“Thousands of parameters describe a footballer. From that, we have created 30-40 KPIs (key performance indicators) to do a deep characterisation of a player, which helps us decide who to hire.”
Elias Zamora Sillero is talking about a subject that would make coaches and traditionalists squirm: the use of cold-blooded statistics to sign footballers. “You can’t ignore data anymore,” says the chief data officer of Spanish league side Sevilla FC.
At least Sevilla haven’t. The team that’s constantly punching above its weight – routinely finishing in the top four of La Liga, winning the Copa del Rey, European Super Cup and making the Europa League their own – has done so, according to Sillero, by combining artificial intelligence with game intelligence, raw data with instincts of a scout.
It’s this unique method that Sillero says separates them from the rest who’ve ventured into India in the past. Sevilla, earlier this month, announced a five-year collaboration with I-League second division club FC Bengaluru United. It is, on face value, among the unlikeliest of partnerships: a 132-year-old club joining hands with a four-year-old; a legacy club collaborating with a start-up.
It will, Sillero predicts, be a game-changer in Indian football. “Nowadays, players come and go with coaches – you hire a coach, and he hires players. If you have such tools, then you can act as a club and not follow a coach,” he says.
Delighted to begin a new chapter with the launch of the FCBU Women’s team at the Banglore Football Stadium, in collaboration with our partners, Sevilla FC! 🙌🏻⚽️#FCBU #WeAreUnited #UnitedTogether #SevillaFC #SevillaIndiaVisit #IndiaVisit2022 pic.twitter.com/N1EQaxVOFj
— FC Bengaluru United (@bengaluruunited) June 9, 2022
That’s how Sevilla have risen from languishing in Spain’s second tier and being in deep debt a couple of decades ago to becoming one of the top teams in Europe, emerging as one of the few who have the mettle to take on Real Madrid and Barcelona. It’s not because their owners have deep pockets. Rather, it’s down to the use of technology to spot and sign players.
Some memorable moments from the corporate dinner with Sevilla FC last night 🤝
— FC Bengaluru United (@bengaluruunited) June 10, 2022
“It’s fundamental. If you don’t do anything special, if you pay attention to players that everybody knows – and they are expensive – then people with more money, you are going to have more opportunities,” Sillero says. “You need intelligence to compete against clubs bigger than you. In the long term, you have to be different because otherwise, the club with more money wins. We want to win but we don’t have more money.”
AI Football – the technology
The technology Sillero talks about is an application called AI Football, which his team developed to complement the work done by the club’s scouts and coaches. Performances indexes are created, he says, that help them characterize a player and gauge if he can settle into the club.
Players are judged on their technical and tactical prowess, decision-making abilities, physical attributes, personal and financial aspects, and who their agents are, given the influential roles they play. Points are given based on each of these parameters and the data is shared with the scouting department. It’s a 15-strong team just for the first team, which watches at least two-three matches every day.
Throwback to an amazing morning well spent with our partners, Sevilla FC, at our favourite chilling spot! 🤙🏻💯#FCBU #WeAreUnited #UnitedWeStand #SevillaFC #SevillaIndiaVisit #IndiaVisit2022 pic.twitter.com/Gy3PUSEvcL
— FC Bengaluru United (@bengaluruunited) June 15, 2022
Each of them is assigned teams and leagues where the club thinks they have a good chance to hire players who are cheap. “All the big ones, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Russia in the past, Balkans…” Sillero says. “We take the data of the players and insert opinions of the scouts. We sign players only in cases where the technical opinion of football people and the data tells you he is a good player. Data and scouting evaluation must go in the same direction. And this is the key in our scouting strategy.”
Sillero says all their signings in the last few years have been based on this strategy. And it’s helped them beat the market. According to the New York Times, Sevilla’s annual budget in the early 2000s was approximately $20 million. Before the pandemic, in 2019, it stood at roughly $235 million.
It’s not the first time a young Indian club has partnered with a European giant. The other, more established side from India’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru FC, has a tie-up with Scottish side Rangers. Other ISL teams like Hyderabad and Goa have partnered with German clubs Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig respectively and Chennai City joined hands with Switzerland’s FC Basel.
A round up of last night’s action, as it was! 😉❤️🔥
— FC Bengaluru United (@bengaluruunited) June 10, 2022
Sillero, however, says the biggest difference between those deals and the one that Sevilla has signed with Khalid Jamil-coached Bengaluru United – who are currently in the third tier of Indian football and have set a target of reaching the premier division, the Indian Super League – is that it will give the Indian side access to their scouting and technological knowledge.
The tie-up with Bengaluru United, Sillero hopes, will further improve the health of the club’s balance sheet. Hard-selling their technology, the club’s hierarchy was in Bengaluru, the country’s start-up capital, to scout for sponsors. They wish to improve the image and brand of Sevilla through the television deals and pitch their technology to the rest of India’s football industry.
“Having such a technology will be very important,” he says.
The next frontier, Sillero adds, is ‘psychological profiling’. “You can be a very good player but if you are always broken due to pressure, in that case you aren’t the player we want to hire even if you are good. So in the future, we will need to go into that,” he says.