Lester

That’s the way it would be spelt in the US. In abbreviationland—ok, abland—the word Leicester would never endure.

Frank Deford, one of the great American sportswriters, explained why soccer, known to the rest of the world as football, would never become popular in the US.

His theory is that your red-blooded US sports fan could never get excited about a game that lasts ninety minutes and often ends in a goal-less draw. I must say I sympathize—but for many the magic is in the way the game is played, rather than the score.

That’s why it’s called the beautiful game, a spectacle where foreplay becomes more important than consummation.

But the games that enthuse the US psyche are all high-scoring: baseball, basketball, football. Ice hockey is the exception, but I’m sure lots of fans go for the fighting.

Average number of goals per game in the National Hockey League.

Average number of goals per game in the National Hockey League, the outlier of American sport.

Sports stats have always found a ready audience, particularly of the male persuasion, and the NHL graph shows the picture for almost one century—remarkable in itself, because I suspect we have better long-term sports data than for public health or climate change.

Soccer has its top stars, exactly like baseball and basketball, and they regularly work miracles on the pitch. From Eusébio to Messi, Pelé to Ronaldo, the last sixty years have produced a stunning array of talent in Europe and South America.

But when these magicians perform at the national level, things are quite different—this is visible at every World Cup, and will be obvious again this summer when France hosts the European Championship.

When Rooney plays for Manchester United, his performance is far better than on the England squad—the same applies to Messi, Ronaldo, and the few others who stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The magical art of mathematics, and particularly its bean-counting cousin statistics, explains why this is so. When Cruyff, Maradona, or Beckenbauer played for their team, the whole machine was tuned to their advantage, so without detracting from their merits, the glory of that lone goal must be shared—like chess, soccer is a game of preparation, support, and sacrifice. But at the national level, that machine is far less efficient, and certainly not tuned for a couple of wizards.

When a striker scores a goal, it can be given a valuation. Out of a possible 100 points, maybe 55 go to the striker. 20 to the assist. Another 17 shared by two opposition players, who allowed certain moves to take place. 8 to the other team’s goalkeeper for lack of positioning.

The ways in which these numbers are determined are multiple—they can be heuristic—there are enough soccer fans out there to allow good stats to be collected. There are various more quantitative approaches—and if all the sensor information now collected about different players is mined, it’s a typical application of big data.

Big Data: the application of computer algorithms to gigantic datasets in order to identify emerging patterns.

Big Data: the application of computer algorithms to gigantic datasets in order to identify emerging patterns. IBM’s processing of daily Wikipedia edits.

The valuation of sports players is obviously a key player, if you excuse the pun, in the business of sport. The paradigm shift from batting averages (or away goals) was made famous in the movie Moneyball, the tale of baseball’s Oakland A’s in 2002 and 2003.

This valuation approach, which moves from traditional metrics to a shared approach to performance rating, is called sabermetrics.

The most important lesson from its application in the 2002 Oakland A’s was that a team with a comparatively low budget can compete successfully against giants—in this case the A’s had a payroll of 40 million bucks, one third of the New York Yankees.

And now Leicester City, a relatively obscure club from a town with a population of 330,000, has pulled the same trick in the English Premier League.

Chelsea Football Club spent over 275 million dollars on players in 2015. Manchester United spent 313 million. United came fifth in the league this year. Chelsea finished ninth.

These numbers are food for thought when compared with Leicester—it won the league, and spent only 87 million dollars on players. As in the US case, this is a small club that spent 25-30% of the top dogs’ pay packet and achieved an amazing outcome.

Here also, the picks of the club’s talent scout, Steve Walsh, were a key to success. His main three choices, Mahrez, Kanté, and Vardy—an Algerian, a Frenchman, and a Brit, had one thing in common—they were young players, with a nondescript club history.

Mahrez played for Le Havre, Kanté for Boulogne and Caen, and Vardy for Fleetwood Town. None of these spots are famous for soccer prowess, or for much else, for that matter—Fleetwood advertises Marks & Spencer as one of its attractions, and Boulogne exalts Welsh rarebit as a gastronomic treat and celebrates the inventor of the propeller.

The Algerian player Mahrez was born in Sarcelles, a dormitory town on the northern rim of Paris—the kind of ghetto neighborhood that spawns the new breed of Islamic radicals. Sixty percent of its listed notables are footballers, most of which not particularly notable—it also boasts previous mayor Mr. Strauss-Kahn along with several dancers—the irony is inescapable.

Walsh provided the glue that binds the three men—he not only saw what others didn’t, and signed the trio for about twenty million dollars, but he probably understood they would play well together.

In the mad money world of the beautiful game, this is a beautiful story.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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