Could High-tech Help Israeli Soccer Catch Up to the Rest of the World?

It’s the richest sport in the country, but Israel has never been a serious contender for the World Cup or the European Championship. Sports tech, which Israeli teams are finally adopting, may give it a proper boost

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Refaella Goichman
Yoav Cohen

In the early 2000s the Oakland Athletics amazed the baseball world by putting up a credible fight against the top-tier New York Yankees, whose salary budget was triple that of the A's. General manager Billy Beane led his team to the playoffs in four consecutive years from 2000 through 2003 by using a database to compose the best team possible, rather than intuition and observation.

“The idea that I [should] trust my eyes more than the stats, I don’t buy that because I’ve seen magicians pull rabbits out of hats and I know that the rabbit’s not in there,” Beane explained.

Beane, who was the team’s general manager from 1998 to 2016, pioneered the data revolution in baseball, the idea that building a team can be done with numbers and statistics that demonstrate certain patterns. If in the past the main statistics in sport were a team’s consecutive wins or number of goals per season, the acceleration of technological development have made data a resource that is both valuable and accessible to all.

Beane’s exceptional story inspired Michael Lewis’s best-selling 2003 book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” which was adapted into the box-office “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.

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More than 15 years later, a number of individuals and organizations are trying to import the idea to Israeli soccer.

Israeli soccer hasn’t been a stunning success. It rarely performs well against European teams or makes it to international tournaments such as the European Football Championship and the World Cup, despite the big money that’s been invested in it compared to other sports.

Data obtained by TheMarker show that in the 2017-18 season the combined revenues of the Israel Premier League teams was just 575 million shekels ($156.5 million). In the second-tier National League, revenue last year was 124 million shekels.

Israel is Startup Nation, but when it comes to sports tech it’s about a decade behind Europe and the United States.

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Lagging behind

“We play soccer that’s far from being sophisticated and data-based,” Ziv Lehavi, the chief analyst and scout of Beitar Jerusalem, told TheMarker. “Every team in the Premier League has one analyst. In Europe, on the other hand, every team has an analysis unit with at least three people, each of whom specializes in a different area. For example, there’s a video analyst and a data analyst. In Israel they combine the scouting department with the analysts.”

Lehavi says Maccabi Haifa is one of the few teams in Israel with specialists. “It’s clear that the world is going in that direction. Everything is data, data, data. In order to be a good analyst, you need a touch of high-tech, a knowledge of economics and how to read data. That’s not a fantasy. The more information you have, and the more you rely on facts instead of gut feelings, the more you improve.”

A tactical camera being used during a Premier League soccer match between Everton and Watford at Goodison Park, Liverpool, Britain , onDecember 10, 2018.
A tactical camera being used during a Premier League soccer match between Everton and Watford at Goodison Park, Liverpool, Britain , onDecember 10, 2018.Credit: LEE SMITH/Reuters

In Britain, all 20 Premier League clubs as well as the teams in the lower leagues have analysts in the back office — Manchester City alone had 11 as early as 2014. They are involved in preparing games and conducting postgame analysis. They help to keep track of prospective team members and to create strategies for developing young players. Using models that help analyze the movements of soccer players, they can keep track of athletes and figure out which of them are most suited to the squad the team wants to build.

The German Football Association sent its team to the World Cup in Russia last summer with technology developed with the German software giant SAP. One was a video cockpit, a content hub that merges copious amounts of the team’s live-play videos with game and training information from a variety of sources. The player dashboard enables coaches and analysts to provide players on the bench with personalized insights on their performance and videos from their mobile devices in real time. The data come from training drills, games and information about the rival team, to identify its weaknesses down to the level of individual players.

“Big data is a big factor in sport, there is unbelievable potential,” declared the German team manager Oliver Bierhoff at a press conference before the World Cup. “The amount and complexity of data that is created by a team during training and matches make it crucial to use tools like the video cockpit and player dashboard to better identify patterns and detect game-changing opportunities for our team,” says Bierhoff of the innovations.

The reason soccer has gone the high-tech route is because it’s a big business. FIFA, the international soccer governing body, boasts that about 3.2 billion people watched the last World Cup. According to Forbes Magazine, three of the 10 most valuable sports clubs are the Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona soccer teams, worth a combined $4.1 billion. Only the Dallas Cowboys football team beats them, with an estimated worth of $4.8 billion.

Israeli sports executives admit that technology alone isn’t going to turn Israel into a soccer powerhouse, but it’s going to make the best of local brainpower.

