#4 - Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
In case you've been living under a rock (or perhaps in America... just kidding!), the World Cup kicks off on June 11, 2010. That's 180 days and 20 hours from now. Are you ready?
I've been looking forward to the World Cup since the minute the whistle was blown to announce red-hot Spain as the 2008 European Cup Champions over my beloved Germany. Oh, but now it's just seven months away. Qualifying is over. Countries have been drawn into groups and holy crap, I cannot wait.
I was planning to hold off on Soccernomics until May to really get me into the World Cup spirit, but I couldn't help myself. All the soccer blogs were talking about it so that I too, wanted to be in the know of Soccernomics.
The book applies economics to the sport of soccer. Kuper and Szymanski use math to tell us which national team has the best fans, who are the biggest over- and underperformers of the game, and even investigate the correlation between suicide rates and major soccer events. I won't lie, I absolutely suck at math and their explanations of regressions and math formulas left me in a tizzy, but it was still really interesting to read about.
Soccernomics brings to light many subjects, both new to old to the soccer fan(atic). It discusses racism in the sport, which is still hard for me to fathom because it's unheard of in American sports. Also touched upon is the Iraqi national team and the torture they endured during Sadam Hussein's reign. For these men, the pressure to win was not rooted in fear of failure, but in fear of physical and mental torture. Kuper and Szymanski also analyze why some teams do better than others. Of course, money plays a role as bigger clubs can afford better and expensive players, but did you know that clubs based in capital cities are usually worse off than clubs that aren't?
The book was released in November 2009 - meaning most of the statistics and references are relatively recent, which was great for me. I would consider myself a pretty new soccer fan whose love for soccer has progressively grown into a behemoth. I will base my schedule around matches and I have little shame in this declaration. My obsession took off during the 2002 World Cup where I watched Germany make a (probably undeserving) run to the finals. My dad is a German who was raised on soccer, so the World Cup gave us something to bond over. I hopped on the fußball bandwagon and it's been a magical ride ever since.
Because I am a new-ish soccer fan, I sometimes found it difficult to read other books about the most popular sport on the planet. I adore Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch but constantly found myself going on Wikipedia to further research Arsenal's history and other major events in the world of soccer (the Heysel and Hillsborough tragedies immediately come to mind). Kuper and Szymanski cite events that are as recent as summer 2009 (Cristiano Ronaldo's epic transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid), while also tracing back to the 70's (Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest team that won two European Cups). I enjoyed the fact that I witnessed some of these events (along with millions of other people watching it on TV and in the stands), but was also educated on the moments I missed, whether because I wasn't born yet or was still in my NSYNC-OMG-Justin Timberlake phase.
I'd like to highlight a couple of my favorite chapters because I can relate to them best as a soccer fan.
"The Economist's Fear of the Penalty Kick" was probably my favorite. For starters, I watched Germany dismiss Argentina in the 2006 World Cup Quarterfinals and it ranks quite high on my favorite international soccer moments. Jens Lehmann and that piece of paper that helped bring Germany into the semifinals (only to lose to Italy, which broke my heart and ruined my birthday, still a very sore subject) are forever in my mind.
I also witnessed the Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea. Even though Chelsea had beaten Liverpool (my favorite team in the EPL) to advance, they were still better than Man U in my book. I still blame Anelka for missing the kick, but now I see that Van Der Saar played some mind games. Anelka knew where he was supposed to kick (thanks to a Basque economist), but had to second guess himself because of VDS catching on.
"Are Soccer Fans Polygamists?" is also a favorite because I suppose I can consider myself one. Liverpool and Real Madrid are my favorite teams in their respective leagues, but I can still appreciate Arsenal and Barcelona. I follow Werder Bremen because I studied abroad there one summer, but Dortmund and Bayern Munich are also on my radar. Germany is my national team thanks to my dad's love for them, but Spain and the USA are also worth rooting for. For me, the players are just as important as the club, so wherever my favorites go, I tend to follow. I'm all over the place and while the soccer purists may consider me a heathen, I have too much love for the game and its players to limit myself to one club or national team.
Considering how much I wrote, I guess it's easy to see how much I loved this book. It made me look forward to the World Cup even more (I didn't know that was possible), while also making me mindful of the fact that soccer's impact goes well beyond the world of sport. I could go on and on about how large a role soccer plays in the world of politics, culture, and economics, but you'll have better luck with the eloquent writing of Kuper and Szymanski.