Sunday, November 6, 2022

You have two weeks to read the new edition of "Soccernomics"

Journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski have just published a substantially expanded edition (a timely “world cup edition”) of their famous book Soccernomics. This book inspired me some years ago to propose a course on Soccer & Economics that I teach at the Study Abroad program (for foreign undergraduate students) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Most if not all chapters have updated data and there are new chapters on a number of topics, such as the “neoliberal” European Superleague that failed to exist in 2021, or a chapter calling for financial reparations to compensate for the historic discrimination of women in soccer.

There is updated work on who are the best national teams. In relative terms, the best are small post-Yugoslav countries such as Croatia and Bosnia, that is, relative to what should be expected from their population, income levels and soccer experience (and they benefit a lot from the strong experience of the former Yugoslavia). Spain has been doing well, according to the authors, coinciding with the economic growth and increasing openness of the country in the recent decades. Both Spain, the post-Yugoslav republics and other national teams have benefited from their talent pools becoming more internationalized. That’s one of the paradoxes of soccer: national teams benefit from internationalization.

There is an interesting discussion of the data analysis revolution in soccer (more about that in Kuper’s book review in The New Statesman of Rory Smith’s book “Expected Goals”). The authors of Soccernomics argue that this revolution is still at a very early stage (like what alchemy was to the Scientific Revolution) and that the jury is still out to decide whether clubs who claim to have been very successful with data analysis, have really been so (perhaps Liverpool were not so consistently good at that after all).

Like in previous editions, but with new data to support their claim, Kuper and Szymanski argue that it is very difficult to predict who will be a good manager, but that there are very few managers that add any value to the game. They are skeptical that former famous players can in general be better managers than people who study and truly specialize on being a manager (“good horses do not make good jokeys,” as Italian manager Sacchi used to say).

In a final chapter, the authors are optimistic in that soccer will survive in the era of social media and streaming, because these will only provide more platforms to reach more people in more places. The success of the game and its combination with new technologies will attract more fans and more and more investors (that will keep losing money).

Soccernomics is still the best introduction to the economic (in a very broad sense) keys of the most globalized sport. It uses academic standards to shed light on a number of relevant issues. It cannot cover everything, and it is not fair to criticize something for what in doesn’t address in depth (when it already has 400 pages). But, still, one misses a chapter on corruption (although there are some references here and there) and some more updating of some pieces. For example, the 60% advantage of kicking first in penalty shoot-outs is still conventional wisdom (briefly mentioned in the chapter on penalty kicks), but I’m not sure it still is academic wisdom, after an article on 2012 (that included the data used to make the 60% claim but also many more observations for the period when kicking first or second was purely random) reduced the percentage to a non-significant 53% -and after all the shoot-outs in the 2018 World Cup being won by the team that kicked second.

Like many people, I don’t have the strength of will to participate in a fans’ strike in the Qatar World Cup (as I probably should). Given that many of us will be watching it, reading the updated Soccernomics ahead of it is a good investment, so much better than wasting our time incurring the mental risk of reading the sports media. Soccer has a dark side, but it also provides lots of opportunities to learn. 

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