GENEVA — A high stack of papers dominates the desk of this president of a Swiss soccer club. "These are resumes from players. We get 50 of them every week, together with video cassettes of their feats. Sorting the good from the bad is an enormous task. And when the concerned party finally arrives from South America or Africa, we sometimes struggle to recognize in him the player we had selected ..."
The aforementioned episode took place more than a decade ago. Since then, digital networks have transformed the world, and the soccer transfer market is no exception. Nowadays, powerful digital tools now enable clubs to collect an almost exhaustive amount of data on players from across the globe. They have names like Wyscout, Video Profile, Footovision or Scouting System Pro, and all offer roughly the same service: a database with comprehensive statistics and different methods of analysis.
"When a big company wants to recruit a senior manager, they go deep and look at all the details. The transfer of a high-level professional soccer player is no different," says Bertrand Cauly, president of France's National Union of Sports Agents. "It's become extremely important to know how to use these tools."
Saving time and money
The world leader in this field is the Italian company Wyscout. Its online platform boasts a database of more than 220,000 games from 225 leagues across 106 countries, as well as all the statistics derived from those matches. The most impressive thing is without a doubt the video system that the company offers its clients. The performances of each player are divided into short video clips of a few seconds each, sorted by type of action (goals scored, assists, accelerations, fouls committed, and many, many others).
Each week, the database is expanded with clips and statistics from 1,500 new games. With a few clicks, users can find the Brazilian league"s best left-footed goal scorer aged under 22, for example, and watch all of his appearances.
The existence of such a database hasn't just made the recruiting process faster and easier, it's also profoundly transformed it.
Among both sellers and buyers, those who've known the old world see this as an absolute revolution. "I've been in this job for 15 years," says Swiss sports agent Michel Urscheler. "At the beginning, I used to copy video cassettes. Obtaining footage from a left back playing for the Esporte Clube Vitoria in Brazil was an arduous task. Now, I just tell the club his name and within two minutes, they know everything about him."
Marco Degennaro, director general of the Swiss soccer team FC Sion, agrees. "We use this tool a lot," he says. "We used to have to travel to get a first impression on a player. Now, you find all the games online. It saves us money and time."
That is precisely what the Wyscout revolution is all about — cutting back on both the costs and effort needed to find and recruit a player — according to Matteo Campodonico, the company's stylish, 40-something head. "For a long time, if a player got injured shortly before the close of the transfer window, his club was tempted to recruit a replacement without even having seen him play before. Now, the sports director can watch all of his games for the past season. The time needed to get to discover a player has changed: It used to take months, now everything happens in real time."
"Sports agents who might have been tempted to bluff don't have that option any longer"
The existence of such a database hasn't just made the recruiting process faster and easier, it's also profoundly transformed it. "It used to be agents who would give the clubs videos of their protégés. These rarely were entire games but rather carefully selected excerpts. Obviously, when you do that, all players are good," says Campodonico, smiling.
"Everything's a lot more transparent," says Michel Urscheler. "Sports agents who might have been tempted to bluff don't have that option any longer. Everybody can see what he wants from a player, and not what a third party has cherry-picked for him."
Building a "modern factory"
The revolution is as profound as it is recent. Wyscout was founded in 2004 by three friends, Simone Falzetti, Piermaria Saltamacchia and Matteo Campodonico. Together, they conquered the soccer planet starting from the pitch outside their homes. "The story began with the teams in our region, playing in the seventh-tier. We'd go and film their games, and we'd edit them before giving them to the managers," Campodonico told the French soccer magazine So Foot.
One thing leading to another, the company became a multinational. It's headquartered in the small town on Chiavari, on the western Italian coast, but also employs people in Senegal, Bulgaria and Moldova, for a total of 500 employees. A good part of those people spend their time scrutinizing games non-stop. A painstaking job. "We've become a modern factory," Campodonico says.
Wyscout's future, like that of globalized soccer, lies to the East.
Across the Alps, Michel Urscheler was one of the first to believe in the tool's potential. "I subscribed early on and, after that, I was the one convincing the clubs they should do the same," he says. "The people in charge would tell me it's expensive. I'd reply that as soon as they started using it, they'd see how much money they were saving."
Wyscout's future, like that of globalized soccer, lies to the East. For two years now, China has developed a passion for soccer and has been investing massively in the sport. The company recently opened an office in Shanghai to teach local clubs about how to improve recruiting. "The huge transfers that made the headlines last year were commanded by emotions, even the clubs now admit it," says Campodonico. "There is no scouting culture in China. As independent consultants we're going to help it develop."
As for the rest, Wyscout continues to develop its services and to sign commercial deals with clubs, federations, and other professional associations. The innovation is establishing itself because the competition is fierce. "Ideally, we'd need to have all existing platforms at our disposal, because each has its advantages and its drawbacks," says agent Bertrand Cauly.
But Campodonico isn't too worried. He's positive that his company is in a strong position and sitting on a treasure. "Big data is a reality that the actors of the soccer world cannot ignore," the Wyscout head explains. "Be careful though: data isn't everything. You need to know how to work with it. But you'd be crazy not to use it."