Soccernomics (and football in the Philippines)

Posted: July 24, 2011 in books

On the plane ride to Kuala Lumpur, I was finally able to finish “Soccernomics”, written by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. In a nutshell, the book is similar to “Freakonomics”, written by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, with the obvious slant toward football. You could also say it’s “Moneyball” (Michael Lewis’ book on how the Oakland Athletics managed to compete at top-flight Major League Baseball, despite having a smaller revenue base and stream) for football.

There is something about this book that makes it quite a compulsive read. I’m the type of nut that can get geeky when it comes to sports (think of it as a variation of a couch potato fan—the last time I played with a football was fourth grade), so I tremendously enjoyed this nugget of a book, which provides a mine of insights about football, including the wheeling and dealing in the transfer market. Such insights include: World Cup champions and strikers are overpriced (Nando comes to mind—but really, I’m rooting for him to show his £50-million worth); the best players to buy are those in their early 20s, older ones are overvalued and among the younger ones, only those that make it are exceptions to the rule; sell a player before the deterioration in his game becomes apparent to everyone; buy players with personal problems and help them deal with their issues; and relocation assistance, especially for players settling in different countries, is very critical.

That said, it doesn’t apply much to the Philippine situation, where there is only a fledgling semi-professional league. I was, however, more interested in the portions of the book that explained “why England always loses” and an analysis of overperforming and underperforming countries. The authors make note of the fact that while the sport was born in England, the country was left behind in the development of the game as a result of geography. The dominance in football of continental Europe was largely due to networking—ideas were being spread at a rapid pace, and even South America picked up the game through English immigrants. Still, the development in the sport happened in the heartland, and the country that sat on its fringes, separated by the English Channel, was the last to pick up on such ideas.

The book also details on how the size of an economy is directly proportional to a country’s performance in football. The authors point out that football stars coming from impoverished backgrounds are more exceptions to the rules, and even the definition of “poor” is relative. Case in point, Cristiano Ronaldo’s family was so poor that they had to put their washing machine on the roof of their house, which was so darn small. But hey, at least their family has a washing machine—which is something that you can’t say for the poor in many developing countries. If a country’s economy is doing well, it can allocate more resources toward the development of sport, including the health and nutrition of the individual athlete. That is also correlated to widening the talent pool, which would allow you to draw on a wider base of developed players.

These are things that made me think of the Philippines and how we fare in the world stage. Yes, we do have one of the oldest football leagues in Asia, but the sport has been largely limited to a few niche communities nationwide (i.e. being taught in private, Catholic schools, as with the Bosconians, or a community such as Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo). I would hazard a guess that the theory of networking applies as to why we haven’t embraced the sport in the mainstream (until recently, that is). We are geographically separated from the rest of Asia (you can argue about Indonesia being an archipelagic nation, but it is somewhat more connected to the continental mainland by way of Malaysia), hence the spread of ideas on the sport wasn’t as prevalent. You can also throw in the fact that we were already under American colonial rule when the sport was beginning to be spread globally (and we know that ‘soccer’ was not high on the priority of Americans when it came to spreading ideas to its colonies).

As for the state of our economy, we do know that this is relatively small, even when compared to most of our regional neighbors. A look at the results of the first leg of the second round of the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers for Asian nations seem to be indicative of the Soccernomics theory. (Noted nominal GDPs of these nations, not a perfect correlation, and this is all just desktop research while watching the Ultimate All-Star Weekend)

Saudi Arabia 3 – 0 Hong Kong (23rd v 38th)
UAE 3 – 0 India (33rd v 10th, but also look at high poverty rates)
Kuwait 3 – 0 Philippines (54th v 46th, likewise, high inequality incidences)
Iran 4 – 0 Maldives (29th v 162nd)
Singapore 5 – 3 Malaysia (38th v 35th, close call—was Malaysia fatigued from the matches versus Arsenal and Liverpool the previous week?)
Oman 2 – 0 Myanmar (69th v 83rd)
Qatar 3 – 0 Vietnam (55th v 58th)
Iraq 2 – 0 Yemen (62nd v 87th)
Jordan 9 – 0 Nepal (89th v 107th)
Uzbekistan 4 – 0 Kyrgyzstan (80th v 144th)
Syria 2 – 1 Tajikistan (67th v 140th)
Turkmenistan 1 – 1 Indonesia (96th v 18th—what happened here?)
Thailand 1 – 0 Palestine (30th v ???—sorry, Palestine wasn’t even on the IMF list)
Lebanon 4 – 0 Bangladesh (79th v 57th, but again, high poverty rates)
People’s Republic of China 7 – 2 Laos (2nd v 135th)

What this just says is that more improved economies have better chances of winning international matches. It’s not a clear signal for actually winning. That said, there still are a lot of pre-requisites, particularly adequate investments for a genuine grassroots program to widen the talent development selection pool and infrastructure to support the development of the sport. In our case, we can just rely on the Rizal Memorial Stadium. Malaysia’s Bukit Jalil Stadium, which I was a regular of during my stay in Kuala Lumpur made me wish we could have a stadium that could seat 80,000 (or at the very least, 40,000). While it’s not necessarily a case of “If you build it, they will come”, a dedicated facility for football can be a start.

One other important point the book makes is that football actually helps foster integration among people within a community, noting lower suicide rates in years where there’s a World Cup. And with integration comes pride and a sense of belonging. Spain comes to mind, when people identified themselves as “Soy Español” after La Roja won last year’s World Cup—a clear departure from strong regional identification. Wouldn’t it be an awesome feeling to have a Philippine team make its mark in the world stage and unite Filipinos? (Fine, Manny Pacquiao has been doing that, but there’s something more inspiring about a band of scrappy, resilient Azkals doing that.)

It may happen at least 20 years from now, but I hope I can live to see the day that the Philippines can reach the World Cup. Even if we get knocked out in the group stages, that would be an honor already—especially if you think of where this national team began its journey.

Cross-posted on Communique.


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