A brilliant new book lays bare the idiocies of the beautiful gameby David Goldblatt / September 30, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Why England Lose and Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained
By Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (Harper Collins, £15.99)
“Anyone who spends any time inside football soon discovers that just as oil is part of the oil business, stupidity is part of the football business.” Well, football may not spend billions of pounds actively seeking out stupidity, piping, refining and selling it, but as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski demonstrate over and over again in Why England Lose, it is certainly swimming in the stuff.
For starters, take the case of the striker Nicolas Anelka, whom Real Madrid purchased from Arsenal for £22.3m. Multinational companies, like football clubs, spend a great deal of time locating and then transferring key personnel to foreign postings. When they do, they also spend a great deal of time and money making that reallocation as easy as possible: finding their staff housing, schools for their kids, and providing a variety of services to acclimatise them to new cultures and ways of working—on the grounds, not unreasonably, that they want them to focus on their job.
When you are moving young, often poorly educated, shy and emotionally fragile, inexperienced, young men who happen to play football very well, you might think this a useful model; not as an act of kindness or generosity, lord forbid, but because it makes economic sense. This of course is not the case in football. Anelka was left to rot at Real Madrid: for all the money thrown at him, when he arrived they failed to give him a locker, any assistance with housing, let alone any formal introductions to the team he was to be working with. Unsurprisingly, his performance at Real was disappointing. Didier Drogba spent months in a hotel looking for somewhere to live after training with Chelsea: one wonders how much faster he would have assumed his current form if his move, five years ago, had been better managed. The list goes on. In fact, the situation is so bad that Nike, a real business, employs minders to look after its transferred football stars, well aware that left to the clubs their brand ambassadors are likely to suffer a calamitous decline in form and thus value.
Economic rationality is just not football’s strong suit, and nor is emotional intelligence. As Kuper and Syzmanski demonstrate, the transfer market is full of obvious irrationalities. For example, scouts over-report blonde players—who stand out and stick in the mind—irrespective of their actual performance. Despite all evidence to the contrary, clubs also overpay for teenagers, for players of fashionable nationalities and for recent stars of international tournaments without properly assessing their likely course of development, their suitability for the football culture they are moving to or the latter’s real long-term track record and value.
In fact, almost every mainstream football homily is revealed by the authors of this book to be hokum: untested, prejudiced myth spawned by an unreflective, anti-educational and above all closed culture. What other business would allow a single person to take all the key purchasing and personnel decisions unexamined and untested by the rest of the company? They certainly don’t do that at Shell, but then Shell makes money while football and its megalomaniac managers pour it down the drain.
Kuper and Syzmanski are, by contrast, a highly effective and scrupulously rational team, combining the former’s detailed and nuanced understanding of European football with the latter’s sophisticated econometric analysis. With a remarkable lightness of touch, they demonstrate the limits of conventional thinking in football, as well as the real patterns of behaviour that shape sporting outcomes. Their statistical breakdown of English football spectators shows that despite the cultural centrality of the Nick Hornby-style of lifelong addiction to a single club, most of us are fair-weather friends with polygamous allegiances. Contrary to the myths that sporting calamities raise suicide rates among fans, they show that the unusual solidarities and shared communities of big football tournaments actually lead to a statistically significant drop in suicide rates.
As for the English football team, well, they do just about as well as they should. Taking the huge data bases of international football games that now exist, and using regression analysis—a statistical method that allows one to determine how much of a given outcome (winning football games) can be related to a other factors (wealth, population size, footballing experience, home advantage)—the authors suggest that England are in fact over-performing. And they show that England’s over-performance is especially significant when one recognises the talent pool that players are drawn from is much smaller than similarly sized countries because there is, within the industry, such a systematic bias against middle class and educated staff. Of all the 34 England team members who have played at the last three international tournaments, only 5 came from anything approaching a middle-class background. Gareth Southgate is emblematic of the anti-intellectualism that pervades football culture; a man pilloried in the sports press for having the temerity to read a broadsheet. English football nationalists should worry less about the flood of foreign players coming to the country and more about the class apartheid that operates in the game.
I enjoyed this book enormously. I was forced to think about and reassess innumerable aspects of the football industry and its history. Yet, as with every attempt to apply economics to sport, and indeed to any realm of human activity, both the authors and I also reached the intellectual limits of the dismal science. When considering, for example, the debate over the distribution of resources between clubs and the impact of new money from sovereign funds and itinerant billionaires, the authors recognise that there are moral questions in play. They claim that they cannot judge the rightness of the case either way. And indeed none of us can, certainly not with the precision offered by regression analysis. But as fans, citizens and intellectuals, we are obliged to assess it in other ways. The football industry, as this book shows, is too stupid, too insular and too unreflective at the moment to do so itself; those of us that can should not bottle the opportunity to do so.