During the last World Cup I read Ken Bray's excellent How To Score, which examines football from a scientific perspective. I decided to warm up for the 2010 World Cup with this book, which offers an economist's view of the game. [amtap book:isbn=0007354088]
It's quite clearly influenced by the success of Freakonomics - indeed, in the US it's called Soccernomics. The publishing industry's infatuation with economic analyses of x, y and, in all likelihood, z might be on the wane but if you've been dying to publish an economist's perspective on flower arranging, say, or spot welding, then there's probably never been a better time.
Kuper and Szymanski's thesis is that success in international football can be largely explained by three factors: population size, GDP and international experience. Thus countries that have played a lot of international matches over many years, richer countries or countries with larger populations will tend to do better.
Of course, that's not the same as saying those countries will always do better but they will tend to. Brazil, for example, vastly out-perform their expected level based on those factors. Even England do a little bit better than a country with its resources would be expected to.
There's an implied contradiction, then, in the fact that the authors proceed to analyse ways that England could perform better. If England are already out-performing expectations, what's the problem? The point is that, like Brazil, England could do even better with the right focus and priorities.
So Kuper and Szymanski look at some of the problems at the root of English football: a failure to seek middle class players, an inability to effectively judge talent and an entrenched discrimination against women and ethnic minorities. One of the most interesting sections of the book deals with racism and demonstrates statistically that black players were discriminated against by football clubs as recently as the 1980s.
There's a fascinating analysis of international football, examining the countries that have the 'most passionate' football supporters and looking at the countries that, accounting for population, GDP and experience, are the biggest over-performers.
Another highlight is the account of the penalty shoot-out between Manchester United and Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final. Chelsea, the authors reveal, had been briefed on the penalty-taking and penalty-saving tendencies of the United players. It almost paid off, they explain, but for John Terry's failure to score.
Terry's miss underlines something that the authors overlook. Examining penalty shoot-outs in terms of game theory and statistical tendencies is all very well but it, as Ken Bray explains in How To Score, a properly struck penalty is unsaveable.
The other flaw, from my point of view, is the book's dismissal of the problem of imbalance in English - and to a lesser extent European - football. The fact that just three clubs - Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal - dominate the Premier League should not concern us, they argue, because people are still going to matches. If people wanted a balanced league, say the authors, then they wouldn't turn up.
The authors argue that English football has always been dominated by a few big clubs. However, they give insufficient weight to the fact that this imbalance has become greater in the Premier League era, something that seems to me to be bad for English football.
Still, they make a strong case and their argument is worth reading, as is the book as a whole. Why England Lose offers an interesting perspective on the sport and is filled with unexpected nuggets of information and intriguing anecdotes.