In the Nellogi household in Hyderabad, the sound of a football being kicked around is a constant companion. Even through the lockdown, at every opportunity once his online schooling for the day was completed, 12-year-old Ayush would rush to the terrace to kick a ball around. His father was an encouraging presence, supportive of his son’s dedication towards “improving and perfecting” his skills.
Ayush, like thousands of kids his age around the country, has dreams of forging a career in the game. Like his favourite player Harry Kane, he has aspirations of becoming a lethal striker. What began as a hobby three years ago has turned into an obsessive pursuit.
For the last couple of years, Ayush has been focusing on one goal: being selected to train at the Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC) Academy in Navi Mumbai, for a fully paid five-year residential programme. For aspiring footballers like Ayush, the academy, with its focus on sports training, academics and holistic development of players in equal measure, is among the most sought-after institutions in the country.
Over the last couple of years, RFYC has been conferred Two-Star Academy status by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), one of only two residential academies in India alongside Bengaluru FC to be granted this status. It was also bestowed a 5-star rating by the AIFF Academy Accreditation process in 2019, the first youth academy in India to earn that distinction.
Representative Image (Source: Reliance Foundation Youth Sports)
The way it was
In the past, for aspirants such as Ayush, the pathway to put their hand up for a spot was fairly straightforward. Scouts from RFYC would travel across the country, holding sessions where emerging footballers from the region would converge.
The process was exhaustive, starting with scouts selecting players from local regions, followed by coaches from the academy personally monitoring them during training and play.
Once the best players from around the country were identified, they would be invited to Mumbai for a seven-day camp for in-depth evaluations, leading to the final list of players being accepted to the academy.
A tech solution: virtual trials
However, the COVID-19 pandemic upended that process entirely. Football activities, like much else, came to standstill in the country. From a scouting perspective, the coaching staff at RFYC were confronted with a unique challenge: How could they identify talented players without physically watching them in action? After much deliberation, a solution was found and the academy aligned with AiSCOUT, a UK-based company that has pioneered a technology solution that uses video-based artificial intelligence (AI) to gauge a player’s technique, skill, stamina and overall footballing ability.
The beauty of the process lies in its simplicity. Using the National Rating Score (NRS) to quantify a player’s physical performance, AiSCOUT can measure and benchmark performances across various age groups. Once the application is downloaded onto a phone, the players enter their profile details before entering the NRS trials. The trials are designed to assess core physical competencies, measuring attributes such as the speed, power, strength, muscular endurance and coordination of the aspirant.
Once this is complete, the virtual trials “unlock”, allowing them to choose the RFYC trials. These can include aspects such as passing, dribbling and shooting. The NRS, coupled with organisation-specific drills and exercises, helps scouts score and rate players. All this is done remotely, overcoming the hurdles created by the pandemic.
Easy to use
Ayush, getting increasingly concerned about missing the bus altogether as the lockdown continued, learnt about the process while scrolling through his Instagram feed. Enthused, he went to work immediately, downloading the application, completing the trials and uploading a video of himself.
“He found it very easy to use and understand,” says his father Praveen Nellogi. “Of course, kids these days are very well-versed with technology. He faced no issue in registering on and navigating through the application. The trials themselves were intense, but he had a fun time doing them. The in-built tutorial helps to visualise each exercise before doing it.”
“We are very happy that he has got the chance to be seen by the scouts and coaches at RFYC,” he added. “This platform has given him the chance to be noticed by some professional scouts and realise his dream.”
“The AiSCOUT platform has been a big help in this difficult year,” says Steve Charles, Head of Scouting at RFYC. “When everything was shut down and our usual player-discovery methods were affected, we had to find a workaround. In that sense, this tool has been a great asset for us. Not only has it allowed us to conduct scouting remotely, it has also given us access to regions we were previously unable to reach.”
“We’ve honestly been completely blown away by the enthusiasm the players have shown so far and the quality on display,” he added. “With thousands of players and potential Young Champs signing up for the trials, our coaches have their work cut out! The addition of the tool has brought in a scientific element to our traditional scouting processes. The NRS and RFYC trials allow us to remotely evaluate thousands of entrants and invite the best of the best for our regional and final scouting camp.”
Representative Image (Source: Reliance Foundation Youth Sports)
In the United Kingdom, where the platform was used initially, early indicators point to the success of the model. More than 18,000 users aged 8-23 participated and have received analysis and feedback this year. Several Premier League as well as Championship (First Division) clubs have taken to the platform and players are already starting to earn selection on the basis of the scouting method. The Football Associations of Australia and Sweden have reviewed players and the Sri Lankan national squad has called up players on the basis of the AiSCOUT trials. The alliance with India’s leading football academy allows the platform to test its viability in a new territory.
A pathway to professional success
“For us, the opportunity to work with the RFYC Academy is incredible,” says Richard Felton Thomas, COO at AiSCOUT. “As an organisation, they have a fantastic track record at developing talented players and securing pathways into professional football. Our role is to help them reach and analyse more players than they have ever been able to before. We both hope and expect to find some exceptionally gifted young individuals who are just waiting to be seen.”
“The whole purpose behind the concept is to level the playing field for the recruitment of academy-level players, engage, progress and monitor players who do not make the academy process, and assist players who just want to get better at football,” Thomas adds. “By automating the recruitment process and increasing the number of players available to clubs and clubs available to players, it provides an equal opportunity for all young people to be trialled for professional football clubs, FAs, federations and universities.”
“For clubs, it lowers recruitment costs while expanding reach and generating complete, data-driven profiles of prospective players,” he explains. “The tool does not seek to replace football recruitment professionals. It seeks to leverage their capability and make them more effective. Under the AiSCOUT paradigm, a club’s football professionals and talent identification capabilities will be more valuable and more important than ever.”
At RFYC, nine of whose graduates from the first batch of 10 students last year earned professional contracts with Indian Super League clubs, excellence has been the buzzword since operations began in 2015. The unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic demanded a nimble response, while adhering to strict guidelines to ensure the safety of its staff and players scholars.
Fortunately, a solution has been found to ensure scouting across the country continues, so that the aspirations of determined kids such as Ayush Nellogi, who dreams of one day wearing the national jersey and playing in the English Premiership, aren’t crushed in the wake of this unprecedented crisis.Disclaimer: MoneyControl is a part of the Network18 group. Network18 is controlled by Independent Media Trust, of which Reliance Industries is the sole beneficiary.