And Other Curious Phenomena Explained
by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
Harper Sport, £15.99
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 272 October 2009
Ignore the title – presumably the publisher’s slant to sell more – and follow the sub-head about curious phenomena. Written by an FT journalist and an economist this is a book for nerds. Around the periphery of today’s football (and sports) industry there are a lot of clever people generating a lot of information that, if correctly assembled, should prove they are cleverer than the likes of Harry Redknapp and the typical phone-in caller. Kuper and Szymanski address topics as varied as the suicide rates after major football tournaments (lower than expected) and strategies in the transfer market (think twice about buying blonds unless you’re a Swedish club). The sacred cows of some of our football beliefs are attacked with hard data. Some, to my mind, survive the onslaught.
We think of life-long fans as the bedrock of a club’s support and it’s true there is a tendency to under-estimate the size of the “new consumer” as opposed to “loyal supporter” audience. But by a rather roundabout calculation which confuses individuals and total attendances the authors assert that on average 50 per cent of league “spectators do not take their seats again the next season”. Astonishing – and uncorroborated by anything but a sliver of unconvincing evidence from 1951. Modern database management of season ticket holders might suggest some rather different figures.
Elsewhere there is frequent resort to regression analysis – the mathematical modelling of data to take account of variables and produce interesting correlations. In theory this is quite sophisticated but it does depend on the quality of the data you put in. Many of the England international analyses run from 1980 to 2001 rather than a more germane 1967-2008 period. Regression analyses are very useful when they force you to think anew and to try to match the insight gained with real world experience. Sometimes they rightly discard the answers – Georgia is not the most over-achieving football nation.
Cutting to the chase, or title, nor is England the most under-achieving nation. England pretty much always punches at the right weight, given its experience in international football, its GDP and its population size. These are the three critical, long-term determining factors – and why ultimately we must fear China, Japan, USA and surprisingly Iraq. If our game was more able to accommodate middle-class players and the England team able to sustain a higher level of fitness in the second half of major matches we might, it is argued, do even better. As it is there is “barely any difference between ‘brilliant’ and ‘terrible’ England teams”. But if you are looking for the answer why, at a critical juncture in the tournament, when it looks as if the result could go either way, England always lose, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
If treated as a series of intellectual jousts with differently-informed footballing friends (some they win, some they don’t) this is an entertaining, provocative and eclectic mix.