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Why England Lose

April 14th, 2011 by · No Comments · De Bunker, Features, Football

Simon Kuper has long been one of the most intelligent and readable writers on football. His Football Against The Enemy is a classic. Published in 1994 it’s still a great read for anyone interested in the impact of football on politics and culture, and the reverse. I’d go as far to say the book, along with Fever Pitch and Brilliant Orange [David Winner, Bloomsbury, 2000], should be one of the three books in any respectable football library.

His latest, Why England Lose And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained, is a bit of a departure but still as thought provoking. Teaming up with Stefan Szymanski, a leading sports economist, they systematically take the top football myths and skewer them with stats.

One of the most current is the myth that ‘football is big business’. We are all used to the ‘richest club in the world lists’ but the reality is that, with turnover of just over £300m, Real Madrid would not worry the FTSE 500. The other key point is that the analysts never compare profits. The reason? Hardly any clubs, especially the largest clubs, make any profits at all.

In a beautiful example of the books style Kuper quotes Alex Fynn on football business. Fynn noted that during the 1990s the average Premier League club had about the same turnover as a supermarket – not a chain, just one out-of-town Tesco [between £50 and £75m a year]. But of course Tesco makes a profit. The stark conclusion is that football is neither big business nor good business.

But the ‘must read’ chapter for all England fans beginning the cycle of over inflated optimism is chapter 2. ‘Why England Lose’ is a well constructed chapter that takes the clichés, rips them apart and then builds the counter argument using the data available. Here’s a snapshot.

Too many foreigners in the Premier League – quoting Steven Gerard, Sepp Blatter, Platini and many others this is a received wisdom in English football. Kuper’s answer is the opposite – too many English players in the league. England players no longer play abroad in less intense leagues. They burn out with the absurd pressure of the Premier League and the Champions League. By the time summer tournaments come around they are often in worse physical shape than any team they face, in a format that means playing critical games every 3-4 days.

A limited talent pool – Looking at the professions and backgrounds of players parents Kuper concludes that football in England is still a working class sport. By effectively baring the growing middle classes the talent pool is shrinking and will continue to decline. Holland, Argentina and Brazil feature well educated, articulate young men who can understand complex tactics, read a game, express themselves on the pitch and in front of a camera. Often in 3 or 4 languages. The ex. England captain can’t find a pub toilet when he wants a piss.

The W*gs start at Calais – Economic experts latest measure of value is networks. How many people you are connected to can increase your chances of getting recommended for a contract, for example. In the late 19th and early 20th century England was the hub of a network that took the game to the world. Now it’s more isolated than it’s ever been. The stats say that those at the center of the European information exchange [Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium] are the most successful. Those on the periphery [Eastern Europe, Scandia, UK, Iberia] are less successful. The ‘core’ countries have won 8 major tournaments in the last 30 years, the others have won 1. That would be Greece, managed by a German. Belgium you ask? In the last 30 years Belgium has played as many finals as England, Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Turkey put together.

Headless Chickens – There is another cliché about English players being tactically naïve and unable to pace themselves. Unfortunately that one seems to be true. In every World Cup ever played most goals are scored in the second half. England, by contrast, score most of their goals [22 of 35, over 60%] in the first half. During the critical games where they have been knocked out of a tournament it’s even worse [7 of 8 in the first half]. Italy, for example, have a habit of scoring in the last 5 minutes of critical games.

England always underachieve – really? By using a vast array of data [population, wealth, experience, etc] and ‘multiple regression’ [don’t ask] the authors find that England actually performs slightly better than they should in international football.

So get used to it. Unless you can host a tournament in England which, according to the stats, is worth 2/3rds of a goal advantage per game.

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