Soccernomics as model for academic/journalistic collaboration

Editors’ note: FSF will be hosting a panel at Hofstra’s “Soccer as the Beautiful Game” conference on April 12, 9:30AM (-5 GMT). The purpose of the panel is to provoke discussion and debate on how journalists and scholars can inform our respective work. Alex, Peter, Brenda, John Foot, Grant Wahl, and Simon Kuper will be producing a series of blog posts exploring here on The posts will discuss how academics and journalists deal with sources and methodologies, topics, audience, market logic vs academic logic, and the role of digital tools in the writing and dissemination process. Each panelist will post over the next few days, starting with Simon Kuper below.


Kuper_portraitSimon Kuper is a Financial Times columnist and author of numerous books on football including Football Against the Enemy and Soccernomics. Follow him on Twitter at @kupersimon.


In 2007 the Turkish football club Fenerbahce celebrated its centenary by staging something called a “100th Year Sports and Science Congress”. Fenerbahce flew me to Istanbul to give a talk, and while there I met a British economist called Stefan Szymanski. (He’s now an economics professor at the University of Michigan.) I’d come across his work by then, but academic economics very rarely penetrated into sportswriting, and I don’t think I’d ever written about it before.

Stefan and I began to talk, first at the conference and later over beers in the hotel bar. What struck me was that everybody had views on soccer, but Stefan’s were actually informed by data. That’s not something you encountered much in sportswriting. By the time we left Istanbul we’d agreed to try to write a book together, a sort of Freakonomics for soccer.

The book, Soccernomics, contains ideas from both of us. It’s a genuine collaboration. But a lot of it came directly from Stefan’s academic writings. He would send me a paper that had appeared in an economics journal, and had been read only by specialists, and I would think, “This is fascinating”, and try to rephrase it in layman’s terms. I work for the Financial Times, and once spent two years there in the economics department, so I had some experience of this kind of thing.

Many of Stefan’s arguments challenged conventional sportswriters’ wisdom. Crucially, he showed that averaged out over a period of about ten years, the correlation between a club’s wage bill and its average league position is typically about 90 per cent. In other words, salaries tend to predict brilliantly where a club will finish in the table. That didn’t leave much room for other factors to matter. Consequently, Stefan thinks that coaches have far less influence on results than is commonly assumed in soccer talk. And he found that transfer fees were a much less efficient way than salaries to buy success. The correlation between a club’s net transfer spending and its league position was pretty weak.

There’s a lot more of Stefan’s academic work in the book. For instance, he used econometric methods to show that black players at English clubs suffered wage discrimination until about 1990, but not thereafter.

One of the issues for discussion at our “Football Scholars Forum” at Hofstra University on April 12 is “the impact of digital tools in the writing and dissemination process”. Stefan and I actually found the old-fashioned book pretty effective. Soccernomics first appeared in 2009, and has sold about 200,000 copies in nearly 20 languages. I think it has had some marginal influence on soccer talk. True, many soccer fans instinctively reject some of our findings. They often struggle to accept, for instance, that the coach – the most prominent voice and face of his club – generally doesn’t have much influence on results. I certainly wouldn’t claim that we’ve proven any of our arguments beyond doubt. That’s almost impossible to do in economics. But some commentators do now take our findings into account.

For me, Soccernomics is an example of something I’ve been striving for all my journalistic career: a collaboration between a journalist and an academic that presents sophisticated findings fairly clearly to a non-specialist audience. I’m the son of an academic, and know a lot of academics, and often when speaking to them I find myself thinking, “What you’re saying is fascinating. Why does almost nobody know this?”

I understand the pressures that push academics into using specialized language. As an old girlfriend of mine once told me, explaining why she’d written an academic paper on Jane Austen in almost impenetrable jargon: “If you don’t use the jargon, the other academics think you don’t know it.” But that leaves a role for journalists like me to try to popularize academic findings without dumbing them down. I think that often it can be done.

