“There they are!” exclaimed Fadi Naoum, pointing excitedly at a laptop as Germany’s World Cup winning soccer team appeared on the screen.
The Beirut-born vice president for sports and entertainment at SAP was presenting its new soccer program, Match Insights.
The software collects everything about the players: The precision of passes, the time between receiving and passing the ball, as well as pedantic details about running and acceleration. This data is then crunched in a massive computing center.
Soccer, or football, will never be the same again.
The software company has been developing their program for the past two years with the German Football Association (DFB) and the Bundesliga soccer club TSG 1899 Hoffenheim with the aim of taking the sport, known as the beautiful game, to the next level.
Using both normal and 3-D images, Match Insights showed how German midfielder Toni Kroos took a corner kick exactly how German national team coach Joachim Löw had made him do repeatedly in training.
As players become transparent collections of data, it’s likely that those moments of chance that can so frequently decide a soccer match might soon be banished forever. But is this a good thing?
Certainly the days when a coach would use a fat marker pen to draw plays on flip chart are over. As are scenes like when German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann had a crib sheet with notes in pencil about the penalty shooting habits of the Argentine squad during the 2006 World Cup.
Match Insights digs much deeper. Half a dozen high-resolution cameras now record every aspect of a German national team match. How did the Germans play? How did their opponents do? How does Argentina’s Lionel Messi respond to being outnumbered? What does Neymar do when Brazil is behind?
When SAP’s software engineers and programmers first approached the DFB, the overriding question was: How can we help?
New ideas are incorporated into the program during regular workshops. Mr. Naoum said in the months prior to the 2014 World Cup, the DFP wanted to increase communication within the German national team by developing an iPad app, so players at clubs in Germany, Spain, Italy and England had greater contact with the training staff.
He is now developing a secure system that can be used to exchange videos and discuss plays.
After being wounded by machine-gun fire in the Lebanese civil war in 1978, the then 17-year-old Mr. Naoum came to Germany for medical care. An old professor from the Second World War, familiar with serious war injuries, managed to save his right leg from amputation, Mr. Naoum said.
Afterwards he stayed in Germany and studied computer science before getting jobs at Lufthansa and eventually SAP. Two years ago, he received the assignment to revolutionize soccer. Since then, he’s worked with Oliver Bierhoff, manager of the German national soccer team, to drive the ambitious project.
Some claim the SAP software played a big part in Germany winning the World Cup.
With one click of his mouse, Mr. Naoum brought Germany’s trouncing of World Cup hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte on July 8, 2014 to the screen. Using both normal and 3-D images, Match Insights showed how German midfielder Toni Kroos made a corner kick, exactly how German national team coach Joachim Löw had made him do repeatedly in training. The resulting goal would begin an unprecedented 7-1 humiliation of the Brazilians.
Some computer nerds claim that the SAP software played a big part in Germany winning the World Cup – perhaps even up to a 30 percent share. Mr. Naoum said he considered that “nonsense. Software doesn’t shoot goals.” But in order to lay the groundwork for the footballing brilliance seen in Belo Horizonte that night, you have to know how your opponents will move. The computer can help create that advantage for players.
After winning the World Cup, the German players were asked on camera by a SAP employee for their take on the new digital aid. Midfielder Christoph Kramer said Match Insights was probably just the beginning: “A lot of data will come that I’ve never heard of and I can’t even imagine right now.”
Mr. Naoum is already working on expanding the program to include the monitoring of talented players starting in childhood. It should be able to track the optimal amount of training, for example, or the speed of atheltic improvement. It could also tell coaches when to hold back, for fear of pushing the talent too far.
“Our vision is that our software could also be used preventatively,” he said.
Video: Match Insights demo.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit newspaper. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org