The Scouting Revolution
When I’m up in the big football field in the sky, I just want people to remember, I told you so.
Johnny Warren, soccer legend
A crimson sky with touches of blue and green haze hung in the distance as the sunset slowly descended over the chilly Icelandic capital. It was a light show unlike anything seen outside this northernmost capital of the world. The lights swished and swirled with uniform motion as though choreographed to perfection. They changed intensity with a touch of softness reminiscent of a throwaway silk blanket. Although it was a typically cold day in Reykjavík and heading into the fearless winter season, the light show provided a sense of warmth and security. Was it a trick to make you think that winter in Iceland wasn’t as bad as people thought?
Robby Denehy watched the sunset through his taxi window. He loved the fierce beauty of the country. He was visiting the city of Reykjavík for the launch of a revolutionary football scouting technology that would change world football talent identification forever. He was eagerly awaiting this seminar with a flurry of other football technical experts from around the world. He was on his way to the Icelandair Reykjavík Hotel Natura, where enthusiastic patrons from all over the globe would be staying.
He was travelling by taxi from Keflavík International Airport to Reykjavík. The unattractive barren landscape alongside the road was unassuming and synonymous with this drive. The arctic chill met with every breath that he exhaled from his mouth. It was like opening the freezer, and a blast of cold air penetrated your face each time without forgiveness. However, he didn’t have the option to close the door and be done with it.
As the taxi reached the outskirts of Reykjavík, he noticed something unusual that prompted his interest. He asked the taxi driver to slow down to get a better view of it.
“Stop here, please!”
It was a well-developed football training facility, with multiple playing fields and a large building for indoor playing. An extensive pipe network emanating from underground stood out like an industrial statue. He had read about the expansive natural underground steam system that powered the Icelandic energy grid. He opened his window and heard an unusual buzzing sound above.
I am too far from the airport for planes to be flying around, he thought.
He looked into the sky. To his puzzlement, there was a large drone flying above the playing field. It manoeuvred its way into the middle of the pitch and then remained stationary, undisturbed by the Icelandic gusts of wind.
What on earth is going on here? he thought.
Below the drone, two people in beanies and heavily padded black jackets stood next to an on-field control hub. One person was controlling the drone with a joystick, and the other was monitoring it from a computer. To his curiosity, this was all going on while a group of at least twenty players participated in a high-tempo match on a restricted-size playing field. It was a well-structured football trial. He looked closer and noticed all the players wearing a fitted armband on their right shoulders.
He quickly opened the taxi door, wanting to get a closer look. “I’m going to step outside for a few minutes,” he said to the driver while pointing towards the playing field.
He walked briskly, firmly clutching his jacket. Not far in front of him, flickering red, yellow, and green lights were pulsating from the drone. Simultaneously, green lights intermittingly pulsated on the players’ armbands at high speeds. It resembled a light circus, and the night had transformed into a high-tech visual display. Red, green, blue, and white, flicker, flicker, flicker; it was unbelievable. He felt hypnotised but was still able to control his senses.
The well-lit playing field had modern light towers and high fencing surrounding it. As he approached the fence perimeter, one of the technicians manoeuvred the drone towards him. He waved his hands in the air to get his attention and then dropped them, realising it was pointless.
The drone was getting louder, and the purring sound had changed into a high-pitched electric screech. It was changing direction and moving towards him, slowly at first as it swung around. He started to sense this wasn’t going to be a friendly encounter and began to feel concerned. He instinctively put his right arm over his eyes to protect himself from the glaring lights of the drone.
He stood motionless as the drone’s powerful lights securely focused on his face, forcing him to duck his head to avoid the intense glare. As the drone manoeuvred away from him and paled insignificance, it released a burst of smelly white smoke. It had the stench of mustard and dirty, rotten apples that were close to fermentation. The drone was designed to protect itself if someone wanted to tamper with it. It didn’t affect his eyes or skin, but he had to cover his mouth with his jacket. Robby resembled a bandit on the run. He placed his hands over his ears to relieve the excruciating sound that was still coming from the drone.
