking in soccer is outdated, backward and tradition-based. It needs a fresh look based on data. There’s a new global map, with countries like the U.S. and Japan already rising. And they will continue to rise at the expense of Europe as knowledge gets disbursed. And it’s happening very quickly.”

Perhaps the authors’ most contentious assertion is that the balance of power in global soccer is about to change because of three factors — population, wealth and experience. And that, Kuper said, means that countries like the United States, China and even India have the potential to be among the sport’s elite.

“The 2002 World Cup was revolutionary,” Kuper said. “South Korea and Turkey in the semifinals, the U.S. within a missed hand-ball call of getting to the semis. The Europeans’ home ground was taken away. The U.S. did well in the Confederations Cup. But for all the predictions about the rise of Africa, that’s not likely. Income, population and experience. Africa is nowhere on the first two and it’s only one thing to go and hire a coach. Poverty stops them.”

“The U.S., China and India are shooting up in income and population, they may have little experience, in terms of coaching, but they can get it quickly,” Kuper said. “That’s one reason I think the U.S. has not done better. Some people take the view that the U.S. needs an American coach. I don’t think that’s correct. The best coaching week in and week out is in Western Europe, and the U.S. needs to adopt the best practices. And if you want to win, send all your best players to play in Europe and hire all your coaches from Europe.”

I think “poverty stops them” as a reason for Africa not doing better on a global stage is wild because where is the nuance in that? Firstly, we’re comparing a whole continent to three individual countries (yes, two of them are known as sub-continents but emphasis on the sub-). Secondly, this isn’t Band Aid. And if we look at the contrasting thought—that the US, China, and India will dominate instead—has yet to be proved. All three nations have ploughed money into their football leagues but shown little in promise on the global stage since 2009 (on the men’s side anyway; the USWNT remain ever-dominant). Remind me which continent the 4th placed team at the 2022 World Cup are from?

Leave a Reply