on 5 January 2010
It's an interesting idea for a football book - use data to look at football phenomena instead of conventional wisdom, and see if some myths can be exploded. And for a little while, it works really well. The first feature on Why England Lose throws up some interesting angles, like the dearth of middle class players in the game, and the apparent fact that actually England do okay. And then, the attention to detail appears to drop. This is a shame because the book remains entertaining throughout, but the glibness of the conclusions reached, the selective data used to illustrate points that could easily be explained by other phenomena, it makes the book less enjoyable. More damagingly, those points that I can't verify personally are no longer as believable as before, and on revisiting the original chapter, I found that I didn't have the same confidence in either the data used or the conclusions reached.
I'll give just a couple of examples - there's a whole chapter on European Cup Winners that raises an interesting point that the main metropolitan areas of Europe can't offer a single European Cup/Champions League winner between them, and then uses some highly selective interpretation of data to predict that London will soon be winning them all the time. Doesn't include the success of Real Madrid or Ajax by the way. More annoyingly, there's an interesting chapter on football being boring or interesting if the same sides dominate. It reaches the point that it's interesting. So it ignores Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, or the big 3 in Portugal, and instead draws conclusions from crowd levels in England in two selected periods. In doing so, it ignores socio-economic factors like the end of the war and gradually increasing entertainment sources in the earlier period, and the recovery from hooliganism and disaster in the later period. These cannot be ignored, because they have a far greater impact on the figures than the point they are trying to make. And then ten pages later (Page 190 if you're interested), these factors turn up to prove a separate point about the FA Cup. Very very sloppy? Or deliberate? Either way, it spoils the book for me. There's too much of this.
I could go on - the theory about Lyon's success being down to committee thinking is interesting, but it's not taken any further, and there are far too many cases where such a policy doesn't work for them to be ignored. And the yearning for a club run by fans when there was such a high profile failure in the last few years, it's just sloppy. It's a shame, because the book is at least entertaining, and it does raise some interesting issues; but they simply haven't done what they claim to have done, which is to analyse football phenomena. There's far too little objective analysis. And irritatingly, there's an obsession with baseball throughout that just won't die. Disappointing.
on 21 February 2015
Two types of books seem to have seriously escalated in popularity over the last few years. The first type is the footballer’s biographies, which can range from the excellent to the pointless, depending at which stage of the player’s career they’ve been written at. The other is the popular science type book, as in “Why Don’t Penguins Feet Freeze”. When I saw “Why England Lose”, I was expecting something akin to the latter. The reviews I’d seen comparing it to “Freakonomics” possibly should have been a bit of a giveaway, but as I’ve never read “Freakonomics”, that comparison meant nothing.
Your average football fan doesn’t need a load of statistics to answer the question posed as the book’s title. England lose because Glenn Hoddle didn’t make the side practice penalties. England lose because David Beckham slipped at a crucial moment and because he kicked someone right under the referee’s nose. England lose because Christiano Ronaldo cheated to get Rooney sent off. England lose because Diego Maradona cheated and punched the ball into the net. England lose because there are too many foreign players in the Premiership. And as any of the England fans who so upset Wayne Rooney by booing at the end of the Algeria game at the 2010 World Cup could have told you, England lose because we simply just don’t play well enough sometimes.
Of course, if it were that simple, this wouldn’t be much of a book and you certainly wouldn’t need a sports economist to provide the answer. What Kuper and Szymanski have done here is to look at football from an economic and statistical view, with lots of numbers to back up their arguments. It looks at the game as a business, whether racism still exists, the support of the fans and how the economy of a country or town can and has affected the performance of their football teams.
To be fair to the authors, they have picked up on some interesting topics. Reducing a penalty shoot out to numbers removes all the tension a football fans loves (or hates!), but as a statistics fan, I found it quite fascinating. As a psychology graduate, the section on the fans intrigued, know that trying to explain human behaviour; illogical at the best of times, but even more so when fanaticism is involved, would be next to impossible, but they give it a good go. However, the question posed in the book’s title never gets answered, which made me feel a little hard done by.