Had he stumbled onto something he wasn’t supposed to? The piercing sound and bright lights were all too much for him as he turned around and walked briskly towards the taxi waiting fifty metres away. Huffing and puffing, he took deep breaths as he finally made it to the vehicle. He looked up to be greeted by a tall man standing next to the passenger door. He had a grey beard and was wearing a black beanie like the technicians controlling the drone.
“Can I ask what you are doing here?” he asked in a strange English accent.
“I’m sorry to cause any problems, but I wanted to see the drone. I’m a football scout here for the conference, and I was curious.”
“OK. I’m sorry to startle you, sir, but this is a closed session, and visitors are not allowed without permission.”
“Yeah, no worries.” Robby was unnerved by the experience.
“There have been people spying on our new technology, so we get nervous when someone pulls up in a car and walks towards the football field.”
“I understand. Sorry again.”
“I need to check your identity papers. Do you have a passport?”
“Are you the police? Why do you need to see my passport?”
“I am not the police, sir. We are security guards for this facility.” He directly looked at Robby with piercing eyes. “I can call the police, if you prefer, for further questioning, or you can provide me with your passport, and I can let you on your way.”
He was unsure what to do next. He didn’t want to end up in a police station the day before the conference.
“Fine. It’s in my document wallet . . . one moment.” He fidgeted, searching his pockets until he finally found the wallet. “Here you are . . . my passport.”
The security guard flashed his torchlight on the document and then suspiciously looked at him several times. “I think we are going to be OK this time, Mr Denehy.’ He handed the passport back to him. “Enjoy your stay in Iceland.” He placed his hand on his shoulder. “By the way, I don’t want this to happen again. I hope you understand.”
“I get it, don’t worry. I think I will be on my way now.”
The security guard nodded and turned away into the night.
It was getting late, and the taxi driver also was keen to move on. Robby’s curiosity had gotten the best of him but for the right reasons. He was a well-credentialed football talent scout, and what he had witnessed had stirred his senses. He had never seen anything like it before. Something was going on in this small country that might explain its rapid rise in world football rankings. He wanted to know more, but it would have to wait until the next day.
By the time he made it to his hotel room, he was done. He had been awake for twenty-five hours, and he barely noticed the tasteful nautical-chic décor. He wanted two things: a beer and to lie down on something that didn’t move or squash his six-foot frame.
He pulled a beer from the fridge and stared out the window at Mount Esja in the distance. A mouthful convinced him that he needed to move to Iceland. He read the label: “Viking. Something boutique and local.” It tasted like the gods had dropped it off on their way to Valhalla. It was different than the beers back home. Not so processed, with a pure and refreshing taste.
He relaxed his slender frame by sprawling over the neo-modern couch, his long, skinny legs stretched out and his feet resting on the retro stool. He was in his comfort zone. The blue jacket with the Australian football logo was zipped up to his neck. He was a branded man and loved his sports gear. With his arms folded across his chest, he considered what the next day would bring. It had been a long trip from his Australian homeland on the other side of the world. He was a tired man that needed a solid rest.
He placed his mobile phone on the side table, and new message prompts greeted him. He finally had gotten reception, and all his communications from the past twenty-four hours were coming in at once. He scrolled through the first five messages and then gave up. There were contracts for agents to sign and requests to scout players. He was already two weeks behind in his work, and it was overwhelming. All he wanted was a good night’s sleep for now. The messages could wait.
As the sun descended into the horizon, the crimson sky gave way to the power of the night. With his eyes half-open, the Viking beer started to take effect as he dozed off in the comfort of his Nordic-style couch.
The next day, breakfast was being served in the main dining room, and it was overflowing with patrons from around the world. The hotel was abuzz and struggling to keep up with the demands of its guests. Some were becoming agitated and restless, for it was taking a while for their food to arrive. Robby had an easy-going nature that was typical of his Australian upbringing, and it did not bother him. He managed to find an empty seat in an awkward spot near the back of the dining room. Because it was adjacent to the noisy kitchen, nobody wanted it.
