If I could recommend one sporting book, it would be Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics. Challenging some of football’s accepted truths, in the same spirit as the acclaimed Freakonomics, the authors’ primary focus is why teams achieve success, and why others – specifically, England – don’t.
Soccernomics‘ arguments are as salient as ever, after Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions were eliminated from Euro 2012 in a penalty shoot-out against Italy. They “suffered penalty agony once more”, described the BBC’s Phil McNulty. “England’s penalty curse strikes again”, shrieks the SBS headline. But are the English actually jinxed? Is it some inherent mental fragility? Or can their jitters be attributed to something else?
Firstly, let’s go through their penalty shoot-out record. They have contested seven and lost six, including their last five. They have scored 23 of their attempted spot kicks, and missed 12 (compared to a collective 29-7 record for their opponents). This is, evidently, a poor record.
I don’t think penalty shoot-outs are a lottery that England has been on the rough end of, nor do I believe their fabled mental fragility is the cause of their repetitive collapse. The theme running through their dreary shoot-out history is experience.
Caps is an imperfect way to measure a player’s worth. 40 games for Spain are worth a lot more than 100 for San Marino, and the inimitable Emile Heskey’s 62 national team appearances trump Paul Gascoigne, Teddy Sheringham, Paul Ince, Geoff Hurst, Jimmy Greaves, Jamie Carragher, Gareth Southgate and any number of legitimate England legends.
But as a general rule, it does broadly reflect a player’s value. A bloke that forges a 100-game career for Argentina, Spain, Germany, Portugal or Italy – the teams England have faced in penalty shoot-outs – is likely to be better than a 60-gamer.
So it’s hard to ignore the fact that in the six shoot-outs before Euro 2012, the team whose penalty takers notched more total caps during their career was the team that greeted the judges. In England’s solitary shoot-out triumph – against Spain in Euro 1996 – their four successful marksmen (Shearer, Platt, Pearce and Gascoigne) collectively accumulated 260 games throughout their careers, compared to a mere 205 for their Spanish compadres (Amor, Belsue, Hierro and Nadal). In their five losses, the England shooters were less experienced than their rivals. Total caps is not necessarily a reflection of a player’s quality, but it works as a rule in penalty shoot-outs (at least where England is concerned).
Kuper and Szymanski, more broadly, explain that England don’t actually lose any more than they ought to. Contrary to popular discourse, they aren’t underachievers. A quarter-final elimination at the hands of a decent Italian outfit is a perfectly creditable, and predictable, outcome to this tournament.
While the Three Lions patently have a problem with spot kicks, they aren’t chronic chokers. Their shoot-out exits (SF, SF, RO16, QF, QF, QF) have been distinctly stronger than their other major tournament results over the same period (GS, DNQ, GS, QF, DNQ, RO16). So even though penalties have proved an insurmountable hurdle, those heart-breaking eliminations have come deep into tournaments – often when England have already over-achieved.
Since 1990, as Soccernomics elucidates, England’s major tournament results are actually pretty good. Their finishes (4th, 7th, DNQ, 3rd, 9th, 11th, 6th, 5th, 7th, DNQ, 13th, 5th) are typical of their FIFA ranking throughout that period (hovering between 4th and 27th). In eight of the 12 tournaments, England have reached the knock-out stages and only failed to qualify twice. Sure, they struggle to get past shoot-outs, but they have been remarkably consistent in going deep into tournaments.
There are a series of cultural reasons we expect England to do better, but realistically, they perform about as well as they should. Their nearest European competitors in FIFA’s rankings – Croatia and Denmark – have only reached the sudden-death phase of major tournaments three and four times respectively, compared to England’s eight.
We look at the premiership – the world’s most famous domestic league – and expect England to do better. As the inventors of the game, we expect England to do better. When they constantly show up at the back end of big tournaments, we expect them to do better. As a dominion of Britain’s cultural empire, Australians expect England to do better.
But really, they’re doing as well as they can. Especially considering the thorn of penalty shoot-outs that seems permanently lodged in their side.