Simon Kuper: Soccernomics Man

Simon Kuper’s latest book ‘The Football Men‘ has just been released in the USA, perhaps predictably, under the amended title of Soccer Men. I have reviewed it here for the World Football Columns website, and as part of the assignment I was fortunate enough to interview the author via email. Here is the interview in full.

The inspiration for your latest book is The Football Man by Arthur Hopcraft. I saw a list online of your top five football books that you selected last year but The Football Man wasn’t on it; is it a recent discovery of yours?

I’m not sure I’d place The Football Man on my top five list. It’s a little bit dated now. It’s just that I thought the idea itself was excellent: give a composite portrait of the players and managers of your day (and in Hopcraft’s case some of the fans and directors too) by portraying a series of individuals and thinking about what they have in common. He had great access to people like George Best and Alf Ramsey, and wrote about them very sensitively. It would be a shame if you couldn’t find those profiles now without going to a newspaper library.

I read a recent piece of yours in the Financial Times where you said you had lost your love of reading. Whilst that piece focussed on fiction books, do you think it’s hard to find a market these days for books like yours?

I think it’s very different for non-fiction. People do seem to read it – in part, I guess, because they feel that they are educating themselves and so that it’s good for them. Certainly Soccernomics sold way more in the US than we had imagined. Here’s hoping Soccer Men does the same.

There’s an interesting section in the book about footballers biographies. Have you ever been approached to ghost-write one, and are there any players or managers you’d consider doing it for?

Nobody has ever asked me, no. I think players tend to ask journalists they are already close to, and as I never hang out at any single club much I tend not to build up close relationships with players. I’d vaguely thought I’d be interested in doing it for Dennis Bergkamp but that won’t ever happen.

One of the themes of the book is that players have very little, if anything, of interest to say. What’s your opinion on Twitter, which enables a direct interaction between fans and players?

Twitter demonstrates the problem. Players are constantly getting into trouble for things they have tweeted. Managers hate having players on Twitter. In many countries, players have less freedom of speech now than they would have had in the Soviet Union. Players learn over time to say nothing.

I was interested to read that Dutch kids follow players rather than teams, why is this?

I think it’s changing a bit now but when I was growing up there weren’t these very strong English- or Argentine-style loyalties to particular teams. The Dutch league had always been quite a gentle non-conflictual affair. That changed in the 1980s and 1990s when an angry rivalry arose between Ajax and Feyenoord. But I guess my main point in writing that was that if you grew up in Holland, you were taught an extreme interest in the actual game itself and in its tactics. So you learned to appreciate, for example, Bergkamp or Van Basten no matter which club they played for.

The section on Lionel Messi talks about the Argentine concept of the pibe – do other nations have something similar?

I can’t think of any other ‘pibe’ tradition. It’s like the converse of the old British admiration for big strong central defenders.

I found your comparison of Glenn Hoddle and Tony Blair interesting. Who is football’s David Cameron or Barack Obama?

The one player I met who reminded me a bit of Obama was Lilian Thuram. He also, when we spoke in spring 2008, was very excited by Obama. Thuram is a very politically engaged man. They have something of the same aura: tall cerebral men who exude a great calm. Obama’s first book is all about being a black man (a topic he has understandably dropped in office) and Thuram too is fascinated by the status of blacks. Obama was a university prof, and Thuram is a great reader and debater. I think I wrote in the book or somewhere else that he’s the only soccer player I’ve ever heard say, “There’s a very interesting young sociologist at the Musée de l’Homme…”

You say that tabloids make England managers caricatures of themselves and you admit you expected Hoddle to be a “ridiculous person”. Are tabloids the main cause of excessive and unrealistic pressure on the England team? It does seem from the outside that very few of the top players are enthused about playing for England…

I think the tabloids are a big part of the problem, yes, just as they are the main creator of the hysteria bubble that suffuses British politics or celebrity lives. The only story that sells before a world cup is, “England will win it”, so they write that. That puts unreasonable burdens on the players, which is why they tend to look so unhappy playing. Even when they score, you tend to see angry first-clenched celebrations: “You didn’t think we could do it but we did.” I can’t remember an England team in many years that exuded joy.

