“Voters Are Intelligent Enough to Distinguish Between Politicians and Football” — In Conversation with Simon Kuper

SimonKuper1.jpgSIMON KUPER IS one of the world’s most renowned football writers. A widely read Financial Times columnist, Kuper, who co-authored Soccernomics with sports economist Stefan Szymanski, had been working on region-specific editions of their best-selling work. Recently, they came out with a revised edition of the book, drawing upon new market inputs and data.

The 48-year-old Uganda-born British writer, who grew up in the Netherlands and UK and now lives in Paris, has closely followed politics and markets associated with football. As a young man, this alumnus of Harvard and Oxford universities had toured 22 nations in the mid-1990s on a shoestring annual budget of £5,000 while working on his outstanding book, Football Against the Enemy. He is also the author of The Football Men, a collection of profiles of soccer players, managers and so on.

Are you still sceptical of England’s prowess as a footballing nation despite it making decent gains in the World Cup?

I still am quite pessimistic about England’s style. They are not a great footballing team and they don’t create chances creatively to score goals. I think what was different for them in this World Cup is that they had a very lucky draw. They beat Panama and Tunisia and drew with Colombia and that got them to the quarterfinals.

You have argued in Soccernomics—the original edition of 2012—that football is bad business. Is the game getting better as a business or worse than what you had expected?

I think it is getting better for the top 20 or 30 clubs because the television market is now global and you have Indians, the Chinese and the Americans, everyone pushing on, and clubs have options of playing various leagues to slash financial spending. You no longer have oligarchs out there who force others to go on spending more by just spending as much they like to spend—that is against the rules now of the Premier League and the Bundesliga, as it is the case in France. In Spain they took strong action against such moves. Which means the spending [on the game] hasn’t risen as fast as TV money worldwide has risen. Football has become more profitable in the past couple of years, which had never happened before. I am talking about almost every club in the Premier League and clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, a few clubs in the Bundesliga and so on where they don’t lose too much money. They are all slightly in the black.

Do you see any new trends in the recent World Cup? Is it getting more difficult to forecast who wins and who loses?

It is clear that west European teams are tactically and physically ahead of everyone else. The last four World Cups were won by west European teams and almost all the teams in high places are from the region. And theirs is the style that countries can learn and emulate. Therefore, you can see countries like Iran, Korea and Mexico and others give top teams a run for their money by playing a quite similar, high-paced, physical, collective, organised game. The best Europeans are still the best, but suddenly the distance between them and some other countries has shrunk. Remember, most other countries, as part of the international player market, have their best players play in clubs in west Europe and so you have growing awareness among them of west European footballing methods.

You have faced criticism that you are less of an admirer of the romance of football and more a votary of attacking football, which usually implies a single- minded focus on scoring goals.

I think football has become more attacking by nature and the rewards for this style are high. You see in the Champions League, teams have done very well through very rapid passing and attacking football. The ball is moved forward very quickly. Well, if you look at the Guardiola style and Mourinho style, you can’t say which style is more successful. They both have a lot of things in common. It is highly tactically organised. The 11 players are very fit. I think organised football is essential. As with dribbling, the best dribbler should dribble. And so Neymar should dribble, Messi should dribble. The other 10 should do less of that. The other ten should play a very disciplined game.

How do you rate José Mourinho as a coach?

I think he has had one trick: he is very good in organising defence and breaking. But football keeps progressing and almost every manager gets left behind. The latest trend is this very fast, pressing football. Take Liverpool, for instance. They are not obviously the best team in Europe. But they are tactically very good. And you saw a lot of games in the Champions League this season where teams scored four or five goals in a game through very rapid passing. It is hard for Manchester United to score so many goals in a match, and so it is very hard for them to break open close defences. Mourinho has not really moved along with the dynamics of football.

That’s more in line with the nature of club football because clubs are more tactically sophisticated than national teams because they have more time to play together, because they can make sure they have 11 good players, which national teams sometimes cannot.

Are you crestfallen by the decision of Zidane to step down as the coach of Real Madrid?

I never think coaches are very important and that is what we say in Soccernomics . The role of coaches is overestimated. Real Madrid has magnificent players. The credit to Zidane is that he kept everyone on board, and the players found that his system worked reasonably well for them. I don’t think it is right to say Zidane won Champions League tournaments for his players.

