But then, Covid struck. As governments around the world enforced lockdowns, football scholarship plans suffered. But even when lockdowns started easing and athletes resumed hitting the turf, things couldn’t be back to the way they once were.
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For one, scouts couldn’t undertake rigorous journeys given the health risks. And more importantly, there was a dire lack of discoverability and training opportunities for young, talented footballers.
RFYC had seen the work the company had done with Premier League side Burnley FC and wanted to loop them in to develop a similar tool for Indian scouts and amateur football players. “RFYC put out an advertisement to the players on WhatsApp. To our surprise, 7,000 players downloaded the app within the first couple of months.
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The coaches and scouts were then able to use the data available in our control centre. By the end of the pandemic, they were able to call the selected players to the camp,” said Richard FeltonThomas, director of sports science and CEO, ai.io. If not for the data and feedback provided by ai.io, young footballers in India may have missed out on chances to earn lucrative scholarships.
The numbers speak for themselves. Thanks to the ai.io scouting app, RFYC was able to select 400 players from the 7,000 who signed up. What it also did was shield the teenaged talents from unnecessary pressures and trials, RFYC told ET.
“It now has evolved to become a four-stage process, taking away the high-pressure single trial system which put pressure on the players especially. The scouts attend an induction program each season and are briefed on what to look for in a player while scouting. They have access to all the training sessions and games during this program,” RFYC said.
The objective of ai.io, Felton Thomas said, is not to replace scouts and coaches. Instead, the platform wants to enable locally-connected communities and their leaders to focus on talent by separating wheat from the chaff.
Most footballers, he said, would have simply slipped through the crevices and missed a chance at being spotted since they were simply not registered anywhere with any football club, and therefore, simply went absent from the talent pool.
He gave the example of one such kid who downloaded the app on a phone he shared with others in his family. But with data from his drills — such as running, jumping, shooting and dribbling, and other technical aspects like his height, weight, body mass index, etc — ai.io was able to determine not only his talent but also the right position he should play in. “All this data is scored, ranked and benchmarked against whichever club these players are trying out for.
So, for instance, you’re trying out for Chelsea FC, they will have certain benchmarks they follow and the players can get ranked against those,” FeltonThomas explained. Next up, the data collected is processed through cloud services with the adequate hardware and technology provided by Intel’s processors, which provide the company with the flexibility to scale quickly in large countries such as India.
Apart from helping scouts and coaches identify the right talent, ai.io also helps foundations such as RFYC prepare a long-term plan with the help of data points.
For players who already show signs of better gameplay than others in their age group, the data collected by ai.io can help prepare a benchmark against which others can be judged or trained. “For the players that ultimately become successful or turn professional, we can use the data obtained from them, and with machine learning, we can suggest the coaches and scouts to re-work or re-model certain aspects of their training to produce better results,” he said.
The company is also working to make sure its services are available in multiple local Indian languages. In the third year of its partnership, ai.io’s talent management platform has reaped rich dividends, both for the company as well as RFYC. A total of 27 graduates of the program have signed sign professional contracts with Indian various football clubs.
“In 2023, 12 graduates signed professional contracts with various Indian football clubs, with two of them getting a full scholarship with a university in the US,” RFYC said.