This is the US version of "Why England Lose: and Other Curious Phenomena Explained", with some small differences; the chapter on the FA Cup is replaced by one comparing Association Football with American Football, and the language is americanised. Anyway here's my review based on the English version.
I've read quite a bit of S&K's work as part of my MSc and although I don't necessarily always, or indeed often, agree with their reasoning, they do make interesting points. "Why England Lose..." is a departure into the mainstream from their early, more academic work and judging from the jaunty tone of the book they had great fun writing it, and aimed at rattling some cages along the way.
However, to appeal to a wider audience much of the academic rigour which I would normal associate with S&K is abandoned and conclusions are reached on some rather shallow arguments. A reader not familiar with the use and misuse of statistics should bear in mind that correlation does not constitute causality, and that if at first your stats don't support your hypothesis you can normally rummage around for some that do. This is not knocking S&K in any way and I wouldn't suggest that S&K have done this at all, but academic bias is a common phenomenon and often hard to resist.
Two chapters of the books were particularly interesting - one, regarding the nature of fandom, for its mythbusting and the second, regarding the inherent racism in the game, for perpetuating a flawed myth.
In drawing attention to the nature of a fan and the churn of fans at particular clubs, S&K have aimed a strong, square kick at the goolies of one of the game's sacred cows, and about time too. I'm fed up being told by people how they've followed Chelsea/Man Utd since before they were good. I was also once told by someone at West Ham that they had had a particular seat for 30 odd years. Strange, as when I went back in the 80s that area was standing!
As regards the inherent racism argument I do feel that S&K let themselves down a bit. Yes, Asians are proportionally underrepresented both in the crowd and on the pitch, but get yourselves down to the Emirates and you'll see how the local young Asian community have embraced Arsenal.
Similarly, the lack of Asian players on the pitch may be striking, but is their proportional underrepresentation any greater than the underrepresentation of young, white, working class males in the ranks of doctors, lawyers etc? Indeed, you will find that the Asian community is overrepresented in careers such as doctors, dentist, pharmacists etc, not for any racial reason but rather for cultural and generational considerations. The generation under debate will normally be sons of immigrants who have worked hard to create opportunities for their children. The emphasis put on education and discipline for this generation favoured academic achievement over sporting excellence, as a respectable profession to support the family was the objective. The subsequent, current generation have different views and that can be seen at clubs such as Arsenal. I've no doubt that this generation will be more willing to encourage their children to embrace sport and we will see an increase in the number of Asian players in the next 15 years.
A more valid point for discussion would be how a club should cope with changing demographics in their catchment area, this is particularly crucial for smaller club who find it hard to attract fans in competition with the big glamour clubs. Clubs like Orient, for example, find themselves in an area which has undergone great demographic change and appear to be left in a locale where the new residents show little interest in the club as theh have no historical ties to the area and are often transient. How can a low profile, relatively unsuccessful club connect with its neighbourhood?
The above whinge aside, S&K have made a good effort at plugging a gap in the market, with an accessible approach to football's problems. It is a bit dumbed down, and certainly more Ant & Dec than Einstein & Oppenheimer, but it's still well worth a read. Just bear in mind that if a problem is complex, it is complex; by making simpler you necessarily ignore some of the issues. As I said at the top, a good introduction and hopefully it will encourage people to read further.
While you might not agree with the conclusions made by the writers in the book, you can't deny that it is a fascinating application of economic theory to football. It certainly gave me food for thought.
The thing that surprised me while I was reading the book was that I was taken more by the writers' methodology than the actual subject matter. I loved the way that something as romantic as footballing glory can be analysed using regression analysis. I never thought that I would see a mathematician like Gauss mentioned in a book about football.
Having said that, the romantic football fan in me still hopes for glory and wants his team to do better than the statistical factors would suggest it should. The book seems to suggest a degree of fatalism in football which I would love to disprove but expect I can't.
on 27 April 2010
I loved freakonomics and am a huge soccer fan so I was excited about reading this book. However I found parts of it lazy for example in the last chapter characterizing Russia as a underdeveloped sporting nation and therefore neglecting their performance in Euro 88 and various other tournaments or more criminally failing to mention Valeriy Lobanovskyi who while a Ukranian, operated in the Soviet league. Furthermore it suggests Australia's soccer development started with Guus Hiddink without mention of Terry Venables.
It also fell in to the trap that many "intellectual" football writers fall in to of praising Arsene Wenger to the hilt. This lazy cliche neglects the fact that for all his skill he hasn't won half as many trophies as Manchester United in his management of Arsenal.
The best moments of the book are interesting in a "huh that makes sense" way rather than a mind blowing transformative way. The use of economic models only really shows so much about a game that has too many variables to calculate. Of course countries with experience, money and population will win more often. Congratulations on stating the blindingly obvious.