*Please leave comments below to stimulate discussion for our session at Hofstra.

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New ‘State of the field’ format yields rich insights

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On March 25, FSF members met for the second spring session with a new format. Participants picked a diverse array of new and classic books from around the world published in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and German.

Members shared their insights through concise reports. The Instant Messaging chat that took place during the spoken remarks was more useful than ever, as members joked, asked questions, and traded citations, ideas, and suggestions related to the books under review. (Click here for list of books covered.)

Participants included Alex Galarza, Peter Alegi, Melissa Forbis, David Kilpatrick, Andrew Guest, Brian Van Wyck, Rwany Sibaja, Christopher Gaffney, Liz Timbs, Ben Dettmar, Javier Pescador, and Austin Long.

The audio recording of the session can be found here.

Thank you Liz Timbs for live tweeting and Storifying the #FSFMarch hashtag here.

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FSF March: State of the Field

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The Football Scholars Forum 2013/14 season continues on March 25, 3pm ET (-4 GMT), with a special session in a tasty new format.  For the first time, FSF members gather via Skype to report on a number of different fútbol books rather than discuss a shared reading.  The aim is to provide a snapshot of the “State of the Field.”

Each participant is presenting a seven-minute review of a recently published book or classic in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and German.  Confirmed titles include:

    • Los clubes en la Ciudad de Buenos Aires (1932-1945): Revista La Cancha: sociabilidad, política y Estado by Rodrigo Daskal [@galarzaalex]

    • Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid by Sid Lowe [click here to read review by @futbolprof]

    • Soccer VS. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics by Gabriel Kuhn [Melissa Forbis]

    • Summer of ‘67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil [@DrDKilpatrick]

    • Soccer Madness: Brazil’s Passion for the World’s Most Popular Sport by Janet Lever [Andrew Guest]

    • Der Ball ist bunt: Fußball, Migration und die Vielfalt der Identitäten in Deutschland (The Ball is Colorful: Football, Migration and the Diversity of Identities in Germany), edited by Diethelm Blecking and Gerd Dembowski [@bvanwyck]

    • Dante Panzeri: Dirigentes, decencia, y wines by Matías Bauso [@rwanysibaja]

    • O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro, Mario Filho [@geostadia]

    • South Africa and the Global Game: Football, Apartheid, and Beyond, edited by Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann [@tizlimbs]

    • This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez by Robert Andrew Powell [click here to listen to review by @AustinLong1974]

    • The Containment of Soccer in Australia: Fencing off the World Game edited by Chris Hallinan and John Hughson [@olympicsprof]

    • Libro de Oro del Futbol Mexicano (1960) by J. Cid y Mulet [Javier Pescador]

For more details contact Alex Galarza or Peter Alegi. You can also follow the session live on Twitter with hashtag #FSFMarch.

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Lindsay Krasnoff and The Making of Les Bleus

making_lesbleus_krasnoffOn February 12th, FSF kicked off the spring 2014 season with Lindsay Krasnoff and her new book, The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010Sixteen participants were able to join our invited author for a lively discussion of her work.

Discussion centered on France’s role in hosting major sporting events, how football and basketball related to other sports, and the tensions of public and private support in youth development. Krasnoff also shared her experiences in writing the book while balancing her work at the U.S. Department of State and selecting her topic as a graduate student.

FSF participants included: Alejandro Gonzalez, Andrew Guest, Ben Dettmar, Brenda Elsey, Brain Van Wyck, Corry Cropper, David Kilpatrick, Derek Catsam, Ingrid Bolivar, Laurent Dubois, Liz Timbs, Peter Alegi, Rwany Sibaja, and Steven Apostolov

Audio of the session is available here

Liz Timbs created a Storify of the #fsflesbleus hashtag here.

