Hidden Figures - Indian Football Gets Savvy With Data & Technology

Mumbai City FC’s (MCFC) Achille Emana receives the ball at the top of the center circle. His team fighting hard against reigning Indian Super League (ISL) finalists, Kerala Blasters FC (KBFC).

He runs into the space ahead of him, his run turning into a gallop as his chiseled body cuts through the dense humid Mumbai air. Teammate Balwant Singh has started a run towards goal. Emana sees Singh; but waits a moment to check his options before he pushes the ball ahead.

Too late.

Kerala Blasters FC’s steadfast Sandesh Jhingan anticipates the pass and intercepts it.

As the botched play unfolds, the GPS device Emana is wearing under his jersey sends a ton of data into the stands.

Nestled amongst a bunch of spectators and right in line with the action, Mumbai City’s two analysts - Raunaq Salat and Abhijit Bharali, armed with a GPS receiver and a tablet, have lined a tripod placed in line with the halfline. Two cameras, arranged in neat angles, affixed to this stand, cover both halves of the pitch in frame and capture every little movement on the field.

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Mumbai’s analysts record and mark the events - the first touch [receiving the ball], the run, the distance covered, the failed pass. Seated adjacent to them, Kerala's own analyst duo will record how their defensive line was broken by Emana’s run, how Balwant managed to get free, which spaces the defenders covered and missed, and how, despite the defensive breakdown, Jhingan got his interception.

Five thousand kilometers away, nestled in the cities of Cheboksary in Russia and Chisinau in Moldova, InStat - a sports data & analysis solutions provider - receives the full match video, recorded with the help of onground partners, and begins breaking down every second. They filter the match through a mammoth 365 data parameters. They will note the missed pass and the interception, taking into account other factors - such as teammate movement - that led to the situation. The resulting data and analysis will both be compiled in a report for the respective teams, and be added to the respective player profiles in their database.

Closer to home, a small group of 20-somethings are just as keenly watching the game.

“Interception, Jhingan,” an executive screams.

“Pass Emana, right?” says another.

“Yes, missed pass Emana,” clarifies the first guy.

They have perched themselves in front of the ideal setup for a sports fan: computer and mobile screens riddled with numbers while multiple television sets run multiple games at the same time. The Sportz Interactive office in Mumbai seems to have been decorated by a sports fanatic for sports fanatics. A den of those who live and breathe sport, each scoring room is dedicated to a sporting legend or a legendary rivalry in sport. I am sitting in one dedicated to Maradona. The 16-year old company has been commissioned by the Indian Super League to keep track of, and tally everything that happens on field during an ISL game; their data available to teams (and fans) that wish to access it.

Like Emana’s pass or Jhingan’s interception, every move in Indian football now triggers an avalanche of numbers and data; every move is a nudge to a stack of dominoes which fall over each other in symmetry.

That the simple act of making a pass in football could contain so much detail, and more importantly, involve so many people, eventually resulting in a decision that impacts the fortunes of a team, is quite remarkable. And while Indian football has some way to go before we have our own Pep Guardiola and his team of 12 analysts churning out the details that make his team so incredible to watch, it is heartening to see how far Indian football has come in terms of adopting technology, analysis and statistics as it finally enters an era of emergence.

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