However, the book had several major failings. The authors are supposedly an economist and a football writer. I’m not entirely sure who did most of the writing, but the whole book reads more like an economist wrote it rather than someone with any real fandom about football. The tone doesn’t have the accessibility it would need to reach a football crowd, seeming dull and staid at times. Maybe it’s just my interpretation of the words, but there were occasions where it almost felt as if the text was looking down its nose at me as I was reading, judging itself superior to me purely because of all the effort and figures involved. “You won’t understand me,” the book seemed to say, “but you haven’t figured that out yet. Keep reading, you will.”
What the book didn’t know is that as a mad keen armchair football fan with an A-Level in Statistics, in theory I’m right in the target audience for a book like this. Sadly, however, apart from a couple of interesting snippets of information I didn’t know or hadn’t considered, I didn’t get an awful lot out of it. It’s a little too technical to be a decent read and it’s far too patchy and narrow in scope to be any use as a reference guide, plus there are too few insights to appeal to the average football fan. In terms of the figures themelves, they seem to exist only to prove what A. E. Housman once said about engineers: “Statistics in the hands of an engineer are like a lamppost to a drunk—they're used more for support than illumination.”, as very few of the numbers here are ever conclusive in either direction. Plus, having been published just before England’s abject performance in that 2010 World Cup, it’s already out of date, even as the question becomes more pertinent than ever.
However, the book’s major crime is that, despite all the intelligence and number crunching that may have gone into it, it lacks the vital ingredient essential to football fandom: passion. Passion may not win matches and it certainly isn’t quantifiable – which is possibly why it’s missing here – but you cannot have football without it. That’s why this book loses, as it doesn’t have the one thing that is demonstrated and demanded by every football fan around the world. Figures don’t have passion and the writing between the figures here doesn’t demonstrate it either. It therefore doesn’t have the ingredients for it to appeal to a football fan and there’s just not enough solid evidence to draw any conclusions from, which would mean it would annoy those who love the figures as I do.
So, what we have here is a book that is supposed to appeal to football fans and economics fans and will alienate both groups. I suspect that the economics fans will gain slightly more from it, as the writing suggests it’s aimed a little more in that direction. The average football fan will just get bored and switch off before long.
This review may also appear, in whole or in part, under my name at any or all of www.ciao.co.uk, www.thebookbag.co.uk, www.goodreads.com, www.amazon.co.uk and www.dooyoo.co.uk
on 27 September 2011
This book makes a number of ironical comments about football and associated attitudes, but the biggest irony of all is that there should be explicit thanks to the "copy editor who saved us from many errors". In this Kindle version the number of errors in punctuation and spelling is so great as to get in the way of the meaning. Having said that, the content of the book is terrific, so perhaps it is fairer to concentrate on that aspect before noting some examples of the awful presentation that (for me) earns a yellow card and the loss of a star.
One early analogy for the study of football statistics struck me as excellent. One can drive a car without a dashboard display, but having the dashboard instruments makes it a lot easier. From this starting point the authors set out on a fascinating review of all aspects of economic and social behaviour to explain the rise and fall of various clubs and countries.
No database seems to be beyond them. No sooner have we looked at the extra goals per game that a home team might expect to expect, than we are into an argument (based on persuasive facts) that there are far fewer suicides in years when there are big tournaments. It can get a bit nerdy, but generally the tone is light enough to carry you along.
The central argument, which is referred to often enough without being dominant, is that England (given its population, experience and GDP) provides "a good team that does better than most". In other words, there should be no great expectation of winning trophies; England should rank about 7 or 8 in the world, and by reaching quarter-finals so often they justify that expectation. It's a sober and sensible view that all TV commentators should be forced to read. Elsewhere the authors latch on to odd statistics with great enthusiasm, and although it becomes a bit loose at the end it is still a good read, dealing with much more than merely England.
Now, as for those mis-prints, I gave up counting the errors with hyphens and dashes - many dozens, anyway. Get ready for this sort of thing in Kindle:
"... spectators who do not show upattheirclubthe next season..."
"they were a partalbeit a distant-part of European football".
Elsewhere the presentation gives the impression of a poorly-scanned Word document, with initial M of some words appearing as IVI, and intended "win" as "w'm". A reference to the "Bosnian ruling" could leave you thinking that the authors knew nothing about the game. Thankfully the rest of the text makes it clear that they know a huge amount. It is such a pity that this edition should be so woefully produced.