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FSF February: Sport and Politics in France—Making of Les Bleus

making_lesbleus_krasnoffThe Football Scholars Forum 2013-14 season resumes on February 12 at 8pm Eastern Time with a discussion of Lindsay Krasnoff’s The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010. The book explores how French political leaders sought to build a national sporting culture through the training of young fútbol (and basketball) players for international competitions. In preparation for the event, you can listen here to Lindsay discussing her book on the New Books in Sports podcast.

To participate in the 90-minute session, please send Peter Alegi (alegi.peter AT your Skype name (if Peter doesn’t already have it) so you can be added to the call.

Looking ahead to our event in March (25/26, time TBD), we’re trying something new. Instead of members reading and discussing the same book, each participant will read one fútbol book (or lengthy article) and give a 5-7 minute report about it to the rest of the group. The idea is to produce a sort of “state of the field” snapshot from a variety of regions and disciplines. Stay tuned for more details about the March event.

Last but not least, we are waiting to hear about our FSF roundtable on “Academics, Journalists, and the Changing Trends in Fútbol Writing” proposed for the “Soccer as the Beautiful Game: Football’s Artistry, Identity & Politics” conference at Hofstra University, April 10-12, 2014.

Oh, did we mention that it’s a World Cup year?

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Fútbol Writing in a Digital Age with Jonathan Wilson

jonathan-wilsonOn December 5, the final FSF event of 2013 featured  Jonathan Wilson, journalist, author, and founding editor of The Blizzard, a symbol of independent fútbol writing in a digital age. Wilson fielded questions from an international audience from five continents as part of a 90-minute conversation that can be described as a blend of English pragmatism and fútbol romantico.

The discussion pivoted around the notion that there is a growing English-speaking audience for longer-form writing about the game that goes beyond mixed-zone clichès, diatribes about managers, questionable refereeing decisions, and other narrow, shallow concerns of so much contemporary sport journalism. The challenges and opportunities of publishing in print and digital formats sparked debate, as did the evolving relationship between the futbology work of reporters and academics.

The event set a new FSF record for participants with 21: James Dorsey, David Winner, Lindsay Krasnoff, Alex Galarza, Brian Bunk, Alon Raab, Christoph Wagner, Brenda Elsey, Rwany Sibaja, Juan Pablo Ospina, Andrew Guest, Laurent Dubois, Melissa Forbis, Chris Lash, Davy Lane, David Kilpatrick, Tom Vinacci, Javier Pescador, Liz Timbs, Dave Glovsky, and Peter Alegi.

For a Storify Twitter timeline click here with special thanks to Liz Timbs (@tizlimbs).

The audio recording of the session is available here.

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FSF December: Independent Fútbol Writing in a Digital Age

20131201-181105.jpgJonathan Wilson, journalist, author, founder and editor of The Blizzard, joins us on Thursday, December 5, at 4pm Eastern (9pm GMT) for a free-wheeling 90-minute discussion about the craft of independent fútbol writing in a digital age.

In case you are unfamiliar with it, The Blizzard is a noncommercial football quarterly that combines short- and long-form writing and publishes in both analog and digital formats. Issue Nine is being served up for Thursday’s session, download it here. It includes a tasty menu featuring, among others, David Conn on the rise of Manchester, and Manchester City; Simon Kuper’s dissection of Barcelona tactics; Philippe Auclair interview with Michael Garcia, Fifa’s Ethics Committee chairman; Gwendolyn Oxenham’s search for a kickabout in Iran; Anthony Clavane’s examination of Leeds, ‘the North’, and the contradictory narrative of northern realism; and Igor Rabiner speaking with Lev Yashin’s widow.

Independent English-language publications like The Blizzard and the recently defunct U.S.-based XI Quarterly, or Howler for that matter, suggest that journalists and scholars share many similar challenges and opportunities in publishing rigorously entertaining, meaningful football writing aimed at readers worldwide. We plan to tackle many different issues and questions related to this topic [Click here to read Peter Alegi's blog post on this].