Who do you think is the greatest player in the world? Do you believe in the idea of having such a hierarchy of players?

You can only compare the best of an era. It is obviously hard to compare Messi and Pelé because of different situations. I think what you can say is that Ronaldo and Messi are the best club footballers in the history of football. They performed brilliantly for 10 or 15 years, 60 or so games a year. And Pelé never did that because Santos was mostly playing exhibition games back then. And Maradona never did that either. He never had so many seasons in club football. So, Messi and Ronaldo have done the incredible and they were partly helped by the fact that the players are fitter now and that the best players are protected—you can’t kick Messi and get away the way you kicked Pelé and Maradona—and so, game for game, these are the best players in history, Messi and Ronaldo. But what gives you this legendary quality is what you do in the World Cup. It is slightly unfair to judge a player in World Cups because you know we have watched Messi for hundreds of games and we know his game. But he hasn’t been great in World Cup matches. Messi will never be obviously as legendary as Maradona or Pelé because he didn’t play his best football in World Cup matches. But I think he is a better player than Pelé or Maradona. But Maradona has made a mark in history the way Messi never will. The World Cup is so much bigger in people’s emotions and minds than club football.

How excited are you about the expansion of FIFA the world over and the growing popularity of the game on newer turfs?

I have always talked about how they developed the game. But none of what FIFA earns from TV rights gets back to football. In South Africa, they could have spent several billion dollars on building all- weather fields across Africa or in creating coaching programmes. In fact, they spent in South Africa less than 1 per cent of what they took from that World Cup. They do almost nothing and they take the credit for the growth of football. Why India and others that are not World Cup winning countries watch more football is because of television, not FIFA. In India, you can watch European clubs live that you couldn’t do a few decades ago. That has nothing to do with FIFA; that is thanks to technology. But I gather they are significantly less corrupt than they were some years ago.

India is a huge economy and a fast-growing one at that. We have plenty of interest in football here, but we aren’t good enough at the game for global tournaments. What can this country of 1.2 billion people do to make significant strides as a footballing nation?

I think it is important to get children to play football in large numbers, to start with. Indian children do play cricket in large numbers and then 20 years later some of them make a big mark in that game. In football you don’t seem to have large number of stadiums or fields where children can play the game. You don’t have good coaches. You have these big overcrowded cities with less space for sports. You have some of the most polluted cities in the world. How can children play football with their friends for, say, 25 hours a week, in a city as polluted as Delhi? I don’t think it is about more leagues or more coaches. I think India could do what Iceland did: in almost every school in that country, there is an all-weather football pitch where one can go and play. Their coaches are high-quality ones. If you keep doing such things in India, it is almost impossible for India to stay as bad as it is in football. It is the question of what has to start at the grassroots, not at the league or national levels.

How bullish are you on Chinese football?

I don’t think it is about their leagues. Chinese kids, like Indian kids, love to watch Manchester United and Barcelona play. So, having a strong league or a highly paid national team manager is not going to elevate China in football. What is positive about China is that they are spending a lot on school football. They have had no history of it before. Now they are starting a very big programme to create spaces in school for football. That, I think, will be the change-maker for China. It is enormously important for India also to have more school children play football because it creates a great community and greater health (in a country with a huge disease burden). Where I grew up, in the Netherlands, all children used to play football because there were fields to play. This was the case with the whole of western Europe.

How crucial is football in politics?

I think politicians think it helps that their national teams win the World Cup or make great progress in matches there—or when they host World Cup matches. But I don’t think so. Voters are intelligent enough to distinguish between politicians and football (laughs). In Russia, [Vladimir] Putin’s approval ratings fell sharply during the World Cup because they used the event [as a distraction] to raise the pension age. The people are very angry, and so Putin is less popular now than before the World Cup. [Emmanuel] Macron is in big trouble in France [the World Cup champions] following a domestic scandal. I don’t think football helps political careers; football, rather, illuminates political schemes in a country. Football is a lens on a country and helps you see the goings-on more closely. It doesn’t change the outcome of elections.

You have watched numerous World Cups. How great is the feeling of watching it live at stadiums?

Being in stadiums is often an emotionally empty experience. The strongest emotions are in the living rooms of the world.

Why did you revise Soccernomics?

Because football simply keeps changing. The transfer market keeps changing. We keep meeting new people. Some people offer you great insights and there are always new things to say.

First published in Open magazine

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