How Artificial Intelligence makes it easier to track footballers abroad

When Yaya Toure first moved to Europe in 2001, it was only possible because of the personal relationship between ASEC youth team Mimosas and Belgian side Beveren.

He was one of several players who moved from the Ivory Coast club to Beveren. The costs involved in scouting youth players meant that unless they were getting players from the very top clubs, such as Arsenal, who signed Yaya’s brother Kolo Toure direct from Mimosas, there would be few other routes to Europe for Ivory Coast’s top young players.

Fast-forward twenty-two years and any club in Europe can do due diligence on any ASEC Mimosas youth team player for less than the cost of a return plane ticket to Abidjan.

Instead of flying multiple times to watch countless youth matches between Ivory Coast’s best clubs, scouts can follow each player in detail on their laptop.

The system that allows this is called Eyeball. It had already been used by clubs such as AC Milan, Lille and Benfica to recruit more than 150 new players. Eyeball manager David Hicks says ASEC Mimosas used to visit once a month, but because of this system, they now get 30 to 40 calls a month about players. Instead of traveling, people call and say we’ve been watching this player for several months, we like the way he looks, can you tell us more, before you decide whether to visit Mimosas in person or invite him to Europe for a trial.

The system works by providing a high-resolution camera elevated high enough above the stage to provide 180-degree views and create an angle for the artificial intelligence software to operate. This software tracks each player and creates individual clips of all the actions they take part in, as well as statistics similar to what OPTA uses.

Scouts can then use the system to look for key attributes they’re interested in, such as age, height or speed, and track that player’s recent games. They can also find out who is actually responsible for the player so they know who to talk to about them. 25 of the top academies in West Africa are among the clubs in the system, meaning their matches this weekend, with full data, could be watched by scouts from Liverpool or Manchester until Tuesday.

Scouts can then watch all of those games before making a decision on a player, so if the player isn’t what they’re looking for, they haven’t wasted many trips to find out.

This also means that signing players from such clubs no longer requires a personal connection, as in the case of Beveren, or a huge scouting budget of a top Premier League club. Hicks calls this “revolutionary.”

Eyeball’s system exists in many other countries, including France, where it registers all youth clubs in the top regional and national leagues, allowing other teams to scout the best young players not picked up by the academy system. Aimed at professional clubs, Eyeball only focuses on the top youth leagues in the countries it has expanded to.

One such country is Iceland, where a Champions League club in continental Europe used Eyeball to spot a top young player, standing out from the usual scouting pitches.

In the UK, Brexit means that clubs cannot easily sign new players from many of the countries mentioned.

Within England, Hicks says professional clubs are rather secretive about their young players and reluctant to use the system, which he says could help young players who are released find a new club. At the moment, after the disappointment of leaving, players often only have a short time in trial matches to impress other clubs, but Hicks says having all of those players’ youth games in an easily searchable database could help clubs to decide whether to sign players released by their rivals.

The Eyeball system is present in Northern Ireland, however, and will soon go online in Scotland, two areas where English clubs are most interested in scouting ahead of Brexit.

As well as improving scouting, this type of technology also helps youth clubs improve their own standards. In Ivory Coast, for example, it can be used to help improve training and coaching sessions, and to get players used to the kind of data analysis of their game that is common at top-flight clubs in Europe.

In the future, Hicks says, it will be even easier to compare players between leagues, so that clubs in one country can see what specific areas they need to improve in order to match young players on the other side of the world.

(tags to be translated) Arsenal

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