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Tuesday, Dec 08, 2009 - 01:33 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

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Fancy Footlose For Free

"By contrast, Singapore scores highly partly because only the best World Cup matches are shown there - and partly because Singaporeans love betting on football the way other people love football."
- Why England Lose, page 217, sadly sounds true

(Source: Amazon.com)

Amazon are getting pretty spot on at making book suggestions, and some time ago when I was agonizing on whether to splurge on The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Taleb (I didn't), I recalled another book being shown that I too thought of ordering. Yes, it was Why England Lose, the premise being beyond debate. Therefore, when it caught my eye on the shelves of the local library, I snatched it up immediately.

Freakonomics has opened the floodgates for entertaining economics exposés, and a paperback edition of this book is unabashedly titled Soccernomics, even as it inherits from the seminal Moneyball, which six years ago broke ground on how to build a winning professional baseball team on the cheap.

Well, as the book combined at least two of my loves, I eagerly went through it in one sitting (and lying), and here is a summary of the main questions, answers and observations - so those of you who don't want to be spoiled, please reboot your computer or close your browser window now.

Back to the key puzzle - why do England lose (in major tournaments?) The authors note an inevitable cycle (which may slightly uncharitably apply to other teams too):
  1. England fans are sure that this is England's year!
  2. England meet a former wartime enemy
  3. England knocked out early, fans moan about bad luck
  4. England fans realise everybody else cheated
  5. Life goes back to normal, ho-hum
  6. Find a suitable scapegoat (e.g. Beckham, Ronaldo)
  7. Repeat everything, four years later
And the short answer is... England simply aren't that good, and even the best teams (that aren't named Brazil) don't win that many major tournaments. It is argued later on that England are actually already overachievers, and that they only have a two-thirds probability of qualifying for each World Cup or Euro, which is pretty close to reality.

Another myth: There actually are too many Englishmen playing in England, as limiting the import of foreign talents would also reduce the incentive of native players to improve (note a parallel with the Singapore economy). So long, Platini.

Some months ago, I did a short piece on why the manager of one of United's archrivals might have been mistaken in using limited transfer spending as an excuse for poor performance. As it turns out, spending on wages appears to have a stronger effect on results than spending on transfers (though that club did spend on average 85% of what United did, and it might be argued that players would be justified in demanding raises with better results, so cause and effect may be a bit murky)

The flip side to this is that transfers are often extremely inefficient, especially for clubs which fire managers readily - then, the usual practice is that the new gaffer sells existing players that he doesn't rate at a discount, and splashes cash on some shiny new stars, and if the club doesn't do as well as the board expects, he is fired and a newer manager is hired, who does the same thing all over again. Real-life examples: Newcastle, Tottenham, Real Madrid.

The authors note other glaring market inefficiencies:
  1. Stars of recent tournaments (and big names in general) are overvalued
  2. Certain nationalities (Brazilians, Dutch, the English in England etc) are overvalued
  3. Blond players are overvalued
  4. Old players are overvalued (Wenger got that right, and Hiddink found that South Korea placed far too much status on age)
  5. Attackers are overvalued (great goalies for example often come at a pittance and are arguably as important, though they admittedly do not move as much merchandise)
  6. Every player has his price (Nottingham Forest legend Brian Clough would always try to sell his players after they had peaked, as otherwise, in his own words, he would be a fraud. Also see Cristano Ronaldo)
  7. Many clubs offer miserable support in helping their multi-million dollar signings settle down, which may be similar to buying a Porsche but skimping on bad tyres)
The new way forward may be that of Olympique Lyon - for each transfer, a committee is formed to debate its merits, to draw upon the wisdom of crowds; some old-timers may never agree to such an arrangement, but one-club men are few and far between nowadays, and the system has served Lyon well.

Also, football clubs, despite appearing to have huge revenues (around half a billion US dollars per year for the largest clubs), are actually tiny in the world of business, even more so when profits are concerned (most don't make any). For most of their existence, clubs were generally horrible at business, for example paying manufacturers to wear their gear, and hiring managers that were recently fired (well, they were good enough to be hired once upon a time...).

However, they are also extremely long-lived, and in fact 97% of the clubs that existed in the English Football League in 1923 still exist, while far bigger companies have long since crashed and burned (about half of the top 100 companies in 1912 were no more by 1995). It is said that they do not disappear not only because they can often simply get relegated and safely subsist at a lower level, but the fundamental reason is because they are not businesses, but social organizations.

The book explains that the most (and most successful) clubs usually spring from factory towns, as those areas usually had large numbers of poor immigrants searching for an identity - and found it in football. Capitals, while richer, didn't have that problem. London is always London and Paris is forever Paris, but Newton Heath only had its football team to be proud of. The authors however note that this may change in the future.

Another observation: There actually are very few diehard supporters in proportion to the entire population of football followers, and it is common in China to support multiple (even rival) teams at the same time, much less switch one's support.

Yet another observation: While the right to host a World Cup (or other major sporting events such as the Olympics) seems to be a money-spinner, there are actually few monetary benefits after opportunity cost is factored in; however, there is a benefit - people in the host country get happier, which might be considered in monetary terms if so desired.

Then there's the counterintuitive assertion that poor people (and countries) should do better in sport, usually due to it being their escape from poverty. The authors had established that there were three major factors that predict a nation's success in football - their experience (twice as much is worth about half a goal!), their population size (twice as much only about 0.1 goals), and their wealth (about the same).

In short, to win, it helps to have a long footballing history, a lot of people to choose from, and money. But why money? Well, it is true that being a poor immigrant in a rich country may induce both a hunger to succeed from football and the free time to practice incessantly. However, being outright poor often means plain old hunger, malnutrition, and poor health and physique - hardly the ingredients professional footballers are moulded from.

I saved the section on penalty kicks for last (no pun intended), in particular the part on the United-Chelsea shootout in the 2008 Champions League final.

The book reveals that Avram Grant had the aid of one Ignacio Palacios Huerta, who wrote a paper on how penalty kicks were taken when a graduate student at the University of Chicago (it took eight years to gather the data). We all know about Lehmann's cheat sheet during the 2006 World Cup, and Huerta had one for Grant.

He noted that van der Sar usually dived to the "natural side" of the kicker, i.e. to the right for a right-footer and vice versa, and saved the most kicks when the kicks were at mid-height (about 1m in the air). Huerta also pointed out that Cristano Ronaldo often stops in his run-up, and if he stops, he had an 85% chance of kicking to the right of the goalie. He also gave advice on going first if his team won the coin toss, but I guess that is common knowledge.

Looking back, it is quite amazing how well his advice turned out. The Chelsea players all kicked to van der Sar's left, which with the exception of the left-footed Ashley Cole, was just what Huerta ordered. Of course, John Terry slipped up, and van der Sar finally wised up and engaged in mind games with Anelka. Perhaps psyched out, Anelka committed both mistakes at one go - he hit it to his natural side, and at mid-height, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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