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Chances are, if you’re taking the time to read my blog, you’re a bit like me when it comes to football.

If I’m not at a match, I’m watching it on TV, reading about it, talking about it, playing FIFA or even (rarely) actually playing footy myself – badly of course!

Anyway, I thought I’d make this blog entry a little different. I’ve had this book on my bookshelf for a few years now; despite being a great read, the chances are you’ve never even heard of it..

Why England lose & other curious football phenomena explained

Why England lose & other curious football phenomena explained

Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski

Publisher: HarperSport
Published: Aug 2009
ISBN: 978-0007301119

Paperback (£7.99 RRP),
Audiobook (£14 Audible)
Kindle eBook (£4.99 Amazon)

‘Why England Lose is an Arsène Wenger of a book – more thoughtful than most of its rivals and, by football standards, positively intellectual.’ The Times

Both authors are experienced, if not typical, football writers. Kuper is an award-winning author who writes a sports column for the Financial Times, Szymanski is a world-renowned sports economist. Drawing on geography, economics, statistics and psychology, this book looks at football from a unique perspective. Granted, it’s a little heavy in places, but it’s worth persevering with.

Each of the 16 chapters seeks to answer an interesting question about football; exploring such issues as transfer policies, racism, the psychology of penalty shoot-outs, the death of the FA Cup, fan loyalty and suicides and the future map of global football. By now, you’ve probably decided whether or not this book is for you, so instead of going on and on, I’ll simply refer to a few of my favourite bits:

‘It is rare, even after the great leaps football literature has taken in the past two decades, to find a book that takes the breath away, but Why England Lose does. Every page engages, entertains and challenges the lazy assumptions that still dominate football, not merely in its punditry, but all too often in the way that clubs are run.’ FourFourTwo

Clubs are better off spending on wages rather than transfer fees

Citing Newcastle United as a ‘humorous’ example of a club that wastes money on inflated transfer fees, Kuper & Szymanski go on to explain why it’d be better to pay existing stars a little more in order to retain their services, rather than forking out for a replacement. Using data from 1998-2007, it’s no surprise that Manchester United and Chelsea have paid the most in wages.

Interestingly though, there is a remarkable correlation between wages paid and average league position for all 58 clubs playing in the Premier League or Championship during that period. Obviously there are some exceptions to the rule; such as QPR (under-achieving in terms of wages paid out) and Wigan Athletic (over-achieving).


Penalty shoot-outs are often dismissed as a ‘lottery’, Kuper & Szymanski suggest otherwise. If it’s completely to chance, why are England so bad at penalties? Why are Germany so good? The problem for experienced takers is that they build up track records. Apparently, the Germans have a database of 13,000 kicks, which they use to their advantage when in a shootout (for example, Lionel Messi nearly always goes to the left). Of course, the taker could decide to change, but maybe the keeper knows that’s what he’s going to do?

This psychology/uncertainty is why shootouts are such fascinating viewing. Another point: if you win the toss, should you go first or second? Well, teams going first win 60% of the time, so that seems like a sensible option. The rest of the chapter then analyses the Champions League Final shootout between Manchester United & Chelsea.

Edwin van der Sar saves Nicolas Anelka's penalty Champions League Final 2008

Champions League Final 2008: Van der Sar saves Anelka’s penalty

I strongly recommend reading a copy of this book whilst watching that shootout on YouTube: Nicolas Anelka had apparently been told to put the ball to Edwin van der Sar’s left. Unfortunately for him, Van der Sar knew this and pointed to his left as Anelka stepped up. Anelka then faced a dilemma; where should he put it? At this point, it was no surprise when Van der Sar saved it!

How well national teams perform relative to their resources

It’s too complicated to go into great detail here, but the final few chapters examine which nations are over/under achieving when things like population, GDP and footballing experience are taken into account.

Just why are Brazil so good at football? Should England be better than they are? Obviously, statistics are important here, but it’s about far more than that. For example, they rank national teams by win percentage for all games played between 1980 & 2001. Brazil are of course top with 74%, England come a respectable 10th with 65%. Is this a fairer way of doing FIFA world rankings? Well, no actually, as Iraq are 5th with 69%.

These are just a few snippets from this 334-page book. I don’t want to get done for plagiarism, so I’ll just recommend you go and buy it for yourself! I’m currently reading ‘I am the Secret Footballer’, so hopefully I’ll post a blog entry with my thoughts on that in due course?

Post written by Matt Gaughan
Blog: English Footy Blog, Twitter: @chubbygorn

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