Soccernomics is my third and the last sports book of 2014. A light yet insightful read, Soccernomics throws up several revelations and mythbusters – some beautiful, some shocking and some unpalatable – for the lovers of the beautiful game. Written by Simon Kuper, a journalist and Stefan Szymanski, a trained sports economist, the book pits the widely bandied assumptions in football against hard data and challenges several prepossessed notions.
Unlike baseball, which witnessed an empirical renaissance of sorts in the ’90s, soccer is yet to witness its Moneyball moment. Though managers like Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp bear the earmarks of Billy Beane, soccer still awaits an across-the-board sabermetrics shift.
Every year football clubs blow inordinate amounts of cash on purchasing new players. Take, for example, the £835m spent in the 2014 summer transfer market by the English premier league clubs. Premier League fans would swear to the significance of transfer fees as the reason behind the overwhelming success of clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea. There is not a player in the world that these two clubs can’t buy. So the question arises: Is ‘spending big’ in transfer window all that matters? Authors’ answer is an emphatic no. Instead, they cite a club’s wage structure as the more important pivot for success than the transfer fees. In short, the higher the players’ wages, the higher the likelihood of having a number of trophies in the cabinet. While the success of big-spenders like Man City and Chelsea may shroud the authors’ argument, the collated data for 10 years (1998-2007) on 60 odd clubs from the top two tiers of the English football suggests otherwise. Higher wages, bigger glories.
“The media and fans often make it impossible for the clubs to make sensible decisions. They are always hassling the club to do something immediately”. – Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski
The authors take a dig at new managers who, according to them, siphon off massive club cash on transfers only to end up with mediocrity in their ranks. The criticism may sound harsh, but it’s not entirely deviating. New managers are known to splurge money like drunken pirates in a Bacchanalia. In the defense of new managers, however, the surest way to win over the club loyalists and the local media even before a ball is kicked is actually by buying big names. Making a splash as the media calls it. And, nothing would make the stakeholders happier if your manager exudes the swagger, the charisma and the PR skills in addition to being lucky with owner’s money. Jose Mourinho is perhaps the impeccable embodiment of everything you want in a football manager.
Are football clubs big businesses as they are generally perceived to be? The authors’ response is not just negative, but it’s shockingly disapproving of football being a business at all. Contrary to public perception, most football clubs are not behemoths, but only minnows in the large corporate pool. Real Madrid (2013-14) with its $797 million of revenues (2013-14) – the highest ever recorded in the history of professional sports – won’t even scrape into top 150 Indian companies. And, the most embarrassing aspect, one seldom highlighted by the clubs, is the situation on net profits front. Sticking with Real Madrid, one of the most profitable clubs in the world turned net profits of $48 million in 2013-14 suggesting a profitability of 6%. If Real Madrid barely cuts it, imagine the picture in the less-global soccer clubs. For a reference, between 1992 and 2008, 40 of England’s 92 professional clubs were involved in insolvency proceedings.
The authors underline a score of orthodoxies and irrationalities seemingly inherent to the football business. From hiring the club manager on a phone-call to binging on expensive prima-donnas to teetering on the edge of bankruptcy while chasing trophies, football edifice apparently has some shaky underpinnings. “Just as oil is part of the oil business, stupidity is part of the football business,” declare the authors.
In one of the more fascinating chapters, Kuper and Syzmanski draw attention to the fundamental injustice of English football against the black managers. However, for some reason, the authors steer clear of ‘racism’ and instead deploy euphemisms such as job discrimination and prejudice in their accusations. It’s an allusively acknowledged fact that there is hidden racism in football and I, for one, would have loved the authors to call a spade a spade. You know how bad things are when in an ecosystem of 92 professional clubs, there are only two black managers and worse, of all the backroom staff in England, the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) employees comprise less than 4%. As shocking as these figures are, they only cover the tip of the iceberg. Imagine getting the full perspective on situation after you have the figure for other leading football nations such as Spain, Italy, France, Russia, etc. Nonetheless, the duo appears right on the button when they claim that the market in football managers is much less efficient than it is for the players. But I really suspect if the market inefficiency alone explains the plight of the black manager.
For all the savvy football fans, Soccernomics is a must read. Though you may find it hard to nod your head in agreement every time the authors articulate an opinion or interpret an inference, yet the sheer excitement of dipping into the next interesting insight or the soccer factoid keeps you going. Principally, I found the latter half of the book more engaging. Authors enlighten the reader to several lesser-known facts from the world of football. So whether it is bringing to light the unlikely superiority of provincial cities over their bigger counterparts from the capital or bestowing the title of the most football-crazy country in the world on Norway (sorry for the spoilers), Soccernomics entertains to the hilt.