Q&A: Simon Kuper (leading football writer, FT columnist & Soccernomics co-author)

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Exclusive interview with Simon Kuper, one of the world’s leading football writers (weekly columnist for the Financial Times) and author of football-related books.

Mr. Kuper is the winner of the William Hill Prize for sports book of the year (Soccer Against the Enemy) in Britain. He also helped to write another top-seller, Soccernomics. In our exclusive interview Simon speaks about (the future of) football in general, its financial situation, trends, transfers, new markets, the Moneyball approach, the idea of Fieldoo, the football marketplace for players & agents, and much more.

Mr. Kuper, you’re one of the leading writers on football, focusing especially on its anthropologic aspect. What are your main remarks and observations on football in the last decade or so? Or rather, which direction the football industry is moving in?
I think on the field, what’s happened is that Johan Cruijff‘s vision of football has triumphed: the most important thing in football is the pass. We’re discovering that football is a game like chess, where it’s mostly about geometry and positioning and intelligence. That’s the game played by Barcelona and Spain. So the key to football is not fitness, as the Germans had long thought, or skill and dribbling, as the Brazilians thought, or power and passion, as the Brits thought. The key is the pass – the best passing team will generally win.
The other big development this last decade is match fixing. Driven by the rise of internet gambling, and growing Asian interest in Euro football, there’s now way more money bet on football than ever before. So it becomes more lucrative to fix matches. The only leagues in the world that I’m now confident are clean are the Premier League and the Bundesliga – and for how much longer? Even world cup games have been fixed.

You’re co-author of a Soccernomics, where you also focus on the financial aspect of football. Furthermore, your columns also address Financial Fair Play, corruption in football etc. What are your thoughts on financial situation of football in general, financial fair play regulations, corruption…?
Briefly: I think it will be too hard to fully implement financial fair play, so it won’t change the game. You’re not going to end up banning Real Madrid from the Champions League because they have big debts.
Everyone worries about the big debts in football. But they should worry less. As we show in Soccernomics, football clubs nearly always survive. Only a couple of very tiny clubs in Europe have folded during this terrible recession. Portsmouth and Rangers got into big trouble, but they just go down a couple of divisions. They will be back soon. Football clubs are immortal.

SoccernomicsSoccernomics reveals some very interesting findings, including the new map of a football world, where “US, Japan, Australia, Turkey-and Even Iraq-Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport”. When will this happen in reality?
It’s gradually happening. The US and Japan now regularly make the last 16 of world cups. Australia too. More and more you see that non-traditional countries have learned European methods of defending. It was weird that Western Europe, with just 5 % of the world’s population, won so many world cups. The trend is away from the traditional football countries. Of the non-traditional countries, I see the US as having the best chance to win the world cup in say the next 20 years.

The book stresses the importance of numbers. Besides, the recently opened Soccernomics Agency’s website also exposes the Moneyball approach and offers data analysis services to help clubs and federations improve performance. Why do you think finding hidden truths in the numbers can be important?
Using data to find truths is becoming ever more important inside football clubs. Already it’s transforming their approach to fitness, penalties, corners and other dead-balls. Germany are innovators in using data to determine their tactics. A few clubs use data to help them inform their transfer decisions – something Arsene Wenger has been doing for about 20 years now. As we discover more and more truths in the numbers, every serious club will have to use statisticians. True, data alone won’t win you matches. Data probably won’t be as important in soccer as it is in baseball. But it will give you an edge, and if it gives you an edge, you have to do it.

Fieldoo.com is Football Career Network for (aspiring) players & agents, seeking opportunities. It allows players to showcase their skills, get connected and take the next step in career. Fieldoo is growing rapidly and already features players from more than 70 countries. How do you see the initiative?
Good idea. A lot of clubs have trouble finding players, which is why they are so dependent on the couple of agents who happen to be friends of the manager. Fieldoo might give clubs a bit more choice, a better view of what is out there.

Football is a highly competitive labour-intensive (footballers) industry: numerous players but limited number of clubs. Which “tools” should (prospective) players use to succeed and what are the challenges for those coming from less developed countries to penetrate in football-developed countries?
Just be very good, is all I can say. Football is pretty fair in evaluating players. As we showed in Soccernomics, a player’s wage is a very good predictor of his quality. In other words this isn’t an industry where bad players earn lots of money just because they happen to be mates with the coach. Mostly, if you are good, you will get a good job, whichever country you come from or whatever colour your skin. If only other professions were as fair.

Final question: how do you see the future of the transfer market and financial power in football? Perhaps moving from Europe to other countries, bearing in mind the rapid progress of emerging countries (China, India, Qatar, United Arab Emirates…)?
I think the European clubs will remain supreme, just because the best footballers don’t want to play in countries like China or Russia (until they are old and past their best, like Drogba and Eto’o). Everyone wants to play for FC Barcelona. The only new league that I see rivalling the Europeans for pulling power is Brazil, because the country’s economy has grown, the currency is strong, there are historic clubs and a big pool of good local players. More and more Brazilians are staying in Brazil longer (like Neymar) and I think soon we will even see some European players moving to Brazil.

At football network Fieldoo we connect 150,000+ players & agents, enhance transfers and transparency in the world of football. Thousands of Fieldoo members found a new club in the last season (2013/14).
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