Monday, November 14, 2011

A review of Simon Kuper's "Soccer Men"

It's no secret that my foray into the realm of soccer statistics blogging can be directly attributed to my initial reading of Soccernomics. I had fallen in love with soccer during the Sounders' inaugural season, had picked my obligatory overseas team of higher quality later that same year (Arsenal), and was bound-and-determined to get some new reading material in early 2010 in preparation for that summer's World Cup. I stumbled upon Kuper's book, which combined a professional and personal passion of mine (statistics) and my new love for the sport. The rest is now history.

Since then I have read his first book about the sport, Soccer Against the Enemy, as well as Ajax, The Dutch, The War. Each of the three books looks at the sport through a different topic - statistics, conflict, and World War II. Kuper's latest book, Soccer Men, doesn't have such an overt theme as a method for examining the game. To be honest, much of the book's content has been published elsewhere. The book serves as a compilation of profiles and interviews Kuper has written over his 15 years of covering the sport. Nonetheless, in serves a very useful compendium for both those who have followed Kuper for all 15 years or those who are more recent converts like me. While the theme that binds all of these short chapters together is not as overt as in works past, there is one there. It is the idea of the professionalism of the men who play, manage, and make decisions within the sport.

Almost in a nod to the fact that much of this book is not original content, the book's introduction explains that the concept was not Kuper's idea nor was its name. Forty-three years earlier a British journalist named Arthur Hopcraft had published a book titled The Football Man. It was a book covering a different type of game, player, and manager, but the concept was the same as Kuper's. It was a time, as Kuper reminds the reader, when the phrase "soccer literature" might have been viewed as an oxymoron. As only a writer foundational to modern soccer literature could write, Kuper notes of Hopcraft's writing:
"He took [his subjects] seriously, not as demigods but as ordinary men and craftsman. His overly polished prose is a bit dated, and we no longer need his assurances that soccer is important enough to write about (quite the opposite: We now often need to be told that it isn't.)"
Few authors now writing about soccer have their words taken more seriously and studied so studiously as Kuper. Yet, in almost in the manner of Heath Ledger playing the Joker, Kuper asks "WHY... SOOOOO... SERIOUS!?!?" One can almost hear the wry smile cross Kuper's mouth as he was writing this entry in the book.

Then again, it's all in the subtlety of what kind of seriousness in soccer commentary Kuper is criticising.

As is all too well documented, the last few decades have seen a seriousness forced onto the sport and its players with the rise of its international business.  The Deloitte Money League's top twenty clubs brought in 4.3 billion ($5.9 billion) in revenue during the 2009/10 season.  A microcosm of the rise of the international game is the Premier League, which claimed 7 of the 20 spots on Deloitte's list.  The EPL has seen a more than 8 fold increase in the average player transfer fee, and a similar if less-spectacular rise in wages.  The clubs, the players, and the management are all treating the game like a business, and a serious one at that given the large sums of money involved.

Kuper's point at the outset of the book is re-iterated in profile after profile contained within the book's covers.  It is a recognition of the fact that everyone  treats the game seriously because their very large paychecks depend on it.  Any love affair with a badge that causes a player to kiss it lasts only as long as the next outsized transfer or contract offer that rolls through their door.  Profiles of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and others who had lifelong childhood attachments to clubs that they ultimately turned their backs on due to better offers demonstrates the rationality of following the money.  The expectation that love for one's club, who is an employer, should outweigh one's love for their own material self interest is something only a supporter can foist upon a player.  After all, as Kuper has repeatedly asked in interviews supporting this book, "Do you love your employer so much that you would turn down a much better compensation package from another employer?  Do you love your bank so much that you wouldn't leave it if offered a much better interest rate elsewhere?"  The answer clearly is, "Of course not!".  Yet we take our love for the game and club so seriously that we scream and yell at any player who has the temerity to judge the grass is greener on the other side and look for rewards - trophies, money, playing time - elsewhere.  It's the seriousness of soccer talk, which treats the most minuscule of events as do-or-die, and simultaneously denies the seriousness of the business reality of the sport that Kuper is criticizing (curious readers can read Kuper's expansion on this concept in an interview Sarah Rudd and I conducted with him in October).

Kuper's explanation of player-as-professional is perhaps no better displayed than in his five part series on England's golden generation - profiles of Jamie Carragher, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, and Wayne Rooney built upon their mediocre-to-awful autobiographies.  Here the reader gets a sense of the cocoon modern soccer players live within from age 12, and how they become ruthless businessmen  who believe wholeheartedly in their abilities and the right to get paid for them.  Reading this chapter helps one better understand the somewhat foolish vapidness of the interview with Nikolas Anelka elsewhere in the book, or why Kuper has repeatedly commented that he believes Messi is one of the greatest players to write about and likely the worst to interview.  The pressure to be company men, to never say anything of consequence for fear of punishment, makes current players dull interviews.

