When Yaya Touré first moved to Europe in 2001, it was only possible because of the personal connection between his youth team ASEC Mimosas and Belgian club Beveren.
He was one of several players to move from the Côte d’Ivoire club to Beveren. The cost involved in scouting youth players properly meant that unless players were picked up by the very top clubs, such as Arsenal, who signed Yaya’s brother Kolo Touré directly from Mimosas, there were few other routes to Europe for the top young Ivorian players.
Fast-forward 22 years, and any club in Europe can do their due diligence on any player in the ASEC Mimosas youth team for less than the cost of a return plane ticket to Abidjan.
Rather than flying over several times to watch countless youth games among the best Côte d’Ivoire clubs, scouts are able to watch every single player in detail on their laptop.
The system which enables this is called Eyeball. It had already been used by the likes of AC Milan, Lille and Benfica to recruit more than 150 youth players. Director of Eyeball, David Hicks, says that ASEC Mimosas used to get one visit a month, but due to this system, they now get 30 to 40 phone calls a month about players. Instead of traveling, people are calling and saying, “we have been watching this player for several months,” “we like the look of him,” or “can you tell us more,” before deciding whether to visit Mimosas in person or invite the player to Europe for a trial.
Eyeball works by providing a high-resolution camera raised high enough above the pitch to provide 180 degree views and create an angle for artificial intelligence software to work. This software tracks each player and creates individual clips of all the actions they are involved in as well as statistics similar to those used by OPTA.
Scouts can then use the system to search for key attributes they are interested in, such as age, height or speed, and watch that player’s recent games. They can also find out who is actually responsible for the player so they know who to speak to about them. Twenty-five of the leading academies in West Africa are among the clubs on the system, meaning their matches this weekend, complete with full data, can be watched by scouts from Liverpool or Manchester by Tuesday.
Scouts can then watch all of these games before making a decision on a player, so if the player isn’t what they are looking for, they haven’t wasted several scouting trips to find that out.
This also means that signing players from such clubs no longer requires a personal connection, like in the case of Beveren, or a huge scouting budget of a top Premier League club. Hicks calls this “revolutionary.”
Eyeball’s system is in place across several other countries including France, where it records all the youth clubs in the top regional and national leagues, allowing other teams to search for the best youth players that were not picked up by the academy system. As it is targeted at professional clubs, Eyeball only focuses on the top youth leagues in the countries it has expanded to.
One of those countries is Iceland, where a Champions League club in mainland Europe used Eyeball to scout a top youth player, branching out from their usual scouting grounds.
In the UK, Brexit has meant clubs can’t easily sign youth players from a lot of the countries mentioned.
Within England, Hicks says professional clubs are rather secretive about their youth players and unwilling to use the system, which he says could help youth players who get released find a new club. At present, after the heartbreak of being let go, players often only have a short time at trial matches to impress other clubs, but Hicks says having all that player’s youth matches on an easily searchable database could help clubs decide whether to sign players who have been released from their rivals.
The Eyeball system is present, however, in Northern Ireland, and will soon go online in Scotland, two areas where English clubs are more interested in scouting in following Brexit.
As well as improving scouting, this type of technology is also helping youth clubs improve their own standards. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, it can be used to help improve training and coaching sessions and get players used to the sort of data analysis of their game that is commonplace at top tier clubs in Europe.
In the future, Hicks says, comparing players across leagues will be even easier, so clubs in one country can see which specific areas where they need to improve to match the youth players on the other side of the world.