He looked scruffy: hair uncombed, unshaven, with his clothes showing creases all over. He wore the same branded jacket, which looked like it had been tossed around on the floor and stomped on several times. As he sipped on his lukewarm skinny latte, he noticed a familiar face not far from his table. He looked again to make sure and squinted his bright-blue eyes several times. It was Liam McHenry from the Scottish Football Federation. Their friendship went back a long way, and they first had met twenty years ago when they had played football together in the Scottish Premier League. They both had become football scouts and established experts in their field. The last time they had met was two years ago during a training conference in Switzerland.
They caught each other’s eye, and with a cheeky smile, he waved to his old friend.
“Hi, Liam. Why don’t you come and sit here?” he shouted across the room.
Liam waved his hands in acknowledgment and made his way towards him. He ducked around the tables and chairs of the overcrowded room and eventually took a seat. They firmly shook hands and greeted each other with enthusiasm, patting each other on the back.
Liam was a towering man at 1.9 metres tall, and it had served him well as a centre forward during his prime as a professional football player. He had scored many goals for his club due to his height and ability to leap above defenders with regularity. It had made him a menace to opposing teams.
He was the leading goal scorer in his first season with twenty-five goals, followed by a spectacular second season with twenty-eight goals. Liam was a freak centre forward, a player that only popped up once every decade. He had had the world in the palm of his hands and continuously received offers from big clubs around Europe. However, his career had ended prematurely due to a crunching tackle that broke his leg in two places. As so happens with many talented footballers, this lofty, blond-haired Scotsman who was the darling of many supporters had his career ended on short notice. A career destroyed in one moment by an opposing player executing a deliberate tackle intended to inflict pain and suffering.
“How are you, my good old Australian mate? It’s been a long time.” He patted Robby on the back again. “I never expected to see you here.”
“It’s great to see you again . . . and you have gone places since we last met.” Robby could not curtail his excitement. “I heard about your promotion. Congratulations!”
“It’s a big job, mate. My family complains I am never home.” Liam adjusted his seat, facing away from the kitchen, and placed his hands on the table. “I’m looking forward to going home after this conference and on an overdue vacation.”
“I understand entirely and look at me—I’m from the arse end of the world. I guess you’re here to see the player identification system like everyone else?”
“Oh, yes. I’m excited about what I have read so far.” Liam paused. “I managed to get trial data from my contacts, and it looks encouraging. But I am interested in your thoughts.” He folded his arms.
“Iceland is a small country with a population of just over 350,000, and their achievements have been phenomenal.” Robby took a deep breath and then sipped on his coffee. “How else could you explain their consistent ranking in the top ten nations in the world? They have a long list of players applying their trade in the top tiers of European competition.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more, my good friend. There have been some good results from the trial data.” He was definitely in the know. “They already have identified two local Icelandic players of exceptional talent that have apprenticeships in the English Premier League, and there is more in the pipeline in their local competition.”
“I also have seen the data, and I must admit, it’s impressive.” Robby was expecting big things from this revolution in talent identification. “We could be on a hell of a ride if what I think is possible.”
“How did you get the data, mate?” Liam was curious.
“You know me. I wasn’t going to travel this far without some evidence, so I was provided with a confidential snapshot by the conference organiser.”
Liam smiled. “If anyone could get that information, it would be you!”
“I had to sign a confidentiality agreement. So, if I tell you anything, I must kill you!”
“Ha, ha. I don’t want you to kill me, so no need to tell me anything.”
“I must confess, though. I witnessed something coming from the airport. It was extraordinary,” Robby said.
He had Liam’s full attention, as he liked getting the inside scoop. “What is it, mate? I can see that curiosity in your eyes, so tell me.”
Robby leaned forwards and lowered his tone to almost a whisper. “I was on my way to the hotel from the airport and passing by a football training facility visible from the main road.”
“Tell me, what did you see?”
“You’re going to think I’m nuts, but I stumbled onto a drone flying above the football pitch while players were performing an intense training session.”
“What?” Liam’s eyebrows stretched upwards.
“Yeah, two guys were controlling the whole thing below and monitoring its performance from a computer hub.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“I don’t think I was meant to be there and was asked to leave by a security guy.”
“Geez, that’s an experience!” Liam wanted to know more.
