Soccer is the biggest entertainment sector dwarfing US movies and football by 2 or 3 to 1 and is diffusing to all parts of the world. The average fan spend a few cents in China versus $30 bucks per capita in Singapore so there is much room for growth. While I loathe the game, because of its emphasis on heading as a key to victory, and its low scoring nature, I thought that as the world's most popular sport, I should learn something about it.

An ideal first introduction to it is the book Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymansky. They apply regression analysis and game theory to analyzing all the nitty gritty of the game, its customers, its coaches, and its starts. It's a Freakonomics for soccer and has many valuable lessons for all market and sports people.

The authors are a soccer writer and an award winning soccer writer and economist. They cover such topics as the mistakes owners make in buying players, the irrational preference for Brazilians and blonds, why big city teams never win, why certain coaches are great, why England can never expect to win world championships. The book is suffused with the kind of thing we are used to from sabermetrics with every aspect of the game of soccer from the length of the pass, the amount of dribbling, to the proclivities on height and width of penalty kicks, the geometric formations that players gravitate to (the triangle is key), to the positions on defense and offense when ahead.

Central to their analysis is a theory of networks where they claim that Western Europe's emphasis on passing, originally developed in the Netherlands has diffused to all other countries . They apply a type of network analysis where they believe that the central nodes of knowledge, those with the most potential branches as arising from the trunk of a tree are most likely to spread and create benefits. Three coaches, John Cruijff, and Josep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger, have been key to the development of quantitative analysis of the right way to play winning soccer.

The book has many economic and sociological asides to explain things such as the rate of suicide, amount of soccer fans, the happiness of countries based on winning and the prevalence of teams, and the mobility of businesses. They claim that soccer is the worst business in the world, run by the worst businessmen. However, now that the revenues of 28 billion are 5 times what they were 7 or 10 years ago, the businessmen, who have a long term horizon, involving wealth as well as income may not be as foolish in their day to day decision making as the authors believe.

The book's major defect is that it assumes you know much more about soccer than the layman might know. Perhaps I am the only person that doesn't know the scoring and results and makeup of the leagues that they write about, but time and time again I found myself completely bewildered by the mechanics of the control of the game by the various associations, and who the players were that every soccer fan hailed as heroes or villains. Also marring the book is that it's written from the idea that has the world in its grip with numerous asides about the defective nature of capitalism and the Republicans. You would think that authors as dedicated and scholarly as these might try to be more objective and write for an audience that contains as much diversity as the billions of soccer fans that make up the game. 

There are numerous poignant and humorous asides in the book. One great player asks a reporter, "what team did you play for" and another poses the hypothetical, "What could an economist know about soccer?". And numerous pieces of analysis that give insights into sports such as baseball and basketball where the quantitative analysis of the moves and positions that make up the game (the Yankees just hired 22 statisticians to document each aspect of the game).

The authors believe that the interest in soccer and ultimately the ability of a country and team to win, is based on per capita income, GNP, and history of interest. Much of their analysis is based on a regression analysis that suffers much from the part whole fallacy and a likely inability to predict change with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Similar defects are apparent in their analysis of what they say is the key factor in wining, the payment of high players salaries. Their analysis of the importance of poverty as a factor in allowing kids with no prospects to achieve greatness because they have nothing to do but play soccer 24/7 from birth is much more illuminating and interesting. Of course, since they write from the idea that has the world in its grip they decry any possibility of genetic factors determining who's going to rise and fall in the player firmament.

My favorite chapter in the book is about the training schools that Barcelona has for its young players. It's a model for how to develop good teams. Key to the training are provision of good meals, the development of character in the players, the de-emphasis on winning at an early age, the emphasis on passing above all, the continued connection between their players before and after they leave the ranks of the juniors (Messi comes to eat with the kids frequently), the confident movement of kids from the junior teams to the top team, and the benevolent coaching "similar to a Catholic priest". Apparently this is why Barcelona tends to win the world championships as the games between their juniors and Madrid are quite equal at an early stage.

All in all, the book is an eye opener in the level of analysis that the average team uses these days, comparing very favorably to the type of analysis that we are accustomed to receive about markets. It's great reading for anyone interested in soccer. And it helps to give an uneducated sports person like me a much deeper appreciation for why this game has become the most popular sport in the world, and why it will continue to transcend all others.


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