Living in France, where they have other problems but don’t have a tabloid press, helps me see the damaging effect of the tabloids on British national debate. It’s analogous to the way that Fox TV helps turn US political debate into an angry shouting match.

It amused me when you said that the 14-year-old Freddy Adu “spoke with more articulacy than I have heard from any adult England player.” Are the English players particularly guilty of being inarticulate, and if so, why is that do you think?

I think it’s partly because they get teased by their peers if they sound too clever-clever or too middle-class. Gary Lineker, who was an articulate player, was very popular with the English middle classes but probably less so with his teammates. Also, their goal when speaking in interviews is to say nothing, because any interesting thoughts are liable to get them into trouble, and so inarticulacy becomes a sort of self-defense.

As hard as it is for a fan to imagine, most of the players seem to treat football like a job and little more. Why do you think that is?

I think they mostly treat it as a job they really like and are committed to. But yes, it’s a job, just like journalism is a job to me and banking or teaching to other people. They are task-oriented, really want to do their job well, and they might do the job out of love for the work, but almost never out of love for the employer. The club is an employer to them. If they have a good employer-employee relationship, in terms of labor conditions, status at work and of course pay, they will stay. Otherwise not. This is no wonder as they had been preparing to enter this profession since they were about nine, and the club treats them as employees too. People wonder why they don’t show loyalty and passion for the club and all it represents, but as soon as they start performing worse the club won’t show any loyalty: it will ship them out pronto.

Why are some players (e.g. Maradona, Guardiola) so loved by their nations and others (e.g. Seedorf) so despised ? What does that tell us about the footballing psyche of different nations?

I think countries often love players who express the country’s self-perceived virtues (and of course players who help the country win). So Argentines see Maradona as expressing their creativity, whereas in England it tended to be battling players like Bryan Robson who were most popular. In Holland soccer is about a kind of cerebral beauty, hence Bergkamp or Van Basten.

Fans are also allergic to players who don’t seem to get with the collective project, and Seedorf was always coming out of left field saying weird things or taking up weird positions on the pitch and thus generally causing trouble while being very well-meaning.

I don’t think Guardiola was ever a very popular player for Spain by the way; just for Barcelona. He talked about having no love of Spain, as a Catalan nationalist.

Your profile on Drogba focussed on his relationship with Mourinho. Whilst you conclude that you were wrong by assuming he would follow the manager anywhere, is that style of manager and player relationship common in football?

I think it’s very rare. In the end almost everyone in football is out for themselves, and relationships with the manager tend to be very hierarchical and distant. Mourinho was unusual in trying to buddy up to his big stars, as a kind of brother or non-sexual lover.

I’m very interested in football statistics, and there’s an interesting chapter in the book on Arsene Wenger’s Moneyball approach to the market, notably with his purchase of Matthieu Flamini. Whilst other clubs no doubt use stats, do you think Wenger is still out in front on this?

I don’t think so anymore. I think he still does most of the stats analysis himself, whereas other clubs now hire trained statisticians and have serious stats departments working on data. I think it’s an early lead Wenger had but has since lost, just like his lead in knowing foreign transfer markets or knowing the right diet for soccer players have been eroded since the 1990s.

Do you think it would be possible for Billy Beane to succeed in soccer, maybe as a director of football at a forward thinking club? Could the involvement of someone like him make the sport more marketable in the USA?

I suspect it’s going to happen one day, that he’s going to make the leap to soccer, just because he has such passion for it and spends so much time thinking about it. Not soon, but one day. But what would make soccer (even) more marketable in the US (it’s growing fast already of course) would be the rise of a couple of great American players. I’m betting, given the sheer number of soccer players in the US, that in the next five years or so one or two Americans will become starters in some of the biggest European clubs. When Americans have heroes of their own to root for in the biggest games, that will change things.

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I won’t recycle my review of the book here, but suffice to say it is an amusing, infomative and well-written look at players and managers, and well worth a purchase.

Please take a look at my other articles, a list of which can be found here.

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2 thoughts on “Simon Kuper: Soccernomics Man

  1. Pingback: Missing Maxi | Bass Tuned To Red

  2. Pingback: Stewart Drowning In Expectation | Bass Tuned To Red

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