“I have never seen anything like it before . . . the technology, I mean,” Robby said.
“I know curiosity always got the best of you.”
“Something is going on in Iceland with their system of football development.” Robby waited to get his breath back. “I can assure you it’s unlike anything I have experienced before.”
“That’s a big call from you.”
“I’m hoping the conference today may shed some light on it. But in the meantime, how about you and I keep this story to ourselves?”
Liam smiled with a two-finger salute. “You can trust me. Scout’s honour.”
The conference was about to start in twenty minutes. The foyer of the hotel was abuzz with patrons eagerly waiting for the presentation by Gunnar Grimsson. He was a world expert in sports engineering and had developed a reputation for innovative and progressive thinking in player talent identification. He was attached to the Icelandic Football Federation as an individual consultant on player development, and his record for identifying great athletes was remarkable.
“The conference organiser is calling everyone in from the foyer,” Robby said. “We better start making our way.”
They followed the line of people leaving the dining area to the foyer outside the main entrance. Before entering the auditorium, three tall security guards in black uniforms and military-style caps stood at both doors checking passes before letting anyone in. It was unusual to have a security presence at these forums, and usually, people were free to move around. These guys were serious; they were thorough as they checked bags for cameras and recording devices.
Robby waited his turn, only to realise that the security guard in front of him was the same person that had confronted him at the football field yesterday.
That looks like him, he thought.
As Robby cleared security, they both looked at each other with a half-smile. They did not want to make it obvious they had had a previous encounter.
Robby took his seat near the large windows facing the bay. It was a great view of Reykjavík Harbour, and he immersed himself in the picturesque setting. The sun’s rays spectacularly filtered through the auditorium’s tall windows, creating a sense of warmth and anticipation. It was nature’s way of putting on a show, a prelude to a special event.
As the patrons took their seats, the organiser called for their attention. A welcoming message scrolled across the main screen at the front of the auditorium in Icelandic: Velkomin to Island— “Welcome to Iceland.”
“Ladies and gentlemen of the football fraternity, I welcome you all to this special event in Reykjavík. In Iceland, you are all considered part of our football family, and I welcome you with open arms. It’s the first time the Icelandic Football Federation has sponsored such an event in our country, and your presence today has been enthusiastic. It’s a full house!
“Gunnar Grimsson, the inventor of our virtual talent identification technology, will present a remarkable achievement in football talent identification. Known as PVI—Player Virtual Identification—this system has been operational in Iceland for two years and has produced remarkable results. Without further ado, I present to you Gunnar Grimsson.”
All the patrons stood up enthusiastically with a round of applause, smiling as Gunnar made his way to the podium. He was a monster of a man, standing nearly two meters tall, lean and lanky.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the football fraternity, I welcome you all to Iceland, and as you can see, it’s not an inhospitable place, as some people would like you to believe,” Gunnar said. “The sun is shining, and there is not a cloud in sight. But let me warn you, it won’t last very long. Wait until this afternoon when the clouds roll in.”
The audience chuckled. Gunnar was known to have a charismatic personality.
“Let me challenge you all today as football experts with experience in identifying talent. How many of you can honestly say that the talent you have identified in the past has been the best and the only football players available for you to consider? What I mean is, how often has potential talent gone unidentified? It’s a question I want you to think about in the context of the PVI system. I also know it’s a question that haunts a number of you in your profession.”
Gunnar paused and sipped on a glass of water as he waited for the patrons to think about his questions.
“To identify talented players, many things must happen all at once, and it’s like all the planets aligning at the same time. You must be at the right place at the right time when the player is outperforming right in front of you. But what if that player wasn’t there because their parents were too busy and could not take them to the match? What if the player cannot afford to play in competitions were scouts regularly attend? What if that player is from a remote area, and the family does not have the resources to showcase their talent? What if that player is participating in another football code and has technical skills beyond your belief transferable to our sport? What if that player wasn’t feeling well and didn’t perform well on that day? More importantly, what if the parents cannot afford the hefty fees to play football? Let’s be frank about this: some clubs see junior development as a cash cow and rely on it to finance their clubs.
