TrawlerMeets: The Soccernomist

Posted on February 12, 2012 by

0



Simon Kuper is the award-winning author of a string of influential football books, including Football Against the Enemy; The Dutch, The War: Football in Europe During the Second World War; and, perhaps most famously, 2009’s Why England Lose: And Other Curious Phenomena Explained (released in the USA under the title of Soccernomics). He has examined the game from the perspective of an anthropologist, economist and historian, and has pioneered the use of statistics in football analysis. We at The Trawler were delighted when Simon agreed to answer some questions about his distinctive journalistic style. 

***

TT: It is not as simple as it might seem to accurately pigeon-hole you as a certain type of football writer. How would you characterise your journalistic style? What are your basic principles/starting points when analysing football?

SK: It’s changed a lot over the years. Early on, in Football Against the Enemy, I took an anthropological view – what does a country’s football tell you about the country’s culture – and I was very interested in the politics-football nexus. Then Ajax, The Dutch, The War is an attempt to write history through football. Soccernomics/Why England Lose tries to apply an economist’s insight into the game – what can we learn about football from looking at data? I suppose I’ve kept trying new approaches to football. Meanwhile, over the years I’ve written endless profiles of footballers and managers, and last year I collected them as The Football Men. I always try to write about the footballer by imagining what he’d be like as an ordinary person – the guy who lives next door, or an office-mate. I try not to write about footballers as demigods.

Why England Lose might be characterised as a macro, or grand-scale analysis of football (in the sense that it looks for general trends/correlations etc), whereas Soccer Men is a more individualistic account. Do you think those characterisations are fair? If so, which are you more inclined towards?

I think that’s probably fair, although Why England Lose has lots of personal anecdotes and vignettes about individuals. I mean, football’s both: the people in it, some of whom are geniuses, and then the overarching structure of the game, the industry.

And what areas of football interest you most? You don’t seem to spend much time analysing specific games/players, for example.

I think I’m interested in pretty much everything to do with football. That’s why I’ve changed approach often – there’s always something new to look at. I do look at specific players but it’s true that I don’t cover games much. Partly I don’t think there’s much value I can add there. There are so many good writers, like Jonathan Wilson, who watch 200+ games a year and know exactly how Man United or Liverpool or whoever are playing, and how they have changed in recent weeks. I don’t want to be watching that much football, on the road away from my family, and even if I did I’m not sure I’d have much to add. So I try to write different things.

Having said that, during Euros and World Cups I will watch 20 games live in the stadium and I enjoy writing about that, seeing how different teams develop during a tournament, getting excited about new players etc. But once every two years is enough for me.

When you’re conducting a football interview, what’s the most important information you want to get from your subject, and what’s the best way to do it?

I think it’s always better to get players to talk about moments – ‘I remember when he gave me the ball, I looked up and saw….’ – rather than about abstractions (“How did you feel when you won the World Cup?”) Most players aren’t happy talking about abstractions, certainly not about their feelings, but because they are often very visual they are often good at describing moments or scenes. It’s also best to get them talking about the game itself – something they do know about – rather than life, the universe etc.

What do you think are the main benefits/drawbacks of the increased use of statistics in football analysis in recent years? How prominent do you think stats ought to be in football journalism (rather than in football management itself)? To what extent should the “nerds” be taking over from the “jocks”?

There are a lot of interesting stats, and you can now get hold of them from Optajoe and places like that. I get the impression that journalists are paying more attention to them, and less to the manager’s self-justifying post-match press conference, which is really just an attempt to ‘spin’ the game. Of course people often look at the wrong stats. E.g. ‘kilometres run’, ‘passes completed’ really don’t matter and yet they’ll be shown on TV after games.

Although you have, in the past, described football as “huge fun but not ultimately important”, surely you ascribe some cultural value to the game? If not, why do you write about football?

Of course, it has cultural value. I write about it because it’s fascinating and I love it. But it’s always worth remembering that it doesn’t really matter – there are more important things. It’s silly getting hysterical about it or ‘hating’ a player or a manager or an opposing team, when they really don’t spend any time worrying about you. You shouldn’t ‘love’ your team’s best player. He doesn’t love you back. A friend of mine says that whenever he listens to people on radio phone-in shows, getting all het-up and ranting, he feels the urge to phone in and say, “Have you ever thought that IT REALLY DOESN’T MATTER?” I’m with him on that. Watching football should be fun, an escape from real life, not all about anger and hatred.

Simon Kuper speaking at the Peace & Sport 4th International Forum in Monaco

***

Simon Kuper writes a regular column for The Financial Times, and all his published books are available on Amazon.

Advertisements
Posted in: Football, Interviews