Top European football clubs have been in India for some time. The growing appetite for the world’s favourite sport in one of the biggest and as yet unexplored sports market is too good an opportunity for established clubs to overlook.
Atletico Madrid were one of the first big clubs to enter the Indian football arena in 2014, becoming a co-owner of the Kolkata franchise in the newly formed Indian Super League (ISL). Thereafter, other European clubs followed with City Football Group acquiring stakes in Mumbai City FC, Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dortmund partnering Hyderabad FC and RB Leipzig teaming up with FC Goa.
The partnerships were mainly in the top tier of Indian football - the ISL. Last week, another international collaborative event materialised in Indian football, with a different area of focus.
In January 2021, Spanish side Sevilla FC entered a five-year partnership deal with FC Bengaluru United (FCBU), who compete in the I-League second division.
It is not a traditional partnership. Sevilla are not setting up a coaching academy in order to capture a slice of the nascent Indian football market. What they are in India for is what the country, and specifically Bengaluru, is known for - technology.
Data and analytics have become the next frontier in sports and the science that goes into team analysis and preparation is already at an industrial scale. With artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) a reality now, it is only natural for that technology to seep into professional sports.
Somebody has to make sense of the numbers that come out of it, which is where the Sevilla-FCBU collaboration comes in.
The top management of Sevilla, including club president Jose Castro Carmona, was in Bengaluru the previous week to kickstart the partnership they had entered last year.
They witnessed the launch of the FC Bengaluru United women’s team, the Sevilla FC India fan club and the Sevilla FC Junior Cup, to help build the game at the grassroots level.
But the most intriguing part of the visit was a data ‘hackathon’. FCBU teamed up with Analytics Vidhya - one of the top hackathon platforms in India - to crunch data provided by Sevilla into useful information that can be implemented at top level football.
Sevilla is a 132-year-old club and have a treasure trove of data. They have an in-house team of data experts with an emphasis on application of AI in scouting and football management.
FCBU are based in the technology and data crunching capital of the world. Through the hackathon - that concluded over the weekend - more than 4,600 technology experts were presented with real-life data from Sevilla and asked to come up with solutions and analysis that can be implemented on the pitch.
The focus of the hackathon - which is hoped to be the first of four or five - was player scouting. A number of scouts analyse particular players over many games and have many stats and data points which are often uploaded on various platforms. To have all of them consolidated at one place and then make an assessment of it was the emphasis of the exercise.
“Technology experts in the hackathon worked on challenges presented by our data department. It’s not for purpose of having fun. We want to extract real value,” Jorge Paradela, Sevilla’s Business General Manager, told The National.
“Challenges presented to them are the real issues we are working on. As an example, transfer valuation, injury prediction and stadium attendance projection.”
It is a process a young club like FC Bengaluru United, which was founded in 2018, is proud to be a part of.
“We want to be at the forefront of data innovation and usage so that we are able to solve certain sports and football related questions in areas of injury prevention, scouting of players,” Gaurav Manchanda, owner of FCBU, stated.
“What we help facilitate is to use Bengaluru as the IT talent hub when it comes to engineers in AI, data analysis, data analytics. And to present these problems to engineers in Bengaluru, India and the global stage.”
The initial results were encouraging. Out of the 4,600 or so participants in the hackathon, around 20 were shortlisted. They will now have one-on-one interactions with Sevilla. They will then have to convince Sevilla of the process and results they come up with and then take it forward.
This was the first of the technological challenges presented to experts. There are more - like injury prediction and stadium attendance - which will hopefully be tacked in future brainstorming sessions, with even more technology experts from top institutes across India.
Another area of interest is fan engagement. For example, knowing which stands fans frequent, what they eat, what they like, how the costs have evolved can be different data points for an analysis into improving interaction with club supporters.
While technology is big part of the partnership, it is not the only aspect. FCBU have big ambitions of their own. They are eager to climb up the ranks, reaching the levels of top-tier clubs in the ISL.
“We want to keep rising up the ranks, have representation at the national stage, which we have already succeeded with one of our players getting called up to the India Under 19 team camp and getting picked to play in Indian Arrows – the developmental team of AIFF [All India Football Federation],“ Manchanda said.
For Sevilla, it is about improving their own understanding of the game and also getting a foothold in the Indian market and expand their brand.
“We see similarities with FCBU,” Sevilla president Castro explained. “We were in the second division 22 years ago. In 16 years we won six Europa Leagues, 20 final appearances, and are consistently in Champions League.
“For us, FCBU is a platform for us 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 converged on a path that could pave the way forward for Indian football and the sport in future.