Soccernomics (U.K. title: Why England Lose) is an attempt by Simon Kuper, a sports journalist, and Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist, to understand the world’s most popular sport based on data rather than lore and cliché. If you’re partial to soccer or interested in sports analysis, it’s a good read. Among the book’s many interesting findings and arguments: soccer fans don’t like equality among teams; the best club teams currently reside in midsize industrial cities such as Manchester, Barcelona, and Turin, but domination likely will shift to postindustrial multicultural giants like London, Paris, Istanbul, and Moscow; soccer will succeed in the U.S. and the U.S. will succeed in soccer irrespective of how the Major Soccer League (MLS) fares; poverty does not make people or countries better at soccer.
The book’s lead chapter tries to answer the question “Why does England lose?” Why has England’s national team fared so poorly in the quadrennial World Cup since its one and only triumph in 1966? This is, the authors note, “perhaps the greatest question in English sports.”
England has a rich soccer history. It is one of only seven countries to have won a World Cup. It ranks fifth all-time in World Cup matches played (55) and wins (25). Its club teams have been highly successful; between 1970 and 2006 an English team won the world’s top club competition, Europe’s Champions League, nine times, which compares favorably to Germany (6), Italy (6), the Netherlands (6), and Spain (5). Yet England won none of the ten World Cups played during that span. Indeed, it never reached the finals, and made it to the semifinals only once. Why?
Kuper and Szymanski begin by dismissing the popular notion that the problem lies in English clubs’ overreliance on foreign players, which supposedly hinders the development of native talent. I agree with their skepticism here. Then they show that a large share of England’s national team players are from working-class households, and they suggest it would be good if more were recruited from the middle class. But they don’t look to see if other more successful countries have done that. They then say England has suffered from being outside the continental European soccer knowledge network. As a result, while other leading European national teams shifted to a rapid short passing game, English soccer remained wedded to a “kick-and-rush” style. But they don’t address the obvious question of why, if the kick-and-rush style contributed to failure in the World Cup, it yielded such success at the club level during the same period.
Ultimately, Kuper and Szymanski assert that the question “Why does England lose?” is wrongheaded, for England’s national team actually hasn’t performed too badly. Here they turn away from World Cup results and look at goal difference in all games played by the national team. They examine all countries’ national teams over the period 1980 to 2001 and discover that GDP per capita, population, and number of matches played since 1872 are helpful predictors. They find that England’s team has done, relative to what this formula predicts, about as well as those of Germany, Italy, Argentina, and France.
Yet here the authors are, I think, trying to be a bit too clever. England truly has underperformed in the past ten World Cups. Kuper and Szymanski note that “Any mathematician would say it’s absurd to expect England to win the World Cup … random factors play an outsize role in determining the winner.” Okay, fair enough. So let’s use getting to the semifinals as the benchmark. Over the past four decades eight nations have dominated world soccer: Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. The following chart shows how these countries have fared in reaching the World Cup semis since 1970. England’s record is second-worst.
How well should England have done? We can predict these countries’ recent World Cup success pretty well by looking at their historical performance. The following chart plots the number of semifinals reached in the ten World Cups since 1970 by each country’s World Cup match wins over the entire history of the tournament, from 1930 to 2006. Given its overall number of match victories, England ought to have reached the semifinals three times since 1970, rather than just once.
What accounts for England’s poor results? I think it’s a fairly simple story. First, it helps to host the World Cup tournament. These countries have hosted six of the past ten, and in five of those six instances the host made it to the semifinals or beyond: Germany in 1974 and 2006, Argentina in 1978, Italy in 1990, and France in 1998. (Only Spain in 1982 failed.) England didn’t host any. Second, you need to do okay — not great, but okay — in matches decided on penalty kicks. Penalty kick shootouts have been used in the World Cup since 1982. In the seven tournaments from 1982 to 2006, England was eliminated on penalty kicks three times, with not a single penalty-kick win. In contrast, Germany is 4-0 in penalty-kick shootouts, Argentina is 3-1, Brazil is 2-1, and France is 2-2. Only Italy, at 1-3, rivals England’s record of futility in World Cup penalty-kick matches.
Had it hosted one of the past ten World Cups and won a penalty-kick shootout in either 1998 or 2006, England’s semifinals appearances might well have jumped from one to three, putting it right at the expected number.