Stats to watch out for in soccer

Cover image of "Soccernomics" by Simon Kupur and Stefan Szymanski

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: A lot of people who follow sports follow the statistics that go along with them. Not all statistics are created equal, though. A new book about the numbers of soccer points that out. Simon Kuper co-wrote "Soccernomics." He says track records can only tell you so much. The conventional wisdom's generally wrong. And the stats you really ought to be paying attention to in a global sport like soccer are GDP and population. Welcome to the program.

SIMON KUPER: Thank you.

Ryssdal: This a book that tests the traditions of the game of soccer against the data of the game of soccer. How did you come up with that premise?

KUPER: Well, I met Stefan Szymanski, my co-author, in a hotel in Istanbul. We were both giving a talk there at a soccer conference. And I'm a journalist and he's an economist, and we began talking, and we both realized we looked at soccer in a similar way, which is that it's a very traditional hidebound industry run entirely by men who have been in it since they were kids. You're a player and then you become a coach, or a manager. And you do what you always did because that must be the right way, and you don't reflect on it. And we said well why not test some of the truths, these eternal truths about soccer against the data and see if they're true. And we found that many of them, of course, weren't.

Ryssdal: What are some good examples of that? I mean what did you find?

KUPER: Well, for example, the transfer market, where one club buys another player. It's much like trades in American sports except that you also pay the other club a transfer fee, which can be huge, it can be $90 million as in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo. And we found that teams that spend a lot on transfers don't do better than teams that don't. Or this idea that is very strong in England that England underperforms, they should be doing better. It's a disgrace to the country that soccer isn't doing better. Well, we drew up a system of testing every country in soccer, and see whether they overperformed or underperformed relative to their resources. And we found that the U.S., for example, underperforms very, very badly. But in fact England overperforms. It does better than you'd expect given its rather small population.

Ryssdal: So the theory being, just to take the Americans, our gross domestic product, and our population base, and all of that, mean that we ought to win the World Cup every time.

KUPER: Well, it's true that your GDP despite the last year or two is excellent, yeah, let's not go there. And your population is staggering and keeps growing. It's true that your soccer experience is not that long. I mean, the U.S. went for many decades where they didn't play many games. But certainly, if you add it all together, the U.S. should be doing much, much better than it is. And in fact we predict in the book that countries like the U.S., Japan, Australia, countries at sort of the corners of the soccer world, are going to improve. I would expect one of those countries, maybe the U.S., to win a World Cup in the next decade or two.

Ryssdal: You spend some time in the beginning of the book talking about Bill James, who is for those who don't know, an American statician, I guess you'd call him, who basically brought the art of numbers to baseball and really revolutionized the way general managers think about it. He was the guy who made Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball" possible, all those statistics that he'd derived. And while I certainly see the point of you got to follow the numbers and all this. Here's my question about applying economics to the world of sports: Where's the romance? Where's the just watching the game for the sake of the game?

KUPER: Absolutely. I love watching soccer. I still play every Wednesday night in Paris with some other old men who can't walk properly. But you can be romantic about the game without being completely wide-eyed and irrational about it. It's still interesting to understand how it works. Particularly since so much of us who follow sport we don't actually spend that much of that time watching sport. It's more we're talking about it with friends, we're checking things on the Internet. And what sort of got me irritated is so much of what's purveyed is just wrong. It just doesn't chime with the facts. And I'm sure if you ask Bill James, he'd say he's very romantic about baseball. He loves baseball. And for people who are actually going to go through the blood, sweat and tears of writing a book like this, like we did, you actually really have to care.

Ryssdal: Simon Kuper. He is the author, with Stefan Szymanski of "Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey -- and Even Iraq -- Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport." Simon, thanks a lot.

KUPER: Thank you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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