At the end of 2016, after my newly found love for reading coupled with a ton of time, as I didn’t have a job, I began to generate more and more ideas. I was sucked into a black hole of soccer books. It seemed after I read one I needed to read them all. Money and Soccer, Soccernomics, 12 Yards, Das Reboot, I am Zlatan, Messi, and My Turn. They were all great for their different reasons but the two that really changed some of my thinking were Soccernomics and Money and Soccer. They were written by these two guys who really analyzed the game, and the influencers behind the game, and came up with some insightful findings. Simon Kupir was more of a cultural writer and did a lot of the Dutch soccer stories including The Dutch, The War which was about the Dutch club Ajax during World War II. The other guy was Stefan Syzmanski. He was an English bloak who oddly enough worked in the Kinesiology department at the University of Michigan, where I went to school, and did most of the analytics for these research projects.
Soccernomics and Money and Soccer are an extension of each other in my mind. They are so blended in my mind that from here on out when I say Soccernomics I could mean either Soccernomics or Money and Soccer. Soccernomics had a section where they were trying to answer the question of which country uses their resources best in soccer. I was mesmerized by the question itself and questioning how someone could measure it. I suppose I thought it’s either in the culture or it’s not but they made me see things a bit differently. They were looking at GDP per capita, population, and number of international appearances a country had participated in to predict the goal differential between two countries squaring off on the international stage. They were looking at countries that outdid the goal differential they were predicted by a country with their resources.
After being in Iceland with my brother in 2016 and seeing all the soccer fields it didn’t really strike me as surprising that Iceland scored well in the Soccernomics analysis. With only some three hundred thousand people it was amazing they could compete with the likes of the best in Europe. The old Yugoslavian countries, like Croatia and Serbia, also scored well. I was very intrigued by this. Although they found those three factors only accounted for about 25% of the goal difference that got my mind spinning. What else might be able to help predict goal difference?
I was determined to talk to Syzmanski. I called him multiple times at the university to talk to him and maybe get some insights or help. Four times I tried to call him with no pick up and no reply. I thought about throwing in the towel but called a fifth. No response. What was this guy doing? Was he so busy he really couldn’t pick up my call? He was a professor, not the President of the United States. Sixth time, winner winner chicken dinner! I was actually surprised when he picked up the phone. It was almost turning into one of those times where you’re calling a pretty girl and slightly hoping they don’t pick up so you can just leave a message and to at least tell yourself you tried. Please don’t tell me I’m alone on that sentiment.
I started telling him that I loved his book and I’m guessing he doesn’t get many fan calls. Kurplop, I heard him drop his notepad or maybe even his laptop. I won’t go as far as to say he sounded in shock, but I would say legitimately surprised. “Oh really?” he asked.
He was very eager to help me and oddly curious as to what I was all about. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“About 100 miles north of Detroit on Lake Huron. It’s a super small town, Linwood, just north of Bay City and Saginaw, you may have heard of those. But I went to Ann Arbor for school and lived there 3 years while working as an actuary in one of the Detroit suburbs. I thought it was a cool coincidence when I saw you worked at U of M.”
He replied, “oh, I’m sorry you’re from there.” That was a slightly dickish thing to say but I’ll let it slide even though it didn’t sound entirely playful. I perfectly liked where I grew up. I just got a bit tired of being so cold.
I started explaining to him what I was thinking about doing. I wanted to start looking at factors that could help me predict goal difference and in turn help predict the chances of team A beating team B. I would then look at what the Vegas odds were compared to what I was predicting and purchase the bargain picks, or at least take my chances on the bets that weren’t a complete rip off. I was looking for value, maybe Portugal paying $1.80 for every $1 to win their group was a super bet, or maybe Iceland getting out of Argentina’s group with getting $2.5 for every $1 bet.
“Here let me get something. I have my sources written somewhere over here.”
Say what? He was going to give me his sources? Damn this was so easy! One phone call, that’s all it took. Well really six phones calls is all it took.
Syzmanski continued, “So I got all the game scores from a German site called laenderspiel.de but it comes in English too, think also in French. It’s incredibly comprehensive. It has all the conference scores, number of international appearances, and FIFA rankings. The country data is from the world bank database, which should have csv’s going back 50 years, but you’ll have to do a bit of work to break up the UK numbers to get Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England Data. So that’s where we got the population and GDP/capita numbers.”
I continued beginning to talk before I finished noting all of his sources, “Wow, this is so helpful. Yeah, I’ve done a lot of simulations and optimizations for American football and even ran a daily fantasy information site awhile but got scared they’d make it illegal, but I’m very excited to try and do something for soccer.”
“So where are you now?”
“I’m working as an actuary in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’ve been in Charlotte about two and half years and at this job less than a year. The weather is very nice but I do miss my family a lot.”
“Well, this is very cool of you to call. I’m always interested in how our data and books are received and used. I’d love to see what you end up doing with this.”
“Yeah, I’ll be sure to let you know. Thanks again.”