To participate in the 90-minute session that takes place simultaneously at Michigan State University and online via Skype, please contact Peter Alegi (alegi.peter AT with your Skype name (if Peter doesn’t already have it). Members can also email or tweet him (@futbolprof) questions before the session.

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Football and Society in the Middle East

aboutreika_gazaOn November 14, football in the Middle East took center stage at FSF. The conversation focused on a special issue of the journal Soccer and Society, edited by Alon Raab and Issam Khalidi. It began by noting that while football has been a critical force in broader political and cultural developments in the region, there is little institutional support for studying the game in the Middle East.

The ensuing 90-minute discussion demonstrated the value of qualitative scholarly work on football.  The group explored a dizzying number of topics and territories, including football as a source of unity and hope and as a site of political and ideological conflict; the 2022 World Cup in Qatar; soccerpolitics in Turkey; sport and Islamism; Palestinian and Iraqi Kurdish women’s teams; and football films and poetry.

Participants via Skype from around the world were: Alon Raab, James Dorsey, Andrew Guest, Orli Bass, Hikabwa Chipande, David Kilpatrick, Lindsay Krasnoff, Steven Apostolov, Raj Raman, and Derek Catsam. Liz Timbs, Dave Glovsky, and Peter Alegi participated from Michigan State University.

For a Storify Twitter timeline click here, with special thanks to Liz Timbs (@tizlimbs) and David Kilpatrick (@DrDKilpatrick).

The audio recording of the session is available here.

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From *Africa’s World Cup* to Brazil 2014

2010 World Cup Volunteer at Soccer City. Photo by Chris BolsmannFSF members from four continents convened online on October 24 for a lively discussion of Africa’s World Cup: Critical Reflections on Play, Patriotism, Spectatorship, and Space, a new collection edited by Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann.

With the editors and several chapter authors in attendance, the group considered the book’s attempt at blending scholarly and journalistic approaches, as well as the process of writing, editing, and publication. A fruitful comparison between South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014 put the spotlight on how the FIFA World Cup is entangled in a web of national and international politics, economics, and culture. There was also a fair share of debate over Luis Suarez’s handball (against Ghana) and the contradictory legacies of this “African” World Cup.

The participants were: Andrew Guest, Chris Bolsmann
, Christoph Wagner
, David Patrick Lane, 
David Roberts, 
Derek Catsam, 
Jacqueline Mubanga, 
Raj Raman, 
Orli Bass
, Rwany Sibaja, 
Laurent Dubois
, Achille Mbembe
, Jordan Pearson, Sean Jacobs, and Alex Galarza (all via Skype); and Liz Timbs, 
Dave Glovsky, 
Alejandro Gonzalez, and 
Peter Alegi (in East Lansing).

For a Storify Twitter timeline click here, with special thanks to Liz Timbs (@tizlimbs) and Laurent Dubois (@Soccerpolitics).

The audio recording of the discussion is available here.

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Africa’s World Cup Opens 2013-14 FSF Season

AfricasWorldCup_Cover 2The Football Scholars Forum is pleased to announce the opening of its new season on Thursday, October 24, at 3:30pm Eastern Time (8:30pm GMT). We will read and critique Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann’s Africa’s World Cup: Critical Reflections on Play, Patriotism, Spectatorship, and Space (University of Michigan Press, 2013). You can hear more about the edited book in Peter’s interview with New Books in Sports.

As is customary with FSF, the editors, as well as several chapter authors, will participate in a live 90-minute session that takes place simultaneously in East Lansing, Michigan, and online. If you would like to participate in the Skype discussion, please contact Alex Galarza (galarza[DOT]alex[AT] with your Skype name (if Alex doesn’t already have it). Members are also encouraged to email questions to Alex before October 24.

On November 14, we will discuss FSF member Alon Raab’s special issue/edited volume on “Soccer in the Middle East” published in Soccer and Society (2012). In December, the focus shifts to football publications in a digital age, with special guest Jonathan Wilson, fútbol journalist, author, and editor of the quarterly magazine The Blizzard.

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