“So, you can see we operate in an imperfect system of probability and chance. Sometimes we get it right and find talent; however, most of the time, there is a plethora of talented players you miss. I call this the lost opportunity for talent identification.”
Gunnar paused and reached for a black metal case the size of a shoebox. He swiped a security card the size of a Mastercard to unlock the case. The audience waited in anticipation.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have in front of me a smart armband that is the most integral part of the PVI system. It’s made of flexible and shatterproof material supported by one of the smallest microprocessors available on the market. The player wears the device as a smart armband throughout the match. The player data—algorithms—is transmitted to our drone for collation and then analysed. It has no adverse effects on the health of the player, and, as you can see, it’s the size of a small watch.”
The image of the smart armband projected onto the big screen in three-dimensional imagery. Gunnar demonstrated the armband by clipping it to his right arm. It attached firmly and locked onto his arm without any issues.
“See how easy that was to attach to my arm? If you look on the screen, I will demonstrate the signal strength of the device to transmit data.”
I can’t believe this is happening before me, Robby thought.
As Gunnar shuffled around, making a variety of hand and foot movements to simulate a football player, the data started scrolling on the screen. It was capturing all the relevant player movements. Samples of data regarding agility, strength, prowess, decision-making, creativity, and acceleration filtered across the big screen. Red, green, and blue bar graphs appeared. Every time he moved a part of his body, the armband captured the data.
What does all this data mean, and how is it analysed? Robby thought. He was becoming even more inquisitive.
Gunnar stopped moving around, removed the armband, and switched it off.
“Now, let’s process our data against the player profiles we have developed in our system. You will note a ranking of player potential for my movements.” He placed the armband on the table and patiently waited.
A score of 2 out of 10 flashed across the screen. The patrons in the room looked surprised and didn’t know what to think of it.
“As you can see, I will never make it as a footballer!” Gunnar said. The audience chuckled.
“Ladies and gentlemen, tomorrow you are all invited for a one-hour bus trip to the picturesque town of Keflavík to witness the PVI system live in action. There will be a scheduled simulation with the local football club and their junior development squad. The club is Keflavík ÍF, and you are all welcome to attend. If you could please advise us of your attendance by midday today, we will book your seat on the bus. It will be your opportunity to review the system and ask lots of questions.
“There is also a special surprise tomorrow. I will be launching the drone Mark II to collate player algorithms and send it back to our computers for analysis. I will ask you all to sign a confidentiality agreement, as the drone is in beta testing and you will be the first people to see it outside of Iceland. I wish to remind you this project is sensitive, and no one will be allowed on the bus without their security pass. You will not be allowed to use your cameras and recording devices at the venue. Security personnel will be present to ensure there is no breach of our rules.”
Robby was captivated by what he had seen and was keen to book his spot on the bus trip straight away. Visiting Keflavík wasn’t on his itinerary, and its mention came as a surprise. All journeys have their unexpected encounters, and he had visited faraway places before not knowing what to expect. It was an opportunity to get to know the culture, the country, and the people as much as the PVI system. He had many questions about what he had witnessed, and he would use the afternoon to write a list of observations.
However, there was going to be a problem in attending the tour in Keflavík, and his emotions about the new technology were controlling his rational thinking. His flight was scheduled for the next morning, and he was required to be back at work immediately upon his return. His boss was unforgiving, and a pile of work was building day by day. There were essential meetings already scheduled in Sydney with agents to finalise multimillion-dollar player contracts. A no-show could put his job on the line.
Being able to visit and see the PVI system firsthand was a chance of a lifetime, and it was unlikely he would get back to Reykjavík shortly. He faced a dilemma: pack up and leave the next day, therefore missing out on assessing the revolutionary technology, or lose his job. He had to decide quickly.
Before leaving the auditorium for his hotel room next to the foyer, Robby made sure he registered his name for the field trip to Keflavik. The short walk up the escalator leading to his room was just enough for him to ponder about the next day.
He paced anxiously in his hotel room. If one didn’t know about his dilemma, that person would have thought he was going mad.
Oh, God, what do I do? he thought.