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The State of Soccer in 2018

An interview with the authors of ‘Soccernomics’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Managers don’t matter. Port cities and dictators produce soccer powers. The English national team actually isn’t a quadrennial disappointment. And if you want to win a World Cup, you better share a border with a country that’s done it before.

Those are just a few of the takeaways from the new 2018 World Cup edition of Soccernomics: Why England Loses; Why Germany, Spain, and France Win; and Why One Day Japan, Iraq, and the United States Will Become Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport, written by the economist Stefan Szymanski and journalist Simon Kuper. For anyone who wants to understand how the sport has been shaped by larger global forces and which of those forces determine success on a soccer field, there’s nothing better. I caught up with Stefan over the phone and Simon via email to get their take on the state of world soccer before things kick off in Russia.

What is the biggest misconception that the general soccer-watching public has about the sport?

Stefan Szymanski: One of the things that we always thought was the role of managers was overstated in determining the outcomes. I think we feel that that’s probably still the case to some extent. I think people give far too much weight to managers and not enough weight to just the finances.

I think the biggest misconception that we think that people have is that the state of the game today is on the verge of crisis. And yet, what we point at is that this is one of the most available businesses on the planet. The soccer business has been growing at an extraordinary rate for an extraordinarily long length of time. And while it’s certainly possible that one day it could all fall off a cliff, there’s really nothing happening right now that suggests that that’s gonna happen anytime soon. And the hysteria is hugely overstated.

Part of that is because [of] a “fallacy of composition,” which is, it’s certainly true that if you look at any moment, any day of the year, there is some soccer club somewhere in the world that is on the edge of ruin. That gives you a 365-days-a-year feed of bad news stories. On any given day, the vast majority of the clubs are in real good health. The fact that one or two clubs are always in crisis doesn’t meant to say that the whole thing is falling apart.

Simon Kuper: To name just a few:

1) The belief that winning is mostly about players showing passion on the field, and that a manager’s job is to motivate players into that passion. In fact, winning is more about passing in smart geometric patterns, and what looks like passion is usually superior fitness. The manager’s role is usually vastly overrated.

2) The belief that football is big business—it’s still relatively puny, with even the biggest clubs (Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United) turning over only about $1 billion a year (albeit that that’s a huge rise in last 25 years) and making little or no profits.

3) The belief (as in so many other sports) that the best players come from poverty, because that gives them “hunger.” In fact the best players overwhelmingly come from western Europe (the world’s region with the least poverty) and from southern Latin America, where there is a great individualist dribbling tradition. Truly poor Africa produces very few top-class players, partly because there are few qualified coaches, lots of malnutrition, and weak medical systems. In soccer as in most sports, rich countries tend to do better.

We’ve been hearing about this for at least a decade now. Do you think the teams at the top of the European food chain will eventually break off and form their own continental super league to ensure they get a bigger slice of the profits?

Szymanski: I’ve been guilty of saying this for many years and it’s not happened. One thing I think that people get wrong about this is the idea that the inequality is vast. Inequality has increased a little bit but it’s always been highly unequal. Real Madrid has been soccer royalty since the 1950s. Bayern Munich have dominated the Bundesliga since forever. In the Premier League, we’re in a period of actually relative instability. We just came out of an era where Manchester United won [13 out of 21 championships]. We hadn’t had a repeat winner in the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

In days past, there were big clubs in smaller nations that could be extremely successful on an international stage. And the obvious ones are Ajax, Porto, Benfica. Portugal and the Netherlands are not big nations, but they could field very successful, dominant European teams. That is essentially a function of broadcast revenues. So broadcasting has been one of the main vehicles by which the revenues in European soccer in particular have grown. Europe is the center of global soccer, so that’s where the biggest effects have been. And that has been particularly true for clubs in the biggest markets, so England, Germany, Spain, and Italy to some extent have managed to become globally dominant because they have a strong base in their local markets.

UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules now prevent a wealthy owner from buying a club’s way into the top tier of European soccer, à la PSG and Manchester City. Is there any reason to expect the European hierarchy to change any time soon?

Szymanski: I don’t think so. The story of the last 30 years really is a story of the European soccer system turning its dominance on the field into credible revenue streams. If you added up all the revenues generated by European soccer in 1990, it was less money than any one of the revenues generated by the NFL, the NBA, or MLB. However, today the revenues of European soccer actually exceed the combined reviews of those three leagues.

Where you see, really, the threat to undermine Europe’s dominance is if these super-rich Gulf states, China, and United States should wish to participate in the actual dominance in Europe and launch rival competitive leagues. Major League Soccer is not the way to do that because they’re not spending nearly enough on playing talent. But what will work will be to throw around some oil money or some Chinese billionaire money. Players can always be bought. If you’re willing to pay the top salaries, then the players will come.

Kuper: Winning in club soccer is driven very largely by revenues. The clubs with the biggest historic brands, playing in biggish cities, have long had the highest revenues. It’s very hard for a new club to break into that, especially as European soccer has lately tried to stop rich owners from spending their own money on their clubs.

You talk a lot about knowledge networks in your book. Could that be an explanation for why the analytics movement has gone mainstream in basketball and baseball but not in the dominant sports leagues an ocean away?

Szymanski: When it comes to sports data, we’re at the alchemy state. Before we got into rigorous hard science in the 19th century, end of 18th century, we went through a phase of alchemy where essentially people did experimental things but they weren’t very rigorous, they didn’t have any strong, firm principles, and it was sort of whatever worked. And they still thought that they could turn straw into gold. I mean, Isaac Newton wrote more about alchemy than he ever wrote about physics and mathematics. Which is always a very sobering thought, I think. I mean, he’s probably the smartest guy ever to live, right? And yet he believed in some batshit crazy things. I think that’s where we are with data. I think you can do good things with data and I think you can gain insights, but there’s a whole bunch of stuff you can’t do with it.

