The Arty Semite

Is the U.S. Getting Better at Soccer?

By Dan Friedman

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As Team USA carries the hopes of the English-speaking world in Brazil, inquiring minds are wondering why England is so perennially terrible at the sport it invented (and let’s not get started on cricket).

It is a question that was surprisingly well answered in 2009, along with the corollary question about how America is getting good at a sport it barely cares about, by Simon Kuper in his book “Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey — and Even Iraq — Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport.”

In this soccer version of “Moneyball,” which he co-wrote with Stefan Szymanski, Kuper explains the success of various club soccer teams as well as national soccer teams through the judicious use of statistics. It explains the opportunity cost of racism in England in the 1970s and 1980s and, as the title suggests, provides a convincing explanation of why England are poor and the USA are destined for greatness.

Although married to Pamela Druckerman, author of the French parenting book “Bringing up Bébé” in which he appears as the long-suffering Simon, Kuper is also the author of “Ajax, the Dutch, the War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour.” It is the most Jewish of the books by Simon Kuper, and one of the three most important English-language writers about soccer and society.

In “Ajax,” Kuper goes back to the Netherlands in which he grew up, and which was famous for its support of the Jews against the Nazis in the war, to find out the darker history of those times and the deeply embedded role that soccer played in the Dutch collaboration. And he brings those lessons to bear in a more general way in his 2010 “Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power.”

Once you have finished those three Kuper books you will understand soccer’s role in the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and world despotism. You might love the game a little less, but you’ll understand it a lot more — an understanding that might help you avoid expecting England to overachieve at any given World Cup.


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