Top European football clubs have had a presence in India for some time. The growing appetite for the world’s most popular sport in one of the largest and still unexplored sports markets is too good an opportunity for established clubs to overlook.
Atletico Madrid were one of the first major clubs to enter the Indian soccer arena in 2014, becoming co-owners of the Kolkata franchise in the newly formed Indian Super League (ISL). Other European clubs followed, including City Football Group, which acquired shares in Mumbai City FC, Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund, which merged with Hyderabad FC, and RB Leipzig, which merged with Goa FC.
The partnerships mainly existed in the top division of Indian football – the ISL. Last week Indian football witnessed another international community event with a different focus.
In January 2021, Spanish club Sevilla FC signed a five-year partnership deal with FC Bengaluru United (FCBU), who play in the second division of the I-League.
It’s not a traditional partnership. Sevilla are not creating a coaching academy to capture a piece of the burgeoning Indian football market. What they are in India for is what the country and especially Bengaluru is known for – technology.
Data and analysis has become the next frontier in esports, and the science that goes into team analysis and preparation is already at industrial scale. With artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) now a reality, it is only natural that this technology would seep into professional sports.
Someone has to understand the numbers that come out of it and that’s where the cooperation between Sevilla and FCBU comes into play.
Sevilla top management, including club president Jose Castro Carmona, were in Bengaluru last week to kick start the partnership they struck last year.
They witnessed the formation of Bengaluru United FC women’s team, Sevilla FC India fan club and Sevilla FC Junior Cup to build the game at grassroots level.
But the most fascinating part of the visit was a data hackathon. FCBU has partnered with Analytics Vidhya – one of the top hackathon platforms in India – to turn the data provided by Sevilla into useful information that can be acted upon in top-flight football.
A 132-year-old club, Sevilla have a treasure trove of data. They have an in-house team of data experts focused on the application of AI in scouting and football management.
FCBU is based in the technology and computing capital of the world. During the hackathon, which ended over the weekend, more than 4,600 technology professionals were presented with real-world data from Seville and asked to come up with solutions and analytics that can be implemented on the pitch.
The focus of the hackathon – which will hopefully be the first of four or five – was scouting the players. A set of scouts analyzes specific players across many games and has many stats and data points that are often uploaded across different platforms. Summarizing all of this in one place and then evaluating it was the focus of the exercise.
“Technology experts from the hackathon worked on challenges from our data department. It’s not for having fun. We want to get real value out of it,” said Jorge Paradela, Seville’s Business General Manager The National.
“The challenges they face are the real problems we are working on. As an example, transfer rating, injury prediction and stadium visit prediction.”
A young club like Bengaluru United FC, founded in 2018, is proud to be part of this process.
“We want to be at the forefront of data innovation and usage so we can solve specific sports and football-related questions in the areas of injury prevention and player scouting,” said Gaurav Manchanda, owner of FCBU.
“We are helping to leverage Bengaluru as an IT talent hub when it comes to AI, data analytics and data analysis engineers. And to present these issues to engineers in Bengaluru, India and the global stage.”
The first results were encouraging. Of the approximately 4,600 participants in the hackathon, around 20 were shortlisted. You will now have one-on-one interactions with Sevilla. They then have to convince Sevilla of the process and the results they have produced and then push them forward.
This was the first of the technological challenges faced by experts. There is more – like injury prediction and stadium visits – which will hopefully be covered in future brainstorming sessions with even more technology experts from leading institutes across India.
Another area of interest is fan engagement. For example, knowing which stands fans frequent, what they eat, what they like, how costs have evolved can be different data points for analysis to improve interaction with club fans.
While technology is a big part of the partnership, it’s not the only aspect. The FCBU itself has big ambitions. They strive to climb the ranks and reach the level of the top tier clubs in the ISL.
“We want to keep rising, be represented at national level, which we have already achieved when one of our players was called up to the India Under 19 team camp and selected for Indian Arrows – the development team of AIFF [All India Football Federation]’ Manchanda said.
For Sevilla it’s about improving their own understanding of the game and also gaining a foothold in the Indian market and expanding their brand.
“We see similarities with the FCBU,” said Seville President Castro. “We were in the second division 22 years ago. In 16 years we have won six Europa Leagues, played 20 finals and are consistently in the Champions League.
“For us, FCBU is a platform to develop our brand in a country where 100 million follow football regularly and 40 million follow La Liga.”
In a data-driven world, Sevilla and Bengaluru United have embarked on a path that could pave the way for Indian football and esports in the future.
Updated June 17, 2022 at 6:30 am