Kuper: Teams are getting smarter but analytics seem to be less significant in soccer than in other sports. That’s partly because the average player doesn’t have the ball for 89 minutes a game—and it’s very hard to measure what he’s doing in that period. Is he getting into the right positions? It’s very hard to know. Analytics are more useful in baseball where you are mostly judging the pitcher’s pitch and the batter’s hit.

Szymanski: There’s an interesting philosophical question here. I think American sports are highly structured and highly coached. And that lends itself to analytics. But one of the problems with this is that it’s not obvious that this is a recipe for success in soccer. Who do we think of as the no. 1 greatest soccer nation in the history of the world? Some might say Germany, but I think most of us still think that unbelievably disorganized and chaotic nation, Brazil. And I think there’s a lesson in that. I think much of what makes a great skill in soccer is unpredictability. More than any other sport. What’s important about [Lionel] Messi is that when he’s standing in front of you, you just don’t know what he’s going to do. And that’s not something you can coach.

If the club game has surpassed the international game in terms of quality, have national teams just gone stagnant? Or are they getting smarter, too—just at a slower rate?

Szymanski: National team coaches have this incredible problem that they don’t have any fixed squad to work with. And they have this vast pool of players to select from, and it’s a really difficult problem. One thing that’s changed is the technology of the scouting videos. These are technologies that particularly have been coming out of Germany. A scout doesn’t now come to you and say, “Now look at this player, he’s really amazing. You should play him.” And the coach gets to see it with his own eyes. That’s gonna create a change. I think what that’s doing is deepening the pool of talent from which national team coaches can select from. For many countries, this could be a significant advance. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Germans actually end up being first to take real advantage of it.

Kuper: Germany is the most advanced on this, but their analysts themselves feel that data contribute relatively little. There’s currently a bit of disillusionment with the role of data in soccer. Data very likely won’t decide this World Cup (though it can be telling in penalty shootouts, predicting how players will take their kicks).

Eight countries have won World Cups, and yet at the same time, I know that soccer, at least on a game-by-game level, is such a random game. So many things that are outside of anyone’s control can decide who wins. And then when you mix that in with the nature of a knockout tournament, to me, I would think that that would create more randomness. Yet the pool of winners is so small. Can you square those two things for me?

Szymanski: I think your observation is absolutely right. It is a puzzle. And I have a paper about this. The answer is something called the “middle-income trap,” which has been used to explain the same kind of problems that have been observed with developing nations that have been growing for several years, but what tends to happen is that when they reach middle-income levels is that growth starts to stall. They cease catching up. They may not be falling behind but they aren’t catching up anymore.

Outside of two continental federations that have been playing soccer at a high level for more than 100 years, you see the same pattern. You see catch-up in the ’80s and ’90s, and since then, you’ve seen stagnation at a level of success significantly lower than the European and South American nations. The U.S. Men’s National Team is a very good example of this. They used to have terrible results because they didn’t do the basics, but now they’ve done all that stuff right. The problem is, we always talk about this, the U.S. is not producing any great superstars. I think it’s the same problem that you see in countries like Japan and Korea, some of the African nations—Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria and so on—I think you see the same pattern across the world.

Kuper: I think that eight winners in 20 tournaments is quite a large pool. Remember also that the vast majority of countries in the world are too small or have too little soccer tradition to even hope to qualify for a World Cup more than once in a blue moon. And that Europe and Latin America pretty much monopolized almost all entry slots into the 1980s—before that scarcely any African or Asian or North American countries were even allowed into final tournaments. So for most of history, the pool of potential winners was kept very small—and yet eight nations have won.

Since 2002, when two nontraditional powers (Turkey and South Korea) finished third and fourth, all but one of the top three teams in each World Cup since has been from western Europe. And the only team that wasn’t, Argentina, had Lionel Messi. Should we expect more of the same in Russia?

Kuper: The fact that the tournament is in Europe is quite a big advantage for Euro teams. I don’t see nontraditional countries threatening this order at all. It’s chiefly because the training of players from age 6 is better in western Europe than anywhere else—which is why, e.g., Jürgen Klinsmann selected so many “European” players when he coached the U.S. Likewise, Morocco will probably kick off this World Cup with a team drawn entirely (11 out of 11 players) from their European diaspora. So the rest of the world is way behind western Europe right now, except for Brazil and Argentina.

OK, here’s my theory, based on your book. Christian Pulisic looks like he’s the most talented U.S. player ever, and if he keeps developing, he’s gonna be in his prime (27 years old) in 2026. That will be the first 48-team World Cup, which you guys suggest will introduce more randomness into the results. And finally, the World Cup also might be in the U.S. So: The U.S. is going to win the 2026 World Cup. Am I, you know, wrong?

Szymanski: I am an eternal optimist, so sure. Hosting the World Cup always gives you a fabulous shot of winning. I don’t have an exact number by which it boosts your probability, but it’s a lot. So, yeah. There’s no reason to think that the U.S. couldn’t win the World Cup. I think that the stranglehold of the Europeans and the South Americans will be broken eventually. Also, 2026 seems far away. There will be so many players who come and go in the interim that it’s completely unrealistic to suggest that that’s not possible. I mean, it clearly is possible. Still, to be honest, I feel it’s not that likely. But having it on your own home territory is always one of the best chances you’re gonna get.

Kuper: You’ll certainly have a better chance then than this time.