The tech edge

“We understand that the league here can’t become the best team in Europe in the foreseeable future,” explains Nicolas Lev, CEO of the Israeli Professional Football Leagues. “There are disparities in the professional level compared to the British, Spanish, Italian and German leagues, and it’s hard to catch up. But Israel is a technology powerhouse, and we are trying to be the leaders in that sense. Professionally and financially it should contribute to the success of the league.”

“Here the analysts are part of the staff,” says Shai Barda, assistant coach of Maccabi Netanya team, which employs three analysts. “They help us to find players, do a statistical analysis of the team’s achievements and analyze the rival team. I don’t understand how we managed without it. It helps me to be a better coach, improves my professionalism and contributes to the team. If, for example, I want to sit down with a player and explain things to him, I ask the analyst to download data about him and show him the statistics of his performance in the game.”

A camera assisting the referee on the side of a football pitch
A camera assisting the referee on the side of a football pitchCredit: Reuters

The team uses InStat, software that collects data on players from all over the world. Analysts film games with a tactical camera that provides a picture of the entire field, in contrast to television cameras that ordinarily focus on the location of the ball. “For us as coaches it’s important to see the other performances that the TV cameras don’t show,” says Barda.

Do you believe the use of data will grow?

“In another three years there won’t be a single team in Israel without two or three analysts. It’s a must. Once they used to relate to video differently, and now coaches can’t manage without it. Once InStat was used by only three or four teams, and now it’s used by all the Premier League teams. Technology is developing and soccer has to develop with it and to integrate it,” says Barda.

But Lev warns: “You have to remember that we’re not a wealthy league. The wealthy leagues have unlimited budgets. Our technology advantage has to be translated to the playing field by means of collaborations with technology firms and other factors in the soccer industry. Some of the money we distribute to the teams must be devoted to updating their website and their Facebook page. Technology can also increase revenues via advertising..”

Never touched a ball

The final piece of the puzzle is the people who will receive and use the data. The need to hire analysts who specialize in sports was identified by Raphael Kabessa, formerly a sportscaster on Channel 1, and Nir Zuckerman, the directors of the Sport Panel College. Billing itself as the leading school for training sports professionals, the students are future sportscasters, team spokesmen and digital manager. A year ago it began offering a course for analysts and scouts.

“Our goal is for analysts in Israel and abroad to be able to speak the same language. One of the lecturers in the course was an analyst for Hapoel Raanana, and now he works for the English team Crystal Palace,” says Kabessa. “We have to make soccer realize the need. That’s why we work with the teams to establish internships. The students come to the team after preparing and demonstrate that there’s a need for the position. The generation we are creating is based on people in their 30s — programmers, high-tech workers who can provide data quickly. The goal isn’t to replace the coach, but to create something extra that will be part of the club’s long-term strategy.”

Elisha Levy, former coach of the Israel national team, explains: “We’re living in an era where the coach is a manager and he has a staff working under him. In the past they would take a CD with game videos, analyze them and get the results only 72 hours later. Now almost all the information arrives online. You need a professional who knows how to work with this information. Data complement what the eye sees.”

A GoalControl watch reads "goal" as a football rolls fully behind the goal line during a demonstration in the western German city of Aachen May 28, 2014.
A GoalControl watch reads "goal" as a football rolls fully behind the goal line during a demonstration in the western German city of Aachen May 28, 2014.Credit: REUTERS

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Elyaniv Barda, a former player for Hapoel Be’er Sheva, counters that data can’t provide all the insights. “There are also drawbacks, because soccer isn’t an exact science. There are statistics that aren’t part of the information the coach receives, behavior that only the human eye can see. For example, leadership in the field, work with other players, pressure on the referees, cooperation in defense and the ability to work under pressure.”

Local soccer, explains Kabessa, is based on contacts with players’ agents who will do anything possible to promote their clients. Numbers and data can make the decision as to whether to sign up a player more rational.

“Now you can find data about every soccer player in the world,” he says. “You can ask to check how many double passes he made on the left wing with the forward, and then you see if he suits your needs. You see analysts who have never touched a ball but understand on the highest level how to help the team. They used to say that soccer is a game of 22 idiots running after a ball. Today people understand that soccer is chess. In basketball it was always like that, every quarter they get statistics. Soccer is no longer an inexact science.”

Another problem that Lehavi notes as an obstacle to the teams’ success is team owners. “There are team owners who have been in the club for many years, and they won’t make any big changes unless a professional manager, not a coach, comes and says a change is needed. The owners are simply unfamiliar with this method.”

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