It's that reality that makes ex-players the better interview, and perhaps my favorite part of the book was the lengthy recounting of an evening with Johnny Rep and Bernd Holzenbein in June 2004.  Two men who played central roles in the 1974 World Cup final between Germany and Holland, and thus central roles in the Dutch attempt to re-fight World War II, couldn't have been more relaxed and entertaining.  The two former players almost seem bemused by the importance forced on their match by the Dutch, and don't talk much of it except when forced to at a panel on the exact topic.  Otherwise, Holzenbein wold rather talk about the Final in 1954 that the Germans also won, as he saw it as more formative to the nation's postwar sporting experience.  Overall, we learn far more about these two men, their attitudes towards the game, and what's truly important to the players who create the sport rather than the fans who consume it.  Kuper concludes the chapter with,
The history of soccer would read very differently if it were written by actual players, They would never organize a debate about a long-gone World Cup final, or if they did, it would focus on the postmatch banquet to which the wives weren't invited...
Indeed - things far less serious than the latest transfer rumor, or who did or didn't dive to earn a penalty. It would focus on things to which spectators have no relationship, because it never appeared on a television.

There is a good bit of fun in reading what Kuper thought several years ago, and whether or not his predictions panned out.  Such predictions have produced a mixed bag of results.  He predicted Drogba's relationship with Mourinho would lead him to leave Chelsea and follow Morinho to Inter - clearly, Drogba did not (although Kuper did take that as a sign that Drogba simply followed rational self interest over friendship - a common theme in the book).  He wrote in 2005 about Michael Essien being the harbinger of a future filled with physically big players - a theory that small midfielders for Spanish club and national teams would end up making a false prophecy.  Correctly foreshadowing Ruud Gullit's decade of management failure, Kuper provides a great profile of Gullit playing for Ajax's fifth string squad in the waning days of his playing career.  The book is chock full of period writing that gives us a better understanding of how players and the game looked then, uncolored through the eyes of history.

While the book spends much of its ink on players, there are two other parts of it that cover managers and "other" soccer men.  I am not a huge fan of the managerial section.  It's hard to take a profile of Mourinho seriously now that we've seen that his rabid paranoia and hatred for Barcelona can devolve into eye gouging on the pitch.  Kuper has a series of articles on Glen Hoddle, Sven-Goran Erikson, and Fabio Capello to tell the story of the thankless job of being England's manager.  There are two good articles on Arsene Wenger in this section of the book - one in May 2003 and another in April 2010.  Kuper makes the point clear that what was game changing for Arsenal in 2003 was simply average by 2010, and once Wenger's difference makers had been adopted by others in the league there was no way for the Frenchman to compete with clubs that consistently offered more in transfer fees and wages.

The far more fascinating section to me was the final part of the book that compiled articles on the "other" soccer men in the game.  The profile of Jacques Herzog, a Swiss architect responsible for many of the modern soccer stadiums seen today, is a very interesting one.  Herzog, at the risk of being too serious, treats building stadiums much like the seriousness with which cardinals must have treated building a cathedral during medieval times.  Herzog draws much inspiration from English stadiums.  Kuper writes:
What soccer fans crave in a stadium is communal emotion... "It's somehow an attempt to go back to the roots of soccer," says Herzog, "to take some of those archaic ingredients.  The Shakespearean theatre, probably it was even a model for the soccer stadium in England - this closeness between the actors and the crowd.  If you can achieve this proximity, the people become the architecture."
Herzog's attempt to build such a feeling at Allianz Stadium is captured exquisitely in Kuper's profile.

Kuper concludes the book with a profile of Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, an economics professor who has assembled the most impressive database of penalty kicks taken since 1995.  The profile was published in the middle of the 2010 World Cup.  Palacios-Huerta explains how his database can be used, and laments the number of errors clubs and national teams make that could be simply corrected by a basic study of the numbers.  Ironically, Kuper had seen Palacios-Huerta's information related to the Dutch and Spanish teams for the World Cup Final and had even put the information in the hands of a Dutch coach.  Kuper was literally minutes away from his and Palacios-Huerta's information being the key to a Dutch win on penalties when the 10-man side finally succumbed to the Spanish attacks.  It's too bad that they did, otherwise this part of the book would have provided for an epic book in and of itself.

Overall the book is another outstanding read from one of the foundational authors in modern soccer literature.  Kuper may ask each of us to take the game a little less seriously, and indeed we all should.  Fewer chattering heads and bleating online that treats the sport less like a game of escape would make us all a little more tolerable to be around.  However, our bookshelves and literary lives are far more complete due Kuper ignoring his own advice and taking such a serious literary approach to the